Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Accountability and Consent

I wrote this back in 2000. It's something that makes me appreciate things more and be thankful for what is, instead of merely what I'd wish WOULD BE.

It's an all too obvious fact, that other people affect every one of us. Our parents, our peers, friends and foes, all have their impact upon us. Some of us certainly seem to take more of a beating from life than others – from domineering Mom’s, to abusive husbands and fathers, and everything in between, we’ve all dealt with some degree of physical or emotional suffering. But just as much as it’s a fact that we’re each, effected by the other people in our lives, it’s also true that no one else MAKE US what we are.

We’re all finite beings – time and gravity eventually grind us all to dust. That’s not an option, it’s a reality, and so is self-accountability. We’re all accountable for our own maturity...our own development. An abusive Dad didn’t MAKE US abusers, nor did a smothering, domineering, control freak Mom MAKE US whiny, dependent victims – WE DID!

That’s right, each of us is accountable, because we’re all responsible for how we interpret the events of our life.

Blaming others for our problems and flaws on others only keeps us from the possibility of improving ourselves. Blaming others allows us to make believe that we’re not responsible for ourselves, but so long as we do that, we wait for someone or something outside ourselves to change or improve us and that’s just not going to happen.

Think about it, whose life is it?


Who’s living it?

I am.


We’re each responsible for our own lives because we’re the only ones living them.

Consider this complaint, “When I was younger, my best friend stole my first love. Now I get very jealous every time another guy gets too close to the woman I’m with...thanks a lot best friend.”


Thank yourSELF - you’re the one who interpreted that event as “you being wronged.” Maybe the problem was that you weren’t communicating well enough with your girlfriend. Perhaps she met someone she cared for more (apparently so and that is her choice and her right). In short, maybe it was your own self centered-ness, not her unfaithfulness, nor your best friend’s treachery that caused the break-up. The real lesson of all this might be that you should’ve worked on improving yourself, so that you didn’t repeat this pattern over and over – that is generally the lesson of all life’s events.

Yes, others can often be unfair/or unkind, but we’re not accountable for others, we can’t control them, we can only change or control ourselves. The best we can hope to do is to be prepared to defend ourselves when possible and examine ourselves when surprised and hurt.


Forgiveness is a gift that we give ourselves. It’s letting go of anger and hurt that for the most part we can do nothing about anyway. If someone hurts us or cheats on us, we can put distance between ourselves and that person, but the hurt remains. Only part of the pain is betrayal, the rest is self-doubt; “Why? What did I do? What didn’t I do? What went wrong?”

Forgiveness allows us to be forgiven. If we don’t forgive those who hurt us, how can we accept forgiveness for the pain we cause others, both deliberate and unintentional?

“Blame another and lose yourself,” is a saying my grandmother used to often repeat and it’s true. When we blame others for our pain and our faults, we surrender our control over ourselves and without self-control, we are truly lost.


An all too common mythos today is, “I’m the victim, here,” which translates into, “I’m the good guy and you’re the bad guy, so you owe me kindness, aid and comfort, while I have the right to “payback” for all the hurt I blame you for.”

Victimology is rooted in juvenile selfishness; “Me = good/right, you = bad/wrong.” It’s special pleading and asking for extra consideration because we perceive life’s been harder on us than it’s been on others. Embracing victimology is embracing selfishness. It’s putting our needs and wants above everyone else’s, based on our perception that life hasn’t been fair to us, a perception which may be extremely flawed.
Besides, who said the world would or even should be fair?

All around us we witness people born with greater and lesser degrees of talent, ability, beauty, brains, motivations and so on. Every day we witness this interplay of inequities and the results are often surprising. Natural ability is no substitute, nor often any match for hard work and focus. In reality, underdogs often do win, but in virtually every case they are people who’ve taken responsibility for themselves and worked ceaselessly in spite of all obstacles.

The most damaging thing about “victim’s status” is that it degrades us by excusing our rejection of our most basic responsibility, for and to ourselves. In that way, it allows us to reject a primary truth - that we own our own lives. Worse still, it seeks aid and assistance from “helpers” and “help” always comes from above, from those looking down at those they assist. The concept of victimhood is a dead end path devoid of opportunity for self-development.


It’s an oddity of our times that so many of us are atheists or at least agnostics based largely on the credo, “What God could allow so much cruelty.”

A 17th century Carmelite Monk named Brother Lawrence wrote a book called “The Practice of the Presence of God,” in which he said, “If you would embrace God, pray for suffering, for all God’s wisdom is shared with us through pain.”

Maybe he had something there.

Why do we suppose that ease and comfort are the goals of life?

Why do we think, “if God exists, He should do something?”

What I find really incongruous is not our abandoning faith (after all science has supplanted religion as the primary belief system of our age), but that we so readily embraced another faith with no more proof of its veracity than there is for the existence of God, the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. The idea that we are all connected and inter-dependant is so widespread as to be nearly universal and yet I’ve never seen any evidence of such a connection.

It’s true that we’re all capable of acts of extraordinary kindness and selflessness, but we’re also capable of all sorts of calumny and deceits. Why do so many people rail against human nature and speculate on “the way things should be?” What possesses us to believe that we “should” be communal, connected and hive-like, rather than individualistic, as we are?

It seems obvious that each of us is here for only a brief time. We didn’t invent human nature and we don’t “own” life itself, merely the life we’re living. Yet we have no trouble playing God. After three or four decades of life, we’re convinced that life should be good and plentiful and that people should be kind and fair and work for some “greater good.” All this despite the fact that our own first hand experiences show us that most of us look out for ourselves first and exhibit little, if any real sense of connectedness.

To me it’s curious that a group of people skeptical enough to eschew any belief in gods, Easter Bunny’s, etc because there exists no proof of their existence, cling to the idea that “we’re all connected and responsible for each other (“I am my brother’s keeper”) when there exists no evidence that this is so. Why is the myth of human connectedness acceptable, when the myth of God is not?

A while back I’d begun writing pieces for an editor of a magazine. The editor was a black conservative. I worked with him for over three years, interviewing people like professor Walter E. Williams and Lestine Fuller and though I am neither black nor strictly conservative (at least in the sense of supporting a government enforced moral code) I enjoyed the years I worked with Mac.

At any rate, as we approached our fourth year together, Mac came into the NYC area and I suggested that since he didn’t like the crowded, hustle of Manhattan, I could put him up in a place my family owned out in Sparta, New Jersey. I told him I could shuttle him back and forth to NYC for his meetings...he also had a presentation to deliver at the Binghampton Campus of SUNY. I had reservations about making this trip but I told him I’d see what I could do.

Most of the week went well, Mac had a few radio interviews on WABC in NY. On the day we had his Binghampton engagement scheduled, I was heading to the FDNY Medical Offices and I was delayed getting back out to Sparta to pick him up and as a result we got up to Binghampton late for his speaking engagement.

Mac was furious that he had been embarrassed at Binghampton and, in his anger, went so far as to suggest that I may have deliberately sabotaged his speaking engagement. For my part, I became even angrier at what I perceived as an absence of any gratitude for the efforts and hospitality I offered. As a result, both a friendship and a fairly productive business arrangement were lost.

Though the loss was regrettable, it was also instructive that good intentions are not enough. We both interpreted the same events in vastly different ways and such varied perceptions are not at all uncommon. And even though I was angered and hurt by Mac’s reaction, I came to accept that he had a right to interpret things his way, just as I had a right to interpret things mine. We both had a “right” to be wrong and so we were, each in our own ways, leaving us little room for common ground.

Still whenever I think about Mac, I recall the better days and I remember the courageous iconoclast I admired more than the disappointing end.


In May of 1990, I was 36 years old and in the span of eleven days I nearly died three times.

On Wednesday, May 30th while on my way from the firehouse I worked at, in the Bronx, to visit my folks on Staten Island, my car was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer, spinning my vehicle out of control. I passed in front of the huge eighteen wheeler’s grill and slammed off the guard rail as the truck scraped by. The car was totaled, but I walked away from the accident without a scratch. I should’ve been thankful, but instead I was shocked and then angry...about the car and about how close I came to dying for no reason at all.

Just six days later, I was at a top floor fire in an apartment on 165th Street and Sherman Avenue in the South Bronx. We were advancing a hose line, when part of the ceiling came down on us and fire from the cockloft lit up the room we were in. The Captain, Billy O and I were pinned on the floor, as others crawled over us toward the door. I looked up into an orange sky and watched a long finger of flame lapping out the apartment’s front door and into the public hallway, maybe 10’ from were we were still pinned by debris. The air around us grew hotter and I couldn’t move. Suddenly, the terrible awareness that I might die right here on this lovely Tuesday afternoon washed over me with an eerily calm resignation.

Once again, we were spared. Engine 71 brought in a second hose line and knocked down the flames over our heads, allowing the Ladder company to move in and free us from the debris that had fallen on us. The relief wore off fairly quickly, but the anger that I could have died, at a fire that came in at a time when I was normally already relieved (by the incoming crew) and on my way home, did not.

The following Saturday, June 9th, I was working again and we found ourselves at a vacant building fire at East Clarke Place and Walton Avenue. Upon our arrival, there was a tremendous amount of fire on the first floor and heavy smoke pushed from the windows on the floors above.

We were pushing a 2½” hose line through one of the rear first floor apartments. We’d just knocked down the flames in the first room and were getting set to move on the next room, when we noticed a few small tongues of flame lapping down into the corner behind us. We turned the hose around and just as the flames began to darken down, a low roar, grew louder and louder, like the rumbling of an oncoming freight train...Lieutenant Richie M yelled, “Back out!” We all scrambled along the hose line through the darkness to the front entrance of the building.

If we hadn’t turned around to extinguish those flames that appeared behind us, we would’ve been in one of the rooms directly inside the collapse zone.

Every one of us made it safely out of the building and survived a “pancake collapse,” where the sixth floor falls in on the fifth and they collapse down to the fourth, the third and so on. For the next hour, while we regrouped outside, four tower ladders used their buckets to dump water on the building from every side.

While we were out in the street, a few teens tossed rocks down from a nearby rooftop. A few of the rocks slammed off our rigs. Guys dove for cover. One of the projectiles ricocheted off the side of our Pumper and hit John S on the side of his helmet, knocking him to the ground.

At that moment a flash of anger swept over me. “I’d like to kill that kid,” I muttered. The Lieutenant called over police who were already on the scene and pointed out the rooftop the rocks came from. The police effected the arrests and except for John S. (taken to Jacobi Hospital's Emergency Room for observation) we went back into the vacant building to retrieve what we could of our damaged hose line.

When we emerged with two lengths of our hose, about fifteen minutes later, we were met by an irate woman (apparently a mother or sister of one of the teen’s). As I was the first out of the building, she ran up shrieking, than she spit in my face.

With every fiber of my being, I wanted to pound her into pulp, but I didn’t.

I’d like to believe it was simply because I was too tired, but it was something else – perhaps the futility of it all. Looking back on it, my rage at that woman was the same rage I felt at almost dying. I felt I deserved better. Like “how dare this happen to me!” But the truth is, I didn’t deserve better – I got what I got. I’m not responsible for that woman or those kids, any more than I can control how or when I’ll die.

You see? I’d accepted so many gifts – youth, physical abilities, camaraderie without appreciation that I’d come to expect a life filled with good things. I had no right to expect that. Life doesn’t owe me anything...God doesn’t owe me anything. I took what life offered, too often without thanks and I got what I got.

Those teens who tossed rocks at us, that woman who spit at me – their lives are their own. I’m not here to make them better people. Even if that were possible, I’ve got enough on my own plate trying to improve myself – the only person I have the power to control anyway.

Over the next few months, I looked hard at myself and realized that I didn’t do this job, in this area, for any love of humanity, but because it gave me pleasure. It delivered thrills and allowed me to think of myself as “exceptional,” even when all evidence indicated that in most ways, I was not exceptional at all.

Of course that realization didn’t come right away. It came in bits and pieces over time.

About a year after the East Clarke Place collapse, Lieutenant Mike F was conducting a drill with us inside a nearby housing project. As we entered an elevator, Mike, an excellent fireman said, “You all know how dangerous this is going in, right? There may come a time when the elevator opens on the wrong floor, maybe the fire floor. I hope you all know how to don your face pieces in complete darkness, because I do. In a fireproof building, the elevator will fill with thick black smoke in seconds and when the doors open, the heat’ll be tremendous – I sure hope you all remember where the enclosed stairway doors are located, because you’re not gonna have time to think or figure it out. What I’m saying is that I’m gonna get out of that situation alive. I just hope all of you can do the same, for your own sakes.”

Sound cruel?

It wasn’t! It was a message of pure truth...the voice of God, if you will. Mike was telling us that he’d worked hard to become an excellent fireman and that it was up to each of us to take the same responsibility for ourselves. In other words, “Ya get what ya get.”

I took Mike’s message to heart – I own my life. I’m responsible for myself and whether you accept it or not, you are too.

So what did I get from all this?

Acceptance and consent - I accept life as it is and consent to it freely, both the good that I’ve taken from it without gratitude and the bad that inevitably must come.

I accept people as they are. Their flaws are their own and mine are my own and even though I’m convinced I can see theirs so much clearer, I know that my own glare just as bright. So, today, if I could tell those kids and that woman anything, I’d tell them that they’re already forgiven. Even if they wouldn’t ask for it, nor accept it...they are forgiven none the less - not that what they did was OK, it's just over - I've moved on and I accept my flaws and my finiteness. I consent to the rest of this life, whether it ends all alone in a hospital bed four decades hence, or on some street corner tomorrow. I consent to death as I’ve consented to life. I only have to look at all the sprawling cemeteries to know how this ends.

I’ve come close to death and I’ve been humbled to my core. What I’m left with is gratitude for all the things I’ve taken for granted...all the gifts I’ve accepted without thanks. I have no desire to “lead” others, nor attempt to improve anyone other than myself. I’ve learned to love life because it is fleeting and so often hard to enjoy. I appreciate the fact that life can only be appreciated for a short time – gravity and time gradually rob us all of our energies and enthusiasms. Our joys, if we live long enough, are restricted by age, one by one.

I’ve learned to say thanks and to consent to myself as the source of my own happiness and not to expect that “I deserve better” – I know that I don’t. Most of all, I consent to my responsibility for myself and accept the consequences of both my actions and inaction.

If asked for advice, I’d have to say, “Who am I to give it?” But if pressed, perhaps the best I could offer might be; “Since we’ve all embraced so many of the good things...the blessings of life, with neither grace nor gratitude, perhaps the least we can strive for, is the class and dignity to accept the hard times and the bad things that ultimately befall us all, without complaint.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I’ve Been Stymied....

Lately I’ve hit a writing rut. I’ve had a hard time writing lately and I’ve finally figured out why.

I’m out of step, maybe hopelessly so.

I don’t like stories like the NASCAR crowd booing Michelle Obama. She’s been a fine First Lady. She’s raising two daughters in a way that most “Values Voters” would approve of. Her campaign against childhood obesity is timely and urgent.

I may not agree with her politics, but I have nothing personal against her.

In FACT, I have to admit. . .and I’ve said this for eons now, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Obama administration’s aggressive foreign policy and distressed that it’s FOLLOWED G W Bush’s disastrous lead on the economy, in fact, it’s doubled down on Bush era Keynesian over-spending!

I’ve been wondering aloud, until recently, why liberals haven’t had an issue with Barack Obama and lately liberals from Cornell West to Keith Olbermann HAVE!

So what gives?

WHY have so many liberals applauded so much of this administration’s “Bushiness,” while too many Conservatives have focused on inanities like his birth certificate and his being a “closet Muslim.”

Barack Obama IS an American citizen. He DOES have a legitimate Hawaiian birth certificate and he is NOT a Muslim any more than whacky Christian pastor, Jeremiah Wright is!

Barack Obama is guilty of doing a “Reverse Reagan,” while Reagan took the REAL “worst American economy since the Great Depression,” complete with DOUBLE DIGIT unemployment, interest and inflation rates and a record high Misery Index (the inflation and unemployment rates added together) and made it better year after, Barack Obama inherited an economy in crisis due to the previous administration’s over-spending and expanding government and doubled down on that policy, making things worse, year after year!

He is NOT guilty of ‘secretly looking to help the jihadists,” nor does he appear to be looking to “destroy America.” Hell, if he is, than the previous administration (G W Bush’s) is equally guilty of the SAME thing.

What distresses me most is that Conservatives seem focused on the wrong things. Hundreds of tacky and tasteless photo-shopped pictures have gone viral and while G W Bush was assailed just as vilely from the Left, that’s hardly an excuse for engaging in what many of those now sliming Obama, objected so strenuously to when their guy was getting the brunt of it.

Ironically enough, what Barack Obama is MOST “guilty of” is delivering G W Bush’s THIRD TERM!

He’s followed the Bush Doctrine and Bush’s aggressive foreign policy to a tee. Drone attacks and rendition are BOTH way up, some 50,000 U.S. Troops remain in Iraq, Afghanistan has been ratcheted way up. . .even after the killing of OBL, not to mention Gitmo is STILL operating and this administration engaged in yet another front (Libya) without Congressional approval or oversight!

I supported the Bush foreign policies and so, I support Obama’s foreign policies as well!

Now, I DID NOT support the Bush economic agenda and so, I DO NOT support the Obama economic agenda either. Yes, at times, Barack Obama has been a shrill opponent of private industry while cynically raising record amounts of cash from Wall Street and the financial sector, as well as from other Corporate denizens, like BP Amocco, etc.

I’d agree that Barack Obama has apparently lacked the experience and judgment to do the job he was elected to do, BUT he is NOT the Anti-Christ. . .not by a long shot.

I support the Tea Party’s views (smaller government, lower taxes and more private sector job creation) but I do not always support their methods.

Derogatory pictures of Barack Obama don’t win converts or change minds, and they don’t help your credibility much, neither does booing Michelle Obama at a NASCAR race (

It’s been perplexing to me to hear so many liberals support a guy who’s delivered another term of G. W. Bushiness, as much as it’s been uncomfortable listening to so many Conservatives continue to waste time and squander credibility over this “Birther issue” and “the Muslim issue.”

BOTH are complete non-starters and relegate those who espouse them to the same “kook pile” the 9/11 Truthers belong in!

For over two years now, I’ve been honest, in that TO ME, neither G W Bush nor Barack Obama seemed like “evil guys.” In fact, both seem quite affable and decent, the kind of guy’s you could easily become friends with, DESPITE the fact that I disagree with BOTH of them vehemently on the economy.

I’ve come to believe that ODS (Obama Derangement Syndrome) is every bit as real as BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome) and equally perverse.

None of that has sat well with me and lately it’s made it harder to express myself.
Maybe coming to these exact conclusions will make that a little easier.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Contrasting Sex Scandals....

Recent days have delivered two entirely different and distinct sex abuse scandals.

Over the past ten days, Hermann Cain has been embroiled in a sordid swirl of sexual harassment claims – the first two accusers wouldn’t come forward for fear of breaching their confidentiality agreements upon which their severance packages were based.

One claim is that Hermann Cain told one of the complainants that “She was the same height as his wife.”

The credibility of those allegations are dampened by the women’s refusal to come forward.

Sharon Bialek has become the first woman to come forward with charges that Cain engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct, BUT her own credibility is tainted by the fact that she never filed a police report for the 14 year old sexual assault, her ties to David Axelrod and investigations showing that she’s filed numerous (dropped and dismissed) allegations at many of her workplaces.

Now, even a fifth woman has come forward, though that too doesn’t seem at all substantial.

“Donna Donella, 40, of Arlington, said the USAID paid Cain to deliver a speech to businessmen and women in Egypt in 2002, during which an Egyptian businesswoman in her 30s asked Cain a question.

“And after the seminar was over,” Donella told The Washington Examiner, “Cain came over to me and a colleague and said, ‘Could you put me in touch with that lovely young lady who asked the question, so I can give her a more thorough answer over dinner?’”

“Donella, who no longer works for USAID, said they were suspicious of Cain’s motives and declined to set up the date. Cain responded, “Then you and I can have dinner.” That’s when two female colleagues intervened and suggested they all go to dinner together, Donella said.

“Cain exhibited no inappropriate sexual behavior during the dinner, though he did order two $400 bottles of wine and stuck the women with the bill, she said.”

But the allegations haven’t hurt Cain’s popularity nor his support, as USA Today noted; and that’s almost certainly because, as Howard Stern wryly noted, “Herman Cain Sex Scandal Allegations Are ‘Smear Job’”

In stark contrast to those allegations, Penn State’s been rocked by a very serious and demonstrably provable child sex scandal and an apparent widespread cover-up by the football team, the Athletic Department and the school.

The Penn State allegations surround the football team’s long time defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, who was at least four times reported as having had inappropriate conduct with children as young as ten, by witnesses.

A janitor caught him coming out of the coaches shower with a very young boy in 1998.

Another coach (Mike McQueary, then an unpaid graduate assistant) is unnamed in the grand jury report, but sources say McQueary witnessed Sandusky committing a sexual assault on a young boy at Penn State’s Lasch Football building in 2002. McQueary called his father, then reported the incident to his boss, Joe Paterno.

The mother of one of the victims in the grand jury indictment told the Patriot-News of Harrisburg: “I don’t even have words to talk about the betrayal that I feel. [McQueary] was a grown man, and he saw a boy being sodomized … He ran and called his daddy?”

Sandusky himself is said to have confessed to at least one of the children’s mothers, “He admitted to taking the shower, he admitted to some extent something bad happened,” the woman, who was not identified, said. “He asked her for forgiveness. He said ‘I probably won’t get it from you,’ and then he said ‘I wish I were dead.’”

As one close observer to the Penn State program has said, Nothing happens on campus that JoPa (Joe Paterno) doesn’t know about.”

The chronology of events reads like a deliberate cover-up by men who put a football program above the health and safety of some very young and at-risk children.

Today, Jerry Sandusky has been charged with 40 counts related to the sexual abuse of young boys and as of Monday, Penn State announced that athletic director Tim Curley and school administrator Gary Schultz — who were charged with perjury and failure to report to authorities what they knew of the allegations on Saturday — will both step down. There is ongoing pressure for both Graham Spanier, Penn State University’s President since 1995 and Joe Paterno to resign immediately. Paterno’s said he’d resign at the end of the football season.

What a difference a scandal makes!

There isn’t a SINGLE “unsubstantiated allegation” in the Penn State case!

To date there are ONLY unsubstantiated allegations in the Cain case.

Criminal reports were made immediately in numerous instances (1998, 2000, 2002, 2007 and 2011) in the Penn State case, but with the DA (now missing) unable to make a case back in 1998, the officials at that school were emboldened to allow the alleged perpetrator back on campus and he continued his work with the 2nd mile foundation he’d started for “at-risk” youth in 1977.

In the Cain case, the allegations made by the two women at the NRA were basically claims of “offense” – Cain remarking that one of them was “the same height as his wife.” There was no criminal report filed in the alleged sexual assault by Sharon Bialek.

There are numerous actual witnesses available in the Penn State case.

To date, there are NO witnesses, but the accusers, in the Cain case.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The 50-Hour Day-Tour

Everyone in New York has their own “9/11 Story,” this is one is mine – it’s one of the more fortunate ones.

I’d worked with the FDNY (New York City’s Fire Dept.) since March of 1986. 2001 opened as a particularly deadly year for the FDNY. There are just TWO tours in the FDNY, a 9-hour day tour that begins at 9am and ends at 6pm and a 15-hour night tour that begins at 6pm and ends at 9am. Generally firefighters arrive early (about an hour before their shift begins) and dress in their work-duty uniforms and relieve another firefighter on shift. Overwhelmingly most FDNY firefighters “exchange tours,” in what is called a “Mutual,” or “mutual exchange of tours,” which allows two members to, in effect trade tours and work 24 hours straight, with more time off in between tours. You can either work “a slant,” (a night tour followed by a day tour), or an “up and down” (a day tour followed by a night tour).

I worked an “up/down” 24-hour shift on Friday, January 12th of 2001 in Ladder-44, stationed on Morris Avenue near 167th Street in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx. We had three major fires in that twenty-four, the first two were first due and on the third, we were assigned on a 2nd Alarm around 7am and overhauled a fire building a little north of us in the West Tremont section of the Bronx until after 10 am. As a result I didn’t get back to quarters until after 10am and finally finished showering and dressing just before 11am Saturday morning!

I remember thinking to myself, “Well, they’ll probably have a quiet weekend.”

Usually after a spurt like that, things quieted down a little afterwards.

I was scheduled off until Tuesday night.

Early Sunday morning I got a call from Mike Ciampo, who’d worked the Saturday night tour. Turns out they’d had another fire around 8pm that night at 166th Street and Teller Avenue…and Don Franklin, who’d had the Roof position, was killed. He’d died when his heart gave out after lugging over 100 pounds of gear to the roof (including his SCBA, the Roof Rope and the gas-powered Partner Saw), then dropping down to the fifth floor fire apartment and helping them overhaul that, digging out the bodies of the two tenants who’d died smoking in bed.

The entire next week was a blur. A lot of Donny’s family lived on Staten Island, as did I, so I spent that week driving them up to the Middletown, New York funeral home for the wake and funeral in the FDNY’s family transport van.

Don’s death tore up the firehouse and it took a long while for many of the guys to recover afterwards. My last exchange with Don was jokingly profane, hardly what I’d have liked to have been my last words to him. I’d caught a number of recent jobs (fires) with Don before his untimely death. One, in which I joined him in 44′s bucket to take a bunch of HUD windows that were always a chore to remove (lots of cutting, then separating the broken pieces and then tearing the broken pieces out of the frame. . .and another in which he took me via the bucket to the roof of an isolated building and then dropped down to cover some of the windows as the OV. The roof was already bubbling when I got up there and fire was showing through a few of the roof vents. I cut a first hole and before I was ready to “pull it” (remove the roofing material and push the ceiling below down into the building to vent the roof), Donnie was back to give me a hand. generally you never leave a man alone on an isolated roof, but I know Don would make it back for me no matter WHAT, so I never really gave that a second thought.

I missed Don and miss him still. . .and I wish our last exchange was firehouse “ball-busting.”

In March, the city began “drafting” guys from various firehouses to teach at “the Rock” (the FDNY’s Training Academy). Another firefighter in our firehouse was grabbed, but he had three small kids at home and his wife worked, meaning tremendous child-care costs. He asked if I’d take the detail to teach two classes in Ladder Company Operations over that summer and I did, despite the fact that it was four day weeks opposed to two 24s each week.

In early April, I was sent for “Ed Meth” (Educational Methodologies) in advance of the training. The first class began later that month.

During that first class, “The Father’s Day Fire” occurred with dozens of firefighters injured and three (Brian Fahey, Harry Ford and John Downing) killed.

Our firehouse Engine-92/Ladder-44 hosted that Collation as the firehouse with the last Line-of-Duty (LOD) death always holds the Collation for the next member killed LOD.

It was a three day Collation in Queens and after the third day, I was called in for Overtime in ladder-44. Only Danny Perella (the Chauffeur) and I (the OV or Outside Vent) were assigned to L-44. Around 1am we were called to a taxpayer (a one-story commercial building) on 161st Street.

There was a lot of fire in that building and Danny took the pedestal controls on top of the rig, as I set to “fly” our Tower Ladder’s bucket. As I entered the bucket, Danny said, “It looks they’ve got about a dozen bays roaring inside. Maybe we can get this bucket into the store and start knocking that down.” I nodded and gave him a thumbs up to make sure he knew I was good with that.

I’d taken an SCBA (Self Contained breathing Apparatus) but hadn’t donned it (put it on), so it lay on the floor of the bucket as I hovered ten feet over the store’s entrance, while firefighters cut the gate. It was pretty hot right there and I was beginning to think about donning the SCBA to get a few breaths, when I saw our Roof-man, a detail from nearby L-27 pouring out what looked to be a sandy or gravelly mix from his hand.

He notified the battalion Chief on the Roof that we might have a gypsum roof. Given the gypsum roof’s penchant for collapse, there are generally no fire operations conducted on gypsum roofs. The Chief ordered an evacuation of the roof and I brought the bucket down to roof level to get our detail and the members of Rescue Company 3 off the roof. R-3 refused to comply and continued their cut, finding wood boards beneath and alleviating the gypsum roof concerns.

It was the first fire I’d been to since March and I was glad to get it.

In August, a first year (probationary) firefighter died at a brush fire on Staten Island. This was during the 2nd class I taught. It brought the LOD death toll for 2001 to five before the end of the third quarter of that year even began.

On Saturday, September 8th, the 2nd class I was with graduated from the Rock. Monday the 10th and Tuesday the 11th would be my first tours back in the firehouse. Monday was a brilliantly sunny day, with temps in the mid 70s and Tuesday was expected to be the same, making me wish I’d had a 24 set up so that I could’ve had at least one of them off.

I got in around 8am as usual and changed into my work duty uniform. Tuesday was a relatively uneventful day with about a half dozen runs for minor incidents like food on the stove, electrical emergencies, water leaks, etc.

Tuesday started out the same way, except at 8:45 am Billy Heaney announced from house watch that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.

I was in the kitchen with most of the other guys and remember assuming that it must’ve been a small plane because commercial pilots are trained to dump a plane into water rather than risk hitting a populated area, but when the news came on seconds later, the hole in the North Tower looked to be too big for a small plane.

That quickly escalated to a Fifth Alarm and then around 9 am a second jetliner hit the South Tower and Lieutenant Mike Finer came into the kitchen and said, “THIS is WAR!”

I was still trying to process all this, but it turns out Mike was right.

A little before 10am the South Tower collapsed and around 10:30am the North Tower fell, as well. There were TWO people very close to me, one I KNEW was downtown that day and the other could’ve been. My wife worked in lower Manhattan at Mitchell and Titus an accounting firm. She wound up one of those people covered in dust walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. My brother Jim worked in ladder-105 in Brooklyn. They lost their rig and six guys that day.

I tried calling them but the cell phones weren’t working any longer. Jim was on vacation (the first vacation he’d split in 20 years), and was at a Company golf outing in Virginia. He came back to New York that day as the FDNY instituted a full recall, requiring every member on active duty to report in.

The FDNY’s day tour starts at 9am and ends at 6pm, but after the two towers collapsed we knew for sure we weren’t going home anywhere near 6pm that night.

As the day wore on we were initially scheduled to head down to Ground Zero a little after 6pm, then it was moved back until 9pm, then midnight and finally we were taken down there around 4am.

On the way down, we were told “there were only six stories left standing.”

That turned out to be wrong, there weren’t ANY parts of the buildings left standing, just two large, maybe 40’ piles of rubble, mostly pulverized and powdered contents, with some jagged steel girders jutting out at odd angles. The cement lattice that ran up the first three stories of the Twin Towers jutted from the ground like the fingers of a skeleton’s hand jutting up through the earth.

On the West Side Highway, two enclosed walkway bridges were collapsed down across the roadway and most of the surrounding buildings were stricken by large pieces of debris from the Towers.

The streets around the area ran like rivers and everything in the area was covered in a thick coating of dust that looked yellow in the generator-fed emergency lights that turned the night into day.

The other thing that stood out was the strange, pungent smell that pervaded that entire area, a mixture of fuels, burning materials (fires still raged hundreds of feet beneath the street level and other things...impossible to describe but I’d remember in a second if I came across it again.

Those first few hours were near chaos. We searched areas on our own, until a Chief Officer would come to move us somewhere else. We worked through all of Wednesday and through most of Wednesday night searching some of the surrounding buildings facing the Towers. No one had come out alive from the rubble since noon of the 11th and no one would after that. Initially it was reported that some 30,000 body bags were ordered, but that was before, they realized that they weren’t going to find many bodies, nor even many body parts. . .mainly only small pieces (a part of a jaw bone, a single digit) that were DNA tested to ID the victims.

We stayed there until a little after 10am on Thursday morning, the 13th. After that we worked one 24-hour shift ON and one OFF, alternating between the firehouse and Ground Zero – the first 24-hour shift at Ground Zero, the next in the firehouse.

The first few days we had only those painter’s dust masks, then they gave us filtered re-breathers, which most guys just hung around their necks.

On a sunny day during the second week, I was standing on the perimeter of one of the piles with about a half dozen other firefighters with our re-breathers around our necks.

Initially I was focused on the pile, we were the “FAST Truck” (prepared to pull out any workers who went down in the pile) and didn’t notice, but after a few minutes, I started noticing what looked like white particles floating in the air. It certainly wasn’t snow, so whatever it was couldn’t be good. I looked around and no one else had their re-breathers on, so I sheepishly began pulling the straps of the thing over my head and fastened it into place. When I looked around after I’d pulled it up, the other guys had done or were doing the same thing.

The first couple of weeks were a blur and the final week down there had us on a weird schedule, with 19 hours off between sets. You’d work 7am to 3pm, than you’d be back 8pm to 3am and so on. That schedule really threw off your internal clock, prompting some complaints from some quarters to which then Commissioner Tom von Essen infamously quipped, “Suck it up,” resulting in a barrage of abuse headed his way.

By October we were pretty much back in our firehouses for good, with a crew from across the Department permanently detailed to ground Zero.

The Memorials began shortly after and for a long time, we spent most of our off days attending Funerals or memorial services. Most of the time you’d look for the names of guys you knew and attend those, other times you just picked one and went.

As jarring as Donnie’s death was nine months previous, this was unfathomably more momentous and E-92/L-44 lost no one that day! I knew about 45 of the guys killed that day, about a dozen were from the first class I taught and the rest were guys I’d worked with along the way.

Occasionally I’d think of the irony of how I’d never wanted to work in lower Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn, even though they were closer to where I lived, because they weren’t busy enough – L-44 had been among the busiest Truck Companies in the FDNY in Occupied Structural Work, or OSW. I’d always felt better off, even safer working in busy Units because everyone there wanted to do the work, many transferred into such places and they were used to doing work, so there were generally fewer major mistakes.

I was lucky.

Lucky I didn’t choose to work where I lived (Staten Island). Lucky I chose to pay the tolls to work in a busier firehouse. I began my career in East Harlem in the 30th busiest Engine Company in OSW, moved to the 8th busiest Engine Company in the University Heights section of the South Bronx, then on to the busiest Engine (E-92) in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx. I “crossed the floor” to Ladder-44.

I was even luckier that BOTH my wife and my brother Jim made it home.

My wife’s been symptom free since day one and though my brother was on four different lung medications right after 9/11, he was able to work until 2004. While he is in the early stages of emphysema, he’s been working with and doing well so far.

Everything until early October of 2001 remains a blur of images in my memory and for awhile I’ve noticed that everything AFTER 9/11 seems to have occurred “only yesterday” (seems so close, I can touch it), while the things that occurred even just before that day, seems like a million years ago.

Two events in October of that year stayed with me. The first was getting home after a night tour and turning on the TV as I shaved. My wife must’ve left it on C-Span before she went to work and I remember hearing shouts and wild slogans, but I couldn’t make it out from the other room.

I remember walking half shaved into the bedroom to see an A.N.S.W.E.R. rally with a bunch of filthy scumbags blaming America for the attacks of 9/11.

I remember thinking, “It didn’t take long for these scumbags to crawl out from under their rocks.”

The other was an exchange with a younger firefighter in L-44. Jimmy W approached me on the apparatus floor and said, “That could’ve been ANY of us, down there on a detail.”

I thought about that for a moment. He was right, but he was also wrong.

I told Jimmy, “I wouldn’t count ourselves lucky Jim, neither of us knows what coming down the pike for either of us. We could die tomorrow or forty years from now…and if either of us could know what was in store for us, maybe six or eight years of agonizing suffering with some kind of cancer or lung ailment, maybe we’d consider these guys who at least got a quick death to be the lucky ones.”

There were a lot of really sad stories around 9/11, as you’d expect. In my brother’s Company (L-105) Frank Palumbo, a man my brother Jim called “the greatest father he’d ever seen,” as he kept his ten kids perfectly orderly whenever they visited the firehouse. Or Henry Miller, a 28 year veteran less than two weeks short of retirement, or Tim Stackpole, who’d been severely burned on June 5th, 1998 that left two firefighters (Scott laPiedre and James Blackmore) dead.

After that fire, Lt. Timothy Stackpole worried he might never return to work again, but he threw himself into months of arduous treatment and physical therapy, and after finally making it back to Light Duty, after some months working light duty at Ladder 103 in Brooklyn, he was finally allowed to return to full duty just months before 9/11.

In fact, just the Thursday before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Lieutenant Stackpole was promoted to captain.

He died just five days in that rank in the attacks of 9/11.

The Harrell family lost two members, Stephen and Harvey, both FDNY Lieutenants.

Stephen Harrell was part of one of the most tragic 9/11 stories. Marty Celic, who ran track at Mssg. Farrell H.S. on Staten Island was killed in 1977 in an arson fire on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His brother Tom ran “the Marty Celic Run” for over two decades after Marty’s untimely death at twenty-five. Tom Celic heeded his parent’s wishes that he not join the FDNY, so he took a job with Marsh and McLennan. Ironically enough, despite never working in the FDNY, Tom Celic was killed in the 9/11 attacks that turned out to be the largest disaster in FDNY history. Odder still, is that Marty’s former fiancĂ©e, went on to Marry another firefighter...Stephen Harrell.
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