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The FDNY One Year Later

September 4, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: Families are still holding funeral services for New York City firemen, even though it’s been nearly a year since the World Trade Center catastrophe. The services were postponed for a variety of reasons — some because of a delay in identifying a firefighter’s DNA; others because relatives were simply not ready to go through a formal service.

TOM BEARDEN: Hook-and-ladder Truck 5 and Engine 24 of Greenwich Village were among the first units to arrive on September 11. Eleven firemen from this company never came back. Ladder 5 Captain Frank Coughlin.

CAPTAIN FRANK COUGHLIN: Well, I’ll never… I’ll never forget these men.

I saw a lot of horror down there, and I think one of the greatest impacts in my mind was this transformation from your normal life into a complete war zone. So I put that in one category; and then there’s the other category of tremendous pride, you know, you found in being American, being a fireman… and the support of the people.

FIREMAN: Good morning, guys. Roll call.

TOM BEARDEN: Today, things seem pretty much back to normal. They hold roll call at the beginning of each shift, and go about their daily routine. But that’s just the surface.

CAPTAIN FRANK COUGHLIN: We have recovered in many ways. My knowledge in my own mind is, I look at that as a frozen pond, and the surface of the pond is hard. But you don’t have to go too deep to find it’s still very unsettled, still fluid under there. There is still a lot of pain and a lot of hurt. But each day and each week the ice gets a little bit thicker.

TOM BEARDEN: Eddie Foy is an 18- year veteran of Ladder 5. Each time he comes to the firehouse, he walks past what little is left of his old truck.

Foy struggles with the fact that his friends have been replaced with less experienced firefighters.

EDDIE FOY: I’m almost like angry, you know? Your friends are gone, you know, in this terrible act. And then they replace them with these guys, and these guys, they don’t know anything. They have no knowledge or anything like this here.

And my friends have said to me, “so give them a little time and they’re going to develop into the same type of firefighters,” which I’m sure that they will, and I can see in a few months that they’re here, they’re right on track. Things are working out well, and the guys that… are as great as the guys that left.

TOM BEARDEN: Firefighters learn their trade on the job, from the veterans. That training takes place after every call.

FIREMAN: We backstretch. There’s a Bronco in here. A lot of times we come down on the ball. We go past the building, all right? You hop on the back step, get ready to stretch. Wait for the signal. If you have any questions, ask a guy. We all have questions most of the time.

TOM BEARDEN: Firemen continue to learn as their careers progress and they’re promoted, so losing 343 experienced people in one day– rookies, lieutenants, captains, and chiefs– affected the professional competence of the entire New York City Fire Department.

SPOKESMAN: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me.

TOM BEARDEN: The city acted quickly to rebuild the leadership. Within days, 161 firefighters had been promoted. Nicholas Scoppetta was appointed fire commissioner in January. He says the rebuilding process continues.

NICHOLAS SCOPPETTA: I think we have recovered, in a sense. You can’t replace all that experience, but we certainly have replaced all the equipment– 91 pieces: Engines, trucks, other vehicles. We’ve hired over 1,200 new firefighters. We’ve made hundreds of promotions, over 600 promotions I believe, so that I think we’re well on our way.

TOM BEARDEN: A recent independent evaluation of the Trade Center response, called the Mackenzie Report, said the Department needed to improve its command structure and better prepare for future emergencies.

That may be difficult, because the loss of experienced people is escalating. Firefighters are leaving not only because of what happened on 9/11, but because of a one-time economic opportunity for 20-year veterans.

The city’s pension system says that after 20 years of service, firefighters can retire at half pay, with that amount calculated on what they earned during the last 12 months on the job. Firemen made a great deal of overtime after 9/11, creating a strong financial incentive to retire this year.

As a result, the retirement rate has doubled. Almost a quarter of the firefighters eligible are on the verge of leaving.

Stephen Cassidy is the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, a union representing more than 8,000 firefighters.

STEPHEN CASSIDY: Post-9/11 of last year, we lost 343 guys. We were short-staffed. We were working incredible overtime, so they’re in a position of saying, “if I don’t retire now, with all this overtime that I made, I’ll lose it.”

TOM BEARDEN: Commissioner Scoppetta says he tried to get the city and the state legislature to change the policy.

NICHOLAS SCOPPETTA: I was in support of a piece of legislation that would have allowed the firefighters to freeze, for their pension purposes, any 12 months, including 9/11. That, I think, would have kept a lot of people, because they would have kept that pension intact. It didn’t pass. The powers that be concluded that it was just too expensive.

TOM BEARDEN: Money is also the issue behind a lot of discontent among the 10,000 firefighters who are staying.

SPOKESMAN: A lot of bad politicians that are cheap with tax dollars!

TOM BEARDEN: Last month, thousands of policemen and firemen marched in Times Square demanding a pay raise. Cassidy says a starting New York City firefighter makes just $31,000 a year, that most firemen have to take second and even third jobs to support their families.

STEPHEN CASSIDY: Firefighters and police officers are saying, “What do we have to do to get a fair raise around here?” You know, it’s kudos for firefighters, except they don’t want to give us any money.

NICHOLAS SCOPPETTA: I’d like to see them get more money. I think we just have to face the realities that the mayor has to face. And I have lots of conversation with him about this. He’s anxious to give more money to fire and police, within the constraints that he’s operating under with this budget. He has a $5 billion deficit coming up.

TOM BEARDEN: Even though the last few months have seen escalating arguments over money, as the anniversary approaches, emotion is taking over. Last year, firehouses around the city received tens of thousands of letters thanking them for their heroic efforts.

With the help of community volunteers, the men of Ladder 5 and Engine 24 put together a book called Do Not be Sad: A Chronicle of Healing. It’s a compilation of some of the messages they got from children all over the country. They didn’t want to just throw away all the originals. The book will preserve their favorites.

CAPTAIN FRANK COUGHLIN: We had crates of this stuff, and what were we going to do? We were going to lose it.

WOMAN: This is beautiful.

CAPTAIN FRANK COUGHLIN: We were going to lose it, and now it’s kind of chronicled forever.

TOM BEARDEN: Captain Coughlin showed the newly printed volume to some of the widows who still come to the firehouse regularly.

CAPTAIN FRANK COUGHLIN: And that’s the quote where the book, Do not Be Sad, came from. Some tough stuff.

WOMEN: Yeah.

CAPTAIN FRANK COUGHLIN: We’ll have a copy for everybody.

WOMAN: That’s great, and I love that.

TOM BEARDEN: What’s your favorite one?

CAPTAIN FRANK COUGHLIN: My favorite one is where it says the terrorists must have had bad parents.

TOM BEARDEN: Is there comfort in this?

CAPTAIN FRANK COUGHLIN: Tremendous comfort. There is comfort at the time we received the artwork from the children. There was the fear of losing it, because eventually that would have happened. And to have it all in such form and to be redistributed back to the children of America and the families of America is a great, great piece of work.

TOM BEARDEN: Even so, Coughlin says the first anniversary will be hard on Ladder 5 and Engine 24, and all the other firehouses in New York. But he says despite everything, the FDNY is still ready for duty because New York firemen still think they have the greatest job in the world.