Running into the fire

Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. I know many will pause to remember that day, to think about loved ones lost and lives changed forever.

I hope when you pause that you take time out to think about the firefighters and police who lost their lives in the line of duty on that day. Many will think of the military as that horrendous day was the opening act of a conflict that continues to this day.

Even though I am retired Navy and always appreciate when civilians recognize the sacrifices of the men and women who defend our country, and their families, there are other days set aside to recognize the military. I would prefer to see Sept. 11 declared National First Responders Day to honor the firefighters, police, EMTs and anyone else who runs into danger instead of away from it.

One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, which speaks to this more eloquently than I ever could, is “Into the Fire”

Here is an earlier post detailing what “My 9/11” was like.

*  *  *

My father was a volunteer firefighter in the small, 6,000 person Midwestern farming town I grew up in. I remember him leaving our house in the middle of the night after answering the phone or hearing the wailing siren on the roof of the firehouse downtown.

I spent a lot of time in that firehouse, which was a block away from the main street. Years after I left town the firehouse was converted into a gym, complete with racquetball courts, but I believe — I haven’t been back there in years — the building may have been condemned and torn down by now.

Other than the firehouse what I remember best about my father being a volunteer firefighter were the annual Fireman’s Picnics and him riding on our town’s firetruck in parades. The picnics were held jointly with other fire departments from area towns, and the highlight of the day was always the water fights — a kind of tug of war using firehoses.

A barrel was hung off a wire strung between two telephone poles — the picnics were often held on the main street of whatever town had the honor that year. Two teams from different city’s fire department would compete against each other, simultaneously trying to push the barrel over to the other team’s side using streams of water from their firehoses. There was always a lot of water flying through the air and I remember my father’s team won quite a bit.

*  *  *

The only time I ever saw my father in action as a firefighter took place one afternoon just a street over from the firehouse when an apartment over a store on the main drag caught fire. My mother, brother and I were downtown shopping — yes, in those days before the Wal-Mart opened 10 minutes down the road lots of folks did their shopping downtown — and we joined the crowd next to the bank. To a pair of youngsters, 10 or 11, it was exciting to watch what was happening.

The siren wailed and it didn’t take long for volunteers to assemble at the firehouse and begin moving equipment the one block to the scene of the fire. I watched with fascination as some of the men set up hoses and connected them to fire hydrants and others struggled to get into their heavy boots and jackets. The first man to get dressed out slapped a black broad-billed firefighter’s helmet on his head and then he ran into the building.

That man was my father.

I looked up at my mother and she had her arms folded tightly. Someone commented on my dad being the first into the building and she said: “He’s always the first one to go in,” and there was an edge to her voice that told me she was worried.

That was when it stopped being exciting and I started to worry, too.

The fire that day turned out to be more smoke than flame and within minutes my father was back on the street, sweaty and a little sooty — but safe. From that point on the calls in the middle of the night and the sound of the firehouse siren were no longer abstractions to me.

*  *  *

In time my father would give up being a volunteer firefighter — I don’t ever recall there being a shortage of volunteers in my town. I grew up thinking I would take my turn when the time came, but instead I enlisted in the Navy.

Every Sailor at sea is a potential firefighter, so I took part in quite a bit of realistic training at state-of-the-art facilities. I dragged charged hoses up and down winding staircases and into burning structures and I helped put out fires in mock-up helicopters and jets on a simulated flight deck. Nearly every day at sea and inport we took part in emergency drills, some involving fire but also flooding.

In 20 years I took part in a few “real world” emergency situations at sea, but none involving fire.

*  *  *

This Sunday I’ll pause to silently thank the men and women who run to the danger. I hope you will, too.


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