"In an America where the job of inflating the reputations of people with negligible larger social value has become a major growth industry," David Halberstam observes in his new book Firehouse, "firemen do what they do because they love doing it, not because they want the plaudits of outsiders. Instead, what they want most is the respect of their peers." Firehouse is the veteran reporter's quick-moving account of the lives and sudden deaths at the World Trade Center of 13 men from the Engine 40, Ladder 35 station. It also chronicles the story of the group's lone but badly injured survivor.
In their gratitude for the heroism and sacrifice displayed following the September 11 terrorist attack, Americans have made so much of the New York firefighters that one may reasonably wonder if there is anything left to be said. Halberstam shows there is. His special contribution is to anatomize the culture that incubated and nourished these remarkable public servants. After giving a brief history of the station, Halberstam takes the reader inside to see how the doomed unit functioned and how the men got along with each other personally. Although most of them were from New York's tightly knit ethnic enclaves, they were still a wonderfully diverse lot. Physically powerful, strongly opinionated Bruce Gary could be counted on to put newcomers ("probies") to the test and coin all the necessary nicknames. Steve Mercado, who did dead-on impressions of his buddies, was funny enough, they thought, to be a professional comedian. Kevin Shea, the survivor, a fireman's son, did part-time work as a children's entertainer, sometimes dressing up as Barney or Big Bird. To the degree it can be traced in the still-lingering chaos of that hellish day, Halberstam relates what each of these fireman was doing when the Towers collapsed. He explains how the wives and parents heard the news of the disaster and the ways they acclimated themselves to the fact that their husbands and sons were dead. He visits the memorial services to witness and convey the solemn sights and sounds.
Halberstam, who lives only three and a half blocks from Engine 40, Ladder 35, says he had often passed by the firehouse, admiring "however distantly" the men who worked there. In this book, he enables us to admire them up close.
Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.