(Note: This picture was taken on Feb17 before social distancing )
Normally, if one were to look out the front windows of one’s apartment first thing in the morning and see a fire truck raising its ladder up to one’s roof, one would plotz, as they say in New York. Especially in a neighborhood like Hell’s Kitchen, where four or five-story brownstones and tenements, built in the late 1800s for the city’s exploding working-class population, are jammed-up next to each other. The 150-year-old bones of one building hold up those of its neighbors, sharing joists and common walls and risk.
No such panic, though, for our 1870s four-family brownstone on W49th St – 9th/10th Ave. Dan Beyrer and Eric Howard and their crew from our neighborhood firehouse like to use this set of two or three buildings at the end of the block for impromptu training sessions occasionally. And we are happy and proud that they do. On a recent weekend, for example, I stepped on the stoop to fetch the newspaper and found them training a new firefighters’ academy graduate on how to climb the ladder with a full 100-pound pack on his back – not at all as straightforward as it sounds. Dan pointed out that a young firefighter recently stepped off a fire truck ladder in Brooklyn onto a roof similar to ours, only to have the weight of his pack pull him backward off the roof, to his death.
This one particular ladder truck – of Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9 stationed two blocks away at the corner of 9th Ave – 48th St – responded to around 5,000 calls in the past year alone, according to Eric. That’s an average of 14 real-life fire drills for this crew every single day. It is not quite possible to properly capture in words the combination of stoicism, good humor, humble bravery, and happy helpfulness that New York City firefighters tend to exude as a shared character trait; never more than when asked questions by passing locals and tourists.
FDNY firefighters – when not on an emergency – will usually stop and take the time to good-naturedly answer questions about what they’re doing, what the call was, what this or that tool is for, how hot and heavy all that gear must be to wear, etc. They do so with an obvious pride in being able to share this “backstage” information with their fellow citizens who, odds are, day-dreamed about being a firefighter themselves at some point in their younger days. And with the kind of grateful glow that those who’ve experienced frequent danger and loss wear with humility and grace.
Of the 15 firefighters on duty that morning of September 11, not a single man made it back
Dan and Eric are prime examples, radiating both steadiness and generosity of spirit from under their gear. I asked Dan during this latest surprise visit what their most memorable or unusual call was. After thinking for a minute, and muttering: “Let’s see – there’ve been so many,” he and Eric both chimed in: “That’d have to be the Broadway show we were called to, not long ago, where someone in the audience had pepper-sprayed someone else – an altercation over seats or something. We had to clear everyone out.”
I suggested that must have been an out-of-towner, from New Jersey or Long Island.
Nineteen years ago, Dan and Eric’s predecessors at the station were among the first responders to a call well outside of the neighborhood. Both trucks – Engine 54, the hose and pump truck, and the Ladder 4 truck at the time – raced west on 49th St, past our building, and took a left on 11th Ave toward lower Manhattan, nearly five miles downtown. Of the 15 firefighters on duty that morning of September 11, not a single man made it back. The fire station was the only one to have its entire shift killed that day, the largest loss of life for any station in the city. As one might imagine, the station house since that time has become Hell’s Kitchen’s most sacred, holy shrine, visited by tourists and locals daily, who stop and chat and ask for selfies with the crew, often still leaving flowers and thank you’s under the memorial plaque to the station’s fallen brothers.
Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9, recognized as having the fastest response time in the FDNY, is also known as Broadway’s firehouse – as they are entrusted with protecting the Midtown area which is home to most of Broadway’s theaters. The station’s firefighters conduct a mandatory fire inspection of every show, top-to-bottom, before first public audiences are allowed in. Last year, on June 9, 2019, the station – whose motto is “Never Missed A Performance” – was awarded with a special Tony Award for contributions to the theater industry. Those of us who live and work in Hell’s Kitchen know they’ve never missed a show on either side of 8th Avenue.
The Empanada Mama fire during the blizzard a few years ago, the glass store fire this January when they rescued a woman from an upper ledge – those were their work, and countless others that we may or may not read notices of.
These kinds of selfless public servants are especially inspiring at this time in our nation’s history. We appreciate and love them. I am moved by their selflessness, good humor, steadiness, and sacrifice beyond any more words, save for those emblazoned on the front of their own Ladder 4 truck: “The Pride Of Midtown.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the FDNY has seen a record number of emergency calls. According to the New York Times: “In a matter of days, the city’s 911 system has been overwhelmed by calls for medical distress apparently related to the virus. Typically, the system sees about 4,000 Emergency Medical Services calls a day. On Thursday [March 26], dispatchers took more than 7,000 calls – a volume not seen since the September 11 attacks. The record for amount of calls in a day was broken three times in the last week.”
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