PrintPrintEmailEmailIn the days immediately following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, a 77-year-old man from Teaneck, New Jersey, tried repeatedly to cross the George Washington Bridge. He was turned away. But he tried again, and again, until finally police and military personnel waved him through, and soon enough, he was among those thousands who were putting their lives at risk in what proved to be a vain attempt to find and rescue survivors in the smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers.
The man from Teaneck knew something about rescues, about building collapses, and about fires. Reginald Julius had joined the Fire Department of New York in 1949 after giving up a job as a letter carrier for the Post Office. His motivation was simple: The Post Office job paid $2,400 a year; the Fire Department paid $3,000. “No decision necessary,” he would say many years later. Julius went on to serve in the FDNY until the late 1980s, when he retired as chief of the Twelfth Battalion, which covers parts of northern Manhattan. As with so many other firefighters around the country—from the largest paid department to the smallest volunteer organization—Reginald Julius’s “retirement” from the fire service simply meant an end to collecting full-time pay. Although he moved to suburban New Jersey, he stayed in touch with colleagues (like his brother, Vincent Julius, a retired FDNY captain), regularly visited firehouses, and kept up with the latest developments in fire science.
So when 343 members of the department he loved were killed on a single, awful day, Reginald Julius grabbed the rubber boots, turnout coat, and white chief’s helmet that he had never put into storage, and he went where he was needed. When he finally got into Manhattan, he drove to his old firehouse in Harlem, boarded a commandeered city bus, and made the journey to hell. As he reported for duty at Ground Zero, a much younger firefighter took one look at him and said, “Well, I guess they’re calling in all the old buffaloes.” Retired Chief Reginald Julius smiled at the semi-affectionate nickname for firefighters of a certain age. “Let me do my work,” he replied. He pulled four consecutive 12-hour tours, picking through the horrible wreckage and sickening carnage. He found bodies and pieces of bodies, but never did he find the two people he was looking for, the chiefs who had succeeded him at the Twelfth Battalion. They were among the 343.
Reginald Julius was hardly the only retired firefighter at Ground Zero in the dangerous days just after the attack. There were dozens there, some of them searching for the sons who had followed them into the fire service. Firefighters from around the country flew in to assist the FDNY, and they worked Ground Zero for weeks, long after hopes for rescue had given way to the bleak ritual of recovery. Still others boarded airplanes or trains, put on their white gloves and dress uniforms, and traveled to New York to offer a final salute to their fallen colleagues during the funerals and memorial services that followed September 11. In their stories, rituals, and sense of fraternity, they represented traditions linking the firefighters of Ground Zero to American firefighters of past centuries.
September 11 was unprecedented, but a 1740s fireman would have recognized the selflessness shown that day. Firefighting in America, one of the nation’s most colorful, storied, and dangerous jobs, is a 400-year-old tale told in three volumes. During most of the seventeenth century, as European settlements grew, firefighting was a civic obligation for all able-bodied males; in the eighteenth century America’s fledgling cities formed volunteer fire departments; and a century later the volunteer departments began to give way in the cities to paid, professional ones. While the popular image of today’s American firefighter is of a highly trained urban professional, more than 70 percent of the country’s more than one million fire-fighters are throwbacks to another era; they are volunteers, many of them working in rural and exurban departments. Most cities are protected by a combination of paid and volunteer companies. Even in New York, home of the world’s most famous professional fire department, 10 volunteer fire companies still operate.
Whether professional or volunteer, American firefighters share a sense of common history and sacrifice. The tragedy of September 11 was unprecedented, but a firefighter from Los Angeles in 1940, Chicago in 1840, or Boston in 1740 would have recognized the selflessness and devotion shown on that day. September 11, 2001, was the worst day in the history of the fire service in America. And during that terrible day, and in the days that followed, centuries of tradition and years of transition commanded the public’s attention as never before. Tradition? Firefighters in America have been putting their lives at risk since the seventeenth century. Transition? As the number of serious fires have declined in recent years, America’s firefighters quietly have taken on new responsibilities as first responders to all kinds of emergencies, from bomb threats to heart attacks, and many firefighters are now trained in CPR and other first-aid techniques. In fact, of those 343 heroic FDNY members who died at the World Trade Center, two were not firefighters but emergency medical technicians. They are included in the FDNY’s total because New York’s fire department, like many across the country, has been merged with the city’s emergency medical services.
While Americans have long admired their firefighters, not until September 11 did many of us fully appreciate the job’s heroism and dangers. Popular culture and the media have made many of us experts in police work (or so we think).