Best New Yorkers (2008)

Tom Robbins

Sirens have always been the city's background music. In the best of times, a racing police car, the blur of a rushing fire truck or ambulance merits no more than a sidelong glance, a momentary forced pause in conversation. It is, perhaps, an emergency. Whatever it is, it's being dealt with. It is as much as we need to know.

Lifesavers: city firefighters at work  (Photograph by Jennifer S. Altman)
Even at night, the sound of a siren rising somewhere in the dark carries comfort as well as menace. Those whose job it is to confront threats to life and safety are alert and hard at work. This is what they are paid to do. What are the men and women in those rushing vehicles thinking? Are they worried? Apprehensive? Maybe even scared? We don't know. Much time has been spent examining the politics of the police precinct and the firehouse, focusing on salaries, discrimination, brutality. The most basic questions are taken for granted. If they're fearful, that just comes with the territory, doesn't it? Relax. Sirens are the rhythm of the city. Sleep well.

Then there are times when the sirens themselves answer the question. Instead of swelling and falling away in the distance, they come in steady waves, one after another, loud and insistent, a clear signal that something is hugely wrong: A fire is out of control; a cop has been shot; something has exploded.

September 11 is one of those days. The first sirens start at 12 minutes before nine in the morning. They will continue all day. Fire engines, ladder trucks, rescue vehicles, ambulances, police cruisers race each other to the site. They jockey for space on West and Vesey, Church and Liberty streets, all places that are soon to be virtually obliterated. Rescuers run into the burning towers carrying hoses, pickaxes, stretchers, flashlights, medical supplies, all the tools of their trades. On their way up the stairs, dragging their heavy packs, the firefighters are cheered by escaping office workers. As they climb, their radios relay the reports of tragedy outside, of falling debris and bodies, and soon that the towers themselves are cracking, words that mean there is no hope. In the lobby and the concourse below, police are guiding people to exits. More rescue vehicles arrive. Later reports reveal that, outside on the plaza, there are harsh, pushing arguments between firefighters and their supervisors, who have learned that the towers are now in danger of collapse and are trying to prevent them from rushing inside.

Among the numbing measurements of death and loss from the World Trade Center collapse is also this: At least a score of uniformed rescuers who perished were off-duty at the time. A fireman named Steve Bellson is surfing the waves out in the Rockaways and races to the scene. Firefighter Mike Weinberg drops his clubs on a golf green in Queens. Captain Tim Stackpole, who spent two months in a hospital recovering from a deadly blaze, is already finished with his tour but jumps on a truck headed downtown. Lieutenant Paul Mitchell is off-duty in Brooklyn but runs to the station on Tillary Street to hitch a ride. Second generation fireman Michael Boyle isn't supposed to be working that day either, but his dad, Jimmy, the former head of the firefighters' union, knows immediately that his son has gone just the same. A Port Authority cop named George Howard, whose badge will be displayed by President Bush a few nights later, is not supposed to go to work but runs from his home in Long Island to the center, just as he did when the 1993 bomb went off. Emergency medical technician Ricardo Quinn, who also isn't supposed to be working, heads straight for the center.

What kind of people are these? What pushes them up into the smoke as their radios crackle doom? Who fights for the right to run into a collapsing high-rise? On West Street, near the enormous mountain of rubble, is a billboard advertising a television series about an old war with a strong dose of nostalgia. "There was a time the world asked ordinary men to do extraordinary things," it reads. Part of the answer is that, just like those late-night runs that barely register on the citizens they serve, it is their job. But there is also this, a lesson that the rest of us learn most clearly only after tragedy: These are jobs that celebrate courage and dedication in a way that outsiders never fully understand. We only know that they ennoble us all.


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