"That sort of childhood experience never entirely goes away, said William Kornblum, a professor of sociology and an urban affairs expert at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. "There's this endless fascination we have with fire equipment and fire lore," Professor Kornblum said. "So the death of a firefighter reaches us in a very visceral way."January 03, 1996, New York Times, "Why Deaths of Firemen Touch Public," by Frank Bruni,
Almost two years have passed since the tragedy at Ladder Company 5 in downtown Manhattan, but Lieut. Michael Warchola still fields sympathetic smiles and tender condolences from strangers on the street.
"How are you guys getting on?" someone will ask him and his fellow firefighters as they respond to routine calls in Greenwich Village or SoHo.
"You guys do a great job," someone else will say, and Lieutenant Warchola knows that beneath that simple salutation lies a powerful subtext: that the men at Ladder Company 5 do their jobs despite grave danger, which led to the deaths of three comrades in connection with one horrifying blaze in March 1994.
Before that fire, we felt that the neighborhood was somewhat indifferent to us," Lieutenant Warchola said yesterday. "But after, you wouldn't have believed all the flowers and cakes and the boxloads of cards. It touched every one of us deeply -- to a man. And it still does."
What Lieutenant Warchola saw back then, and what he said he has noticed repeatedly since, is the special outpouring of public grief that accompanies the loss of a firefighter in the line of duty.
That communal welling of emotion is occurring yet again with the death earlier this week of Lieut. John M. Clancy, 35, a firefighter killed when he stepped inside a burning house in Jamaica, Queens, to make sure that no one was stranded inside.
"It's because a person you don't even know is willing to put his life on the line for you -- it's the selflessness of it," said June Russo, one of more than 200 mourners who grimly filed into the Raynor & D'Andrea Funeral Home in West Sayville, L.I., near Lieutenant Clancy's home in Oakdale, for his wake yesterday afternoon. Surrounding Lieutenant Clancy's coffin were dozens of wreaths and bouquets; nearby, on a small table, sat a teddy bear in a miniature firefighter's uniform.
Ms. Russo knew the Clancy family personally; she taught school with Lieutenant Clancy's wife, Dawn, who is six months pregnant with the couple's first child. But the grief that Ms. Russo expressed over Lieutenant Clancy's death had both personal and public dimensions.
That was true as well for the many firefighters who came to pay their respects and who ruminated aloud about the wide reverberations of a death like Lieutenant Clancy's.
"People are petrified at the thought of fire, of being in a house that's on fire, and I think they kind of idolize the sort of people who walk into a burning house," said Firefighter Joseph Miccio of Ladder Company 127 in Jamaica, where Lieutenant Clancy was most recently assigned.
Firefighter Miccio and others said that Lieutenant Clancy's death carried especially tragic notes. It came, they said, at a moment in his life when so many good things were about to happen for him and his wife. The expected birth of the couple's first child in April represented the culmination of years of trying and hoping. The couple also had plans to buy some property soon and build a new house, friends said.
Those sorts of details have given Lieutenant Clancy's death resonance for many New Yorkers who neither knew him nor have any particular connection to the fraternity of firefighters.
"It hurt me personally because I have a son, and I would hate to be doing my job and be killed for that and not see my son grow up," said Larry Crawford, 24, a school bus driver who lives near Ladder Company 127.
A steady stream of neighbors stopped by Ladder Company 127 yesterday, as they did the day before, to drop off food or cards or simply to express their sympathy.
Sometimes, the City Fire Commissioner, Howard Safir said, the gestures grow much more extravagant than that. He said that one businessman who wished to remain anonymous had in the last two years pledged to provide four-year college scholarships to the children of every firefighter killed on duty.
After the fire that killed three of Lieutenant Warchola's colleagues, Commissioner Safir said, a well-known artist, Michael Molly, painted and donated a portrait of the men.
This widespread public affection for firefighters is attributable in part to the public's uncomplicated relationship with them, firefighters and other observers said.
While police officers can be a bane as well as a blessing, halting speeders and nabbing scofflaws, firefighters are almost solely associated with acts of kindness. They are the ones who, at least in legend, climb tall ladders to coax cats out of tress. And they are the ones who, in fact, show off their intricate equipment and blazing red chariots to bedazzled children.
"What's the first class trip you took when you were in school?" asked Harry G. Ryttenberg, a former spokesman for the New York City Fire Department. "To the firehouse."
That sort of childhood experience never entirely goes away, said William Kornblum, a professor of sociology and an urban affairs expert at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. "There's this endless fascination we have with fire equipment and fire lore," Professor Kornblum said. "So the death of a firefighter reaches us in a very visceral way."
Did the FDNY study the implications of mock death on their personnel and their families in advance of 9/11, by staging fake fire department fatalities? Wouldn't this sort of study results have been required to effectively enlist hundreds of departmental members into a secret plot?
Colleague's Funeral Is a Lesson in Firefighters' Vulnerability
By FRANK BRUNI
Published: January 05, 1996
The traffic was light and the course was simple: a straight shot east for about an hour on the Long Island Expressway, with a few quick turns off Exit 62 to get to the church.
But for many of 22 New York City firefighters who left downtown Manhattan on a chartered bus yesterday morning, the journey could not have been more difficult.
Their destination was not merely the funeral of yet another fallen comrade, Lieut. John M. Clancy, 35, the ninth firefighter to be killed on the job in the last two years, grim ones for the Fire Department.
These passengers were traveling as well toward a renewed sense of their own vulnerability, toward a fresh appreciation of the flukes that decide which of them will get to watch their children grow tall and which will leave widows behind.
"It's always a long trip, and it stays with you for a good long while," Firefighter John Collins, 31, said of the sorrowful trek to a fellow firefighter's funeral. He has made it twice previously in just a year and a half on the job.
Each funeral is harder to shake, Firefighter Collins said. "The more time you have on," he said, "the more it hits you, because the more dangerous situations you've encountered, and you think back on each of them and wonder what made the difference -- why you came out O.K."
"Some things in life just happen," he added. "They're beyond our control."
That sense of an unpredictable destiny was deeply felt and widely shared among the men on the bus, as it surely was among all of the estimated 8,000 to 9,000 firefighters who arrived in their crisp dress blues at Our Lady of the Snow Roman Catholic Church in Blue Point, L.I., yesterday, for Lieutenant Clancy's funeral mass. Lieutenant Clancy, of Oakdale, L.I., died on Sunday when he entered a burning house in Queens to check for survivors and the floor collapsed.
Like the men on this particular bus, most of the firefighters, did not get seats inside the church to hear Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani praise Lieutenant Clancy as a model of courage and dedication or to see Lieutenant Clancy's wife, Dawn, who is six months pregnant with the couple's first child, rub her swollen belly over and over again, as if comforting her unborn baby.
And most of them, like the majority of men on the bus, did not personally know Lieutenant Clancy.
But they went because they understood all too well that the figure inside the coffin could have been any of them. They came not just to pay tribute to the dead but to make a promise to the living: this is what we will do for you, should it ever come to that.
"You'd want that support for your family," said Lieut. James Rosenberger, one of the men on the bus. "If you died and 10,000 guys showed up for your funeral, wouldn't your parents think, 'Hey, my son was very important' ?"
The sad but spectacular pageant staged for Lieutenant Clancy yesterday was certainly the kind of farewell accorded a hero.
Shortly after 10:15 A.M., the thousands of firefighters in the street were called to attention. They stood in a rigid, dense phalanx facing the church, their breath rising in clouds in the frigid air. Stray coughs and sneezes could be heard as distinctly as gunshots.
Minutes later came the wail of bagpipes and the beat of drums, heralding the arrival of a fire engine that carried Lieutenant Clancy's exposed coffin, draped in a red and white Fire Department flag.
Eight firefighters carried Lieutenant Clancy's coffin into the church. It rested there at the front of an aisle separating Lieutenant Clancy's family members from the many city politicians and other prominent figures who came to pay their respects.
Addressing the congregation, Fire Commissioner Howard Safir spoke of how Lieutenant Clancy followed in the footsteps of his father, also a city firefighter, and of the valor Lieutenant Clancy showed.
"He did not stop to ask if the victims were black or white, rich or poor, young or old," Commissioner Safir said. "He stepped into harm's way, because that is the life he chose."
Mayor Giuliani told the congregation: "He understood the duty we owe as human beings to all of those who share our humanity."
But perhaps the most touching tribute came in the eulogy by Firefighter Jack Acierno, a longtime friend. "John was a perfectionist," he said. "They say that heaven is perfection. If it's not, Lord help them. John's coming."
Lieutenant Clancy's mother, Geraldine, broke down in tears, burying her face in her hands, but his wife, Dawn, sitting in the same church where the couple was married 10 years ago, was more composed, even managing a weary, proud smile now and then.
When the funeral ended around 12:30 P.M., Lieutenant Clancy's coffin was transported to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Coram, L.I., where he was to be buried alongside his father, Edward Clancy, who died in 1993.
The men on the bus from downtown Manhattan did not plan to follow Lieutenant Clancy that far. After the funeral, they said, they would attend an enormous gathering of firefighters to eat and maybe drink and begin the process of putting what happened to Lieutenant Clancy out of their minds, so that they can get on with their jobs.
That kind of forgetting has been particularly hard these last two years, said the men, most of whom work out of the firehouse at Avenue of the Americas and Houston Street from which the bus departed. This is the firehouse where three men killed in connection with a March 1994 fire on Watts Street in Manhattan worked. Those deaths ended a period, from 1988 to 1993, when no more than two city firefighters were killed on duty in any year.
In 1994, five firefighters died, and in 1995, four.
As the bus barreled down the highway on the way to the funeral, the men dealt with their journey in different ways. A few sat by themselves, hushed and introspective.
"A lot of us practice denial," said Firefighter David Clifford, in a voice that sounded both pained and frightened. "'It's not going to happen to me.' Everybody on this bus tells himself that. But we know better."
Other men chattered incessantly, and with a cheeriness that was perhaps too insistent, about the football playoffs, the relative merits of different suburbs -- anything but the funeral.
A few cracked open cold beers, and a few even cracked jokes.
"You're either laughing or you're crying," explained Firefighter Gregg Wasserman. He seemed about halfway between the two.
As the bus pulled into Blue Point, the men saw streets teeming with other men dressed just like them.
"When you understand the hurt that's involved, you understand the size of this ceremony," said Capt. Bill Youngson. "There, but for the grace of God, goes any one of us."
All of this sounds profoundly self-conscious to me, and not in the least bit grief stricken.
Read this series of news articles about the death of Lt. John M. Clancy, to see the facts don't add up. I think somehow Frank Bruni captured the subtext behind the event, even if he wasn't in a position at the time to imagine the text, let alone report on it.
January 1, 1996, New York Times, "Searching for Victims in Blaze, Firefighter Takes a Fatal Step," by Richard Perez-Pena,
January 02, 1996, New York Times, "Parolee Faces Murder Charge In Queens Fire," by Joe Sexton,
January 03, 1996, New York Times, "Firefighter Died in Building Once Marked as a Hazard," by Joe Sexton,
January 03, 1996, New York Times, "Why Deaths of Firemen Touch Public," by Frank Bruni,
January 05, 1996, New York Times, "Colleague's Funeral Is a Lesson in Firefighters' Vulnerability," by Frank Bruni,
January 09, 1996, New York Times, "For Widow, Fire Department's Support Is a Lifeline," by Richard Perez-Pena,
November 13, 1996, New York Times, "17 Years in Fatal Arson,"
October 31, 2000, New York Times, "Guilty Verdict Is Overturned In Fatal Blaze," by Shaila K. Dewan,
January 19, 2001, New York Times, "Man Gets 15 Years in Fire That Killed Firefighter,"
by Edward Wong,
Could it really be true that two tragic fires which bookend September 11th--the Watts Street fire in March 1994, which killed three firefighters, and the Deutsch Bank fire in August 2007, which killed Firefighters Joseph Graffagnino, and Robert Beddia---both involved Ladder Company 5 and Engine Company 24?