By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Risk, he knew, came with the territory. "This is not a healthy job," Bazzicalupo notes. Even before 9-11, he had heard of few firefighters who enjoyed long retirements. After all, he adds, heading into a basement with an oil fire burning and taking even a few breaths without your air tank is like smoking a couple packs of cigarettes. That's a bitter metaphor. Bazzicalupo has heard that, because he never smoked, his lungs were more vulnerable to the Trade Center dust than others'. In any case, a few weeks after 9-11, Bazzica-lupo noticed he was coming back from fires much more winded than he used to be. He had a lung test, and FDNY medical staff told him he'd fought his last fire.
Now life is a series of precautions. Bazzicalupo exercises for up to 45 minutes daily on an elliptical trainer to try to strengthen his lungs, but he drives home as soon as he's done to take a shower andprevent any germs from settling ina simple head cold is a real problem. He feels good immediately after the workout, but only for a little while. He has to take a nap most days once he gets home; sometimes he's zapped the rest of the day. When he had shoulder surgery in 2004, his lungs collapsed, and he once was given nitroglycerin in an emergency room because the doctors thought he was having a heart attack. He has special filter canisters in his air-conditioning and is going to have to have his rugs removed to eliminate dust. He clips health tips out of magazines. He cannot go to ball fields or golf courses because of the grass and can't help his daughter move into a new apartment or paint his own ceiling. "You always think you're invincible. There was nothing I couldn't do," he says. "I'm, like, not the go-to player anymore." He's done his share of volunteer work since retirementMeals on Wheels and the like. But people don't come by to ask for help with a home project, like putting on a roof, because they know he can't.
Bazzicalupo was studying to be an accountant in 1977, when, at age 23, he took a neighbor's advice and sat for a battery of civil service tests: cop, sanitation worker, firefighter. He picked the last, and it stuck, for the same reason that he now misses the job: the specialized knowledge he acquired as part of the choreographed expertise of a fire company. In his last years on the job, Bazzicalupo was a chauffeur, certified to drive the three types of ladder trucks the department uses: tillers, where a second guy sits on the back; tower ladders, which have the bucket on the end; and the aerials, or rear mounts, known as "the stick."
Driving was an important job, but everyone else on the truck had one too. "As a trucker, you're getting there before the hose line," Bazzicalupo notes, his speech quickening as he describes the men he used to work with, identified not by name but by job. "Nothing can derail the roof guy. He can't jump uphe has to find an adjoining roof that is higher and jump down. He has to open the bulkhead door on the roof so guys can breathe in the stairwell. He carries the rope, looks over the side to see if anyone is hanging. The outside-vent man has to take the fire escape, get to the fire apartment, get people out." He will break the window the moment the hose team starts spraying water, in order to release the heat and smoke away from where the engine company is. The "can" man (who carries a fire extinguisher) and the "irons" guy form the inside team. "To knock down a door, the can man swings the ax. The irons guy drops his other tools and uses the Halligan device. Once they get the door open they chock it open with an ax to get the hose team in." When it all worked, it was beautifula dangerous dance of well-learned tasks, the rapid application of knowledge earned through experience, like knowing by the way your ears feel that a room is getting so hot the flames might flash over.
When FDNY officials told Bazzicalupo he wasn't going to fight fires anymore, they suggested a light-duty assignment: the mail room. The idea was a nonstarter. He was out by August 2002. His buddies from Ladder 37 still call him for events: medal day, outings, breakfast at the firehouse. It's nice to stay connected, of course. But it's hard to move on when you stay so close. "I can't get to the next level," he says. "My job was my life. I can't get away from the fire department."
In a closet upstairspressed and hung as if he were going to wear them to a shift later in the dayare Bazzicalupo's light-blue uniform shirts, medal-laden dress uniform, suspenders, and dress hat. Oddly, the FDNY still mails his new uniform shirts to his old firehouse every year. "No one else can use them," Bazzicalupo says, chuckling. "They've got my name on them."