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He stopped drinking, joined two support groups, and got a therapist. He has been sober since September 2005. But he is not free of the pain. Recently, something happened while he was driving on the L.I.E. "It's called passive suicide," he says. "I didn't want to kill myself. But I said, 'If that truck comes over that divider, I'd be at peace.' That part of me that's still Joe said, 'This is not good.' I said, 'I'm afraid of an impulse.' " He worried what he might do on the edge of a subway platform or a roof. He was hospitalized for two weeks, and his medication was changed from one antidepressant/anti-
One doctor told McMahon that if something like 9-11 ever happens again, no one should be subjected to even a month of what he experienced. "What I had was a prolonged exposure," he says. "I think that's what the problem was." The toll showed when McMahon tried to come back from medical leave for a light-duty assignment. He was hospitalized within six weeks. "The constant reminder of the fire department," he says, "is a problem for me."
McMahon made it to the Engine 6 Christmas party last year for the first time since 9-11, but he simply cannot go to the funerals and memorial services that are part of the department's life. Even as he's amassed his collection of old-time firefighting paraphernalia, McMahon has thrown out all his FDNY T-shirts. They are reminders of the morgue. "Yes, you do miss the camaraderie," he says, waiting for the call from the retirement board. "I'll miss it, but I won't miss it. I can't do it. I cannot do it."
Leaving the FDNY means abandon-ing a life that cannot be found elsewhere. The job is steeped in tradition and history, inextricably linked to the white male character the department largely retains. While people in office cubicles may wonder about their purpose in life, 99.9 percent-male firehouses don't face those questions. In a high-tech world, the FDNY still relies onbrawn and courage to fight fires in essentiallythe same way they've always been foughtby spraying water on them.
"You lose your identity, you lose your occupation," says Mike Telesca, reflecting on his exit from the FDNY as he sits on his porch. "The excitementI miss the excitement. Being with the guys. No matter what kind of bullshit was going on in the job, you put that away. The most important thing was putting out fires."
Telesca had said in October 2005 that he wasn't in touch with many firefighter friends, but by January 2006 that changed. He began making weekly visits to a pleasantly decorated suite of offices in Soho where the FDNY's Counseling Services Unit keeps its Manhattan office. Active firefighters and their families can go to the CSU to get help with different problems. But it has also become a meeting place for retirees whose careers were ended, one way or another, by 9-11. They gather most Tuesdays for group therapy. "I was reluctant at first," says Telesca, who eventually got Frank Bazzicalupo (who, years earlier, gave skating lessons to Telesca's kids) to come with him. "But now I like it. It's just shooting the breeze, so it almost feels like sitting in the firehouse kitchen."
But it's not exactly the same thing; the real firehouse is next door. And that's the big issue the men are dealing with. As Telesca puts it, they're trying to make peace with "the sudden realization that they are retired."
One of them is Louis Cacchioli, the guy who helped Telesca up West Street. He made it up to the 24th floor of the north tower on 9-11. Most of the guys he went in with did not make it out, and Cacchioli escaped with a damaged eye and lung injuries. When he learned in January 2002 that he would never return to full duty, he was so shaken up that he forgot what exit to take off the L.I.E. to get home. "It was the saddest day of my life," Cacchioli said as he sat in the CSU waiting room in May, referring not to 9-11 but to the day he learned he was out of the firehouse. Kevin Fraser, another member of the group, said he cannot walk by a building and not size up how he'd approach it with the company he led as a lieutenant.
"Where can you go and get laughter, get excitement, get camaraderie, get knowledge?" Bazzicalupo says. Sure, there were guys in the firehouse who were not fit for the job, he says, men who needed to have a few drinks before their shift or who chain-smoked between runs. There were fights. There was the time when Bazzicalupo was going through his divorce and wanted to die on the job, because the FDNY was the family that loved him in a way he understood. But these truths just complete the picture; they don't change it. In a fire company, you could count on things like courage and loyalty. "There was no making enemies in the firehouse," he says, "because that guy might turn his back."