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At a firehouse, job is reminder and a solace

By Brian McGrory, Globe Staff, 9/12/2002

NEW YORK - From the yawning front doors of their firehouse in the heart of midtown Manhattan, the men of Engine 1 and Ladder 24 can look virtually straight up and see the spire of the Empire State Building jutting into, what was yesterday anyway, a cobalt-colored sky.

It is a constant reminder - even if an unnecessary one. The firefighters of New York live not just in the wake of incomprehensible tragedy but in the shadows of potential calamity. Even as the memory of one and the specter of the other grow more distant every day, they linger in the psyche, the hazy twin emotions of grief and fear.

So yesterday morning as military jets combed the skies and missiles stood ready for launch, the men pulled their shiny trucks into the street, armed themselves with brooms, and swept their station clean. They set up folding tables on the cement floor. They spread out boxes of doughnuts and poured coffee from an ancient urn. Truth is, they weren't sure what else to do.

Then they tamped out their cigarettes, changed into their dress blues, and lined up in formation - two deep and a dozen across - along the front sidewalk of their aging building.

And this is how they remained at 8:46 a.m. during the city's moment of stifling silence, standing rigid, staring down a past that few among us will ever know. Survivors and widows and tourists and politicians gathered at the World Trade Center site downtown, but in simple, poignant venues like this, most New Yorkers marked the anniversary on terms that were very much their own.

They lost seven men from the station house on Sept. 11 - good men, brave men, brothers almost - including Father Mychal Judge, the legendary department chaplain who served in the Franciscan church across the street. Yesterday, it wasn't as if the survivors were willing to forget the dead or ignore their ache but, if given the choice, they are ready to somehow move on.

''It's a long process,'' says Lieutenant Tom Fleming, standing in the doorway looking at the sunsplashed street. ''But the healing process has got to get started.''

For that reason, the anniversary marked an odd emotional contrast to Sept. 11 itself. A year ago, these firefighters, like the rest of the city, fought ferociously against the tragic inevitability of passing time.

They arrived at the site within minutes of the attack, combed through unimaginable piles of twisted steel, then refused to leave. Giving up, moving on meant they wouldn't pull anyone out alive, so one day turned into two days turned into a sleepless week, all because there was nothing else they could do.

Yesterday, on the other hand, was a day that many New Yorkers just wanted to be done. They know the grief firsthand, experienced the loss, felt the fear. By getting through the anniversary, it puts the pain just that much further into the complex realm of the human past.

No easy feat, though. At Engine 1 and Ladder 24, the pictures of the dead hang prominently on the front wall, and ask any of the survivors about them and they'll fill you with stories of fraternity.

Steve Belson was one of the purest firemen most of them will ever know, a guy who, when he could have retired with a back injury and a pension, chose to stay on the job. Captain Dan Brethel was, in the words of firefighter Brian Thomas, ''The type of boss I'd follow into any building.''

Bill ''Big Buddy'' Henry was a bachelor who was known to love, in his own lingo, his ''stuff'' - all the toys he used to buy for his apartment. Father Judge was by all accounts the single kindest man in Manhattan. Lieutenant Andy Desperito loved firefighting so much that, in his off hours, he volunteered for the unit in his Long Island town.

Mike Weinberg had the looks of a movie star and could hit a golf ball a ton. And Thomas Farino was regarded as the smartest guy in the house, a man whose future had no limit.

All of which leads to Thomas's question, posed as he stands in the middle of the station as a bell pealed on the street outside, each toll in memory of another one of the 343 firefighters who died: ''How do we get over this?''

Upstairs are the beds where the dead men slept. On the side wall are the pegs where they hung their coats. The phones in the tiny office are where they called their wives and girlfriends. The communal kitchen is where they ate every night with all their friends.

So Thomas answers his own question: ''You need faith that Father Mike is up in heaven looking over us, and that all the men who died were led to heaven by Father Mike. And you need faith in people. Their support has pulled us through. It is, without a doubt, what's kept us going.''

As if proving the point, the street outside the firehouse is literally mobbed. As the firemen stood in formation, the public stood and watched, hundreds of them, bankers and students and secretaries and CEOs, all in silence, without so much as a ringing cell phone to disrupt the mood.

An oversized bucket between the two garage doors is gradually filled with fresh flowers. One woman laboriously fights the September breeze to light a candle she has brought from home. Another young woman gently places an unopened bottle of Dewar's at the door. A bespectacled man, Joe Delcastillo, leaves a bouquet of yellow flowers without ever breaking stride. Asked why, he quietly replies, ''It's something to do. It's very little.''

Not really. Inside, widows and their children hug their dead husbands' colleagues and friends. The firefighters pull shut the doors with a rumble, but only for a while, because privacy isn't what they really want or need, not then, not now.

Fleming, the son of a late firefighter he casually refers to as ''my pop,'' steps into the street and gazes at the top of the Empire State Building, perhaps the single most famous structure in town. If anything goes wrong, he and his men will be the first on the scene.

''You have to stay alert,'' he says. ''But you focus on the job, not the danger.''

And now they're trying to focus on the future, not the past. If only it were that easy.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2002.
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