The request was simple, carried to Los Angeles by area firefighters who had rushed to New York to offer help amid the ruins of the World Trade Center. The New York Fire Department would need ongoing support from fire veterans, anyone who could come. The loss had been tremendous--314 deaths--and so were the unfinished tasks envisioned by those who prepared to go.
"We were willing to do whatever was needed," said engineer Bruce Price, who has been with the Los Angeles County Fire Department for 29 years. "We offered to wash fire trucks, to clean the stations, to cook for them."
But 88 county firefighters, drawn from stations from Palmdale to Pomona, encountered a more pressing need when they traveled East in late October. Custom dictated that any time a single New York firefighter died, 10,000 of the city's 11,000 firefighters would attend the services, providing a sea of uniforms and support, even in bad years, when 20 firefighters might be lost. Now survivors despaired. Some days there were 25 services, and a presence of only 150 or 200 firefighters at each.
Unexpectedly, the L.A. County visitors were thrust into the tight, tradition-rich culture of their New York peers, where generations of ritual shape life, and death, on the force. For five days, at least, there would be Los Angeles County firefighters at as many of the funerals, memorials and tributes as they could attend.
At St. Patrick's Cathedral, the packed streets held a throng of civilians paying their respects and more than 2,000 firefighters crying and holding a salute as the grieving family and fire trucks passed. It was one of the two funerals the group attended en masse, and the visitors were struck by how different the memorial was from those for firefighters in Los Angeles.
"I've never been to one out here like that," said firefighter John Mosier of Fire Station 110 in Marina del Rey. The firehouse sent 11 members, the most from any L.A. County station, and they gathered recently to talk about their experiences. "There they crank up the bagpipes and the drums," said Mosier. "As days got on, it got me worse and worse because it goes right to your heart."
A second funeral took the group to East Islip, Long Island. Truck engineer Jim Wright remembers what one New York firefighter called "one proud moment," when they arrived for the church service just as the bagpipes were warming up. They marched in twos, 40 rows deep, until they were lined up outside. The large crowd watched quietly as they marched through, and then one clap led to two until the entire crowd was clapping in unison for them. "It made the hair stand up on my neck," Mosier said. "They acknowledged us for acknowledging them."
The group stayed in the heart of Manhattan, impressed by the street activity that continued through the night and by the unexpected celebrity welcome they got from the New Yorkers. "We had a couple of guys go to the Yankee playoff games," Mosier said, "and as they were coming out, a cop said, 'You're the guys I heard about from L.A. You want to meet the mayor?' Mayor Giuliani came up introduced himself and signed some baseballs. This homeless guy got up off a cardboard bed and said, 'You the guys from L.A., thanks for comin'.' It was amazing that people knew who we were. Word got around that the guys from L.A. were there because there were so many of us."
The group was organized by firefighter John Whiteside at Station 79 in the Antelope Valley and Capt. Chuck Broman of Station 110. All who joined paid their own way, and they are quick to point out that those who couldn't go covered the shifts of those who did, without being repaid.
In the days following the large services, they broke into smaller groups, fanning out to funerals, memorials and visitations, then returning to their Times Square hotel at 2 or 3 a.m.
Grief was often leavened by generosity. As they traveled the city, pedestrians would come over to hug them or pay their restaurant bills before they could, token booth cashiers would pass them through and taxi drivers didn't want to take their money (they paid anyway).
After one memorial in the far reaches of Brooklyn, the local fire company offered to give the visitors, who had taken a subway and bus to get to the service, a ride back to the subway station. Once they'd boarded the communications truck, the roof lights started flashing, and they sped through the city. "We thought they had a job, that's why the lights were on," said Broman. "After a while, we wondered how far it was to the subway station, and they said they were taking us to our hotel all the way in Times Square. They dropped us off right across the street."
In New York, where it is common for many generations in a family to become firefighters or police officers, something not as typical in Los Angeles, the fatalities had a compound impact. At one particularly devastating funeral, engine engineer Armando Carillo remembers, "We met two brothers who said they had seven family members lost. Their brother got killed there, their father was a battalion chief who got dug up twice out of the rubble" and survived, "and they had two Port Authority relatives, a cousin and an uncle, killed there."
Though they didn't know the men personally, they related to the eulogies they heard in ways they hadn't expected. "We've all gotten injured at some point," said Carillo, a firefighter for 28 years. "It brings it close to home." Truck Capt. Barry Nugent, a 30-year veteran, added, "It touched all of us so deeply because you realize the impact: It's not just a brother that we lost, but a wife whose husband isn't coming back, children who are not going to see their father anymore."
"You don't really think about it affecting you," said Carillo, "until you're right there and you hear a kid say 'I want my daddy.'" (At last count, 980 firefighters' children were left fatherless as a result of the attacks.)
Particularly striking, said Broman, was the culture that supports the families of New York firefighters.
"When they have a firefighter death, they ask guys from that station if they want to be part of a support team for the family. And whatever that family needs, if they need help with funeral arrangements, if the house needs painting or they need to be driven somewhere, for the rest of their lives they will always be taken care of, and their wives will always be invited to everything that goes on in the department, just as if their husband was still working for them."
It's a custom that will be strained mightily, and an obligation that weighs heavily on the firefighters who are left behind. But the L.A. firefighters found they were able to help their counterparts by sharing some of the emotional burden. Carillo noted that "they couldn't really talk to their fellow firefighters, because they were all going through it, and they couldn't talk to their families because they didn't want to worry them even more. And civilians on the street wouldn't understand. So here we were, and they saw that we're the same, we're brothers, so they just started pouring it out, and it started snowballing."
As they paid their respects at firehouses around the city, Mosier said, the Californians realized how strongly New York firefighters identify with their stations. "They go to a station, and they stay there for years and years. Every station has a patch for their station, and now we've all professed a desire to have a patch for our stations, too," he said, though, Mosier recalls, his own L.A. County patch was met with skepticism by one of the New York firefighters he met.
"He saw the bear and said, 'Are you zoo police?' Then he stood back realizing, 'You came here for me?' And I said, 'Yeah, we volunteered.' He said, 'You paid your own way. You'd do that for us?' I said 'You'd do that for us.' And he said, 'I hope to God I never have to.'"
Sadness always lingered just below the surface, said Nugent. "They were just very warm. And you're laughing and joking with a guy, and the next minute you're in tears."
"Some of them knew 100 of the men who were lost," he said. "You can see the guilt in their eyes. Their troubles are just beginning." And, all agreed, this will be a tough winter for them. "We had a Thanksgiving celebration, and they do the same thing: All the families come down to the station, kids are running around, it's like a big family reunion," Broman said. "And now Christmas is coming, it's hard for me to grasp how they can deal with it."
Before they left L.A., the men at Station 110 shared their feelings about their own fire department, said Broman.
"We said it's the best job in the world, and if I had a choice of any fire department to work for, this is the one I'd want to work for. And that view changed when we went back there, because those guys in New York, the character, the commitment and the respect they give each other, the brotherhood they bring to the job, it was clear to me they're No. 1. I could never say enough about them. It was such a powerful lesson. Every time I spoke to one of those guys, it felt like an honor."
The firefighters returned to Los Angeles exhausted but felt rewarded, and they all echoed the sentiment of one: "We went back there to help those guys, but they gave us as much as we gave them."
A few of the men have stayed in touch with their New York peers via e-mail. And all of them said they are making a point of spending more time with their children now, said Nugent.
"You want to hug your wife more, and you hold her just a little bit tighter, a little bit longer," he said. "You are thankful you have a family, for being able to hug your kids, being able to go to a baseball game."
Broman said the trip to New York has had a permanent effect.
"The guys that went before said it was a life-changing experience, and it was," he said. "Everybody that's gone has used those particular words. It was a lesson in courage and commitment to the job. It was heartwarming to hear these guys' stories and see them open up and be able to talk about some of their loss. And it was just an honor to be there with those guys, men of such quality."
Added Price, "They asked us to honor the dead, and it was an honor for us to do that. I would say it was the most honorable thing I've done in my career."