- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

By David Halberstam
Hyperion, $22.95, 201 pages

New York City firefighters became national heroes last September when 343 of them died trying to help others escape the doomed twin towers of the World Trade Center. However, behind all the adulation FDNY hats and T-shirts have become popular badges of patriotism, for instance is a compelling mystique. Who are these guys? Who takes up a profession premised upon risking your life to save strangers and their property?
"'People think they know what we do, but they don't really know what we do,'" a veteran firefighter tells David Halberstam in "Firehouse," a remarkable study of a tightly knit workplace world and the impact of September 11 upon it. Anyone who doubts the sociological maxim that the group is more than the sum of its parts must read this brief but excellent book.
In profiling the 13 men of Manhattan firehouse Engine 40, Ladder 35 who were on duty that fateful September morning (12 of whom perished), Mr. Halberstam reveals the strong interplay of tradition, history, family and honor pulsing through the firehouse and the entire FDNY as if it were a living organism. Though other writers note the military aspects of police and firefighting subcultures, the veteran reporter and writer emphasizes the metaphor of an extended family.
The FDNY family remains rooted in a core culture and personnel pipeline that is overwhelmingly male and heavily Catholic especially Irish Catholic. Men from such families are seemingly born into the profession.
"It is almost as if there is a certain DNA strand found in firefighting families," writes Mr. Halberstam, "where the men are pulled toward the job because their fathers and uncles were firemen and had loved it, and because some of their happiest moments when they were boys had come when they visited the firehouse and these big, gruff men made a fuss over them. The job and the mission and sense of purpose that go with it have always been quietly blended into the family fabric." Yet older officers often remain aloof, "because when you're the captain, it's like being the father of 15 terrific but incorrigible kids."
This sense of family is reinforced by a certain religiosity and, Mr. Halberstam insists, like the priesthood, firefighting is "nothing less than a calling." States one officer, "'we all have our daily conversations with God … Do we do what we do for God? No. But it's there, the religious part, just the same.'"
As in a seminary or family setting, firefighters live communally, their behavior guided by formal and informal codes in a setting where "everyone knows everything about everyone, and therefore nothing can be faked." The firehouse is a profoundly masculine culture but macho bravado is eclipsed by the tacit background recognition of possible painful death or injury not openly discussed even with close relatives. Calm and control of fear are cultivated virtues when the enemy is a lethal and unpredictable force.
Paradoxically, the same strong cultural codes and cohesion that sustained the men and their families through the September 11 havoc also compounded the sense of loss. The author deftly draws us into the lives of the 13 men of 40/35 working the September 11 morning shift: the burly veteran Bruce Gray, the firehouse's informal authority figure and self-described teacher; the stoic, largely remote captain Frank Callahan who could silently chastise his sturdy subordinates with "The Look" and Michael Lynch, the new probie, one of 10 children in a large and loving family, considered fortunate to have a job he loved and a wonderful fiance.
And there is John Ginley, brother of four other firefighters and, not surprisingly, also the son of a retired fireman; young college-educated Kevin Shay, another son and brother of firemen, who joined 40/35 just two months prior to September 11 and who, miraculously, is the one survivor (with massive bruises, a broken neck, months in the hospital and practically no memory of what happened). Woven into the drama are the stories of other colleagues, wives, parents and brothers.
Mr. Halberstam glosses a more controversial consequence of firehouse cohesion resistance to outside "meddling," especially regarding real or perceived barriers for women and ethnic minorities. Prior to September 11, vocal resistance to affirmative action got firefighters in New York and elsewhere labeled by media and government elites as decidedly un-heroic, reactionary "angry white males."
Sympathetically, Mr. Halberstam shows that firefighters are neither gods nor gremlins, but, rather, human beings molded by a complex web of motivations, values and deeply rooted institutions. Firefighters' distinctive subculture does set them apart from the rest of society, but Mr. Halberstam indicates acceptance of gradual change. Younger firefighters have new generational styles.
And he profiles Hispanic Steve Mercado, a core member of 40/35 who, alas, switches his afternoon work shift to morning to take care of family business later in the day disappearing into the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11.

Frederick R. Lynch is a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Diversity Machine."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide