Life After 9-11
For Firefighters, There's Always a Reminder
By HANNAN ADELY
On a rainy Wednesday at the firehouse in Bedford Park, firefighters use their time between emergencies to prepare an elaborate meal. They slice eggplants, preparing to roast them with peppers and chicken, and stir a big pot of soup boiling on the stove. It would seem like a normal afternoon, but in the background, images of now-deceased firefighters flash on the television screen and tragedy is the currency of conversation.
But then again, that is normal these days.
It's at least half a dozen times they've watched the documentary titled simply "9/11." The firefighters catch glimpses of friends who were among the more than 343 New York firefighters who died that day. Firefighters get moved around a lot during training, so even though no one from the Briggs Avenue station died, many lost former co-workers in the collapse of the World Trade Center.
"Everyone in the firehouse knew at least one person in this film," fireman Laurie Galioto said. One firefighter spotted his brother-in-law in the documentary.
"If this was three guys, or 30 guys, but 300? You can't comprehend that number," said firefighter Peter Acton.
The documentary, which aired on CBS, marking the six-month anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy, stirred some controversy. Critics complained it would reopen wounds for family and friends who lost loved ones that day.
But the firefighters from Engine 79, Ladder 37 don't see it that way. "I think it's part of the healing," said Darren DeBonet. "I don't think its reopening old wounds."
Plus, they say, how could it reopen wounds that have not yet closed? "Day in and day out, things start out normal," Galioto said. "But something will always come up, some gesture that makes you think of it."
The firefighters are introspective and permanently changed. Leaving home and heading to the job is a wholly different experience than in the days before 9/11, they said. "You don't take things for granted," Acton said. "You give your wife and daughter a big hug before you leave for work."
"You argue less," DeBonet added. "Trivial matters are just that. They're much more trivial."
The firemen say that despite the dangers of their job, they don't plan on switching professions. But they think some firefighters might be deterred, especially coupled with the poor pay. "We're over two years without a contract," Acton said. "Starting salary is around $30,000. Its tough to raise a family."
"It's difficult to reconcile the hazards we face, especially now, with the pay," DeBonet said. "The city is very fortunate that firemen love their jobs."
They think about their deceased colleagues frequently, and have attended countless funerals over the past six months. Some firefighters lost in the tragedy have had two funeral services, one shortly after 9/11 and another after their bodies were recovered. "It got to the point where I couldn't go anymore," DeBonet said. "It got too emotional and it was taking a toll."
Through it all, the firefighters have been working 20 to 30 percent more than usual. Sometimes, the work helps because it keeps their minds occupied. At other times, they are performing the depressing work of cleaning up and securing Ground Zero, while worrying about the health hazards at the site. Others have been assigned to the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, where they sift through rubble on a conveyor belt looking for personal items and body parts.
All the work and the funerals were part of the whir that followed Sept. 11, leaving firefighters with little time to really contemplate what happened, they said.
"You're keeping busy, and you're not dwelling on things, but you're missing your family and missing chances to do things in life," DeBonet said.
The firefighters say that the community made the past six months easier to bear. Neighbors brought them meals and sent cards and gifts, including a needlepoint "Fireman's Prayer" that hangs on the wall.
The firefighters say they sense a difference between themselves and the new firefighters who just recently joined the force. They have a weight on their back; they have lived through the worst.
At the fire station, the firefighters relax, share laughs and carry on as they did before that tragic Tuesday. But they also have moments of solemnity and seriousness. There's the pictures on the wall, the condolence cards, the news clippings. All those tokens remain to remind them of the deceased.
"Hopefully we'll find a way not to dwell on the negative, but draw strength from what happened," DeBonet said. "With time it'll get easier."
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