THAT TUESDAY.

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I HELD MY BREATH, LISTENING TO THE NAMES ON THE NEWS
[posted 09.17.2001]

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I HAVE ALWAYS ROMANTICIZED the fire service. Ask any of my friends how I gawk when a firetruck drives by. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the heroism, the bravery, the unflinching determination to protect. Now, hundreds of my heroes are missing and I just can’t find the romance.

Last year, in researching a play about one of the first female firefighters in New York City, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the folks at Ladder 12, Engine 3 in Chelsea. They let me follow them through their tours — to the table, to the truck, to the street. They told me stories and fed me dinners. Every so often a little bell would ring and they would pile into the truck and the engine. And then I would stand outside various buildings and watch them break down doors and dangle off roofs. These people who had just taken me for Italian ices, who moments ago were shouting at the ballgame, now were rushing headlong into situations they knew very little about and might never walk out of. I watched them fighting the tide of frantic evacuees fleeing a smoking elevator shaft or a clanging alarm. They were running toward what everyone else was running from.

They were breathtaking.

But my fantasy was never the same. Suddenly there were stakes: These were men and women who had a lot to lose when they went to work every day. I had heard too much about their spouses, their lovers, their children, to take unadulterated delight in their willingness to risk. Now, whenever a truck drives by, I crane my neck to get a look at the number on the side. When I hear on the news that a firefighter’s been injured or killed I hold my breath waiting to hear a name. And last Tuesday, when I heard that the FDNY was missing hundreds of firefighters, I knew the odds were good that I’d eventually hear a name I recognized.

On September 11th, more firefighters disappeared in one day than have been lost in the entire history of the FDNY combined. Ladder 12, Engine 3, Battalion 7 is missing five men. Like everyone enveloped by the rubble of the Trade towers, they’ve left behind families and friends. And a department to whom they’re known as Brothers. I have no claim to these men. I’ve met only one of them. I’d call him a friendly acquaintance. But it’s his face that I’ve put on this whole disaster. And I mourn for him. For all of them. And for the people who truly knew them and loved them.

Today I went to the firehouse for the first time since the towers crumbled last Tuesday. Children had taped cards all over the front of the building. Piles of flowers lay beneath the photographs of the missing men. Those who weren’t picking through the rubble were still on duty. Even those of us who escaped without losing a close friend or family member got a couple days off to deal with our modest grief, but the FDNY still has a job to do.

For nearly a week now people have been streaming in with baked goods and condolences. I just got back to New York. There’s not much I can do to be helpful. But I can’t stop thinking about them.

I wanted to write about the FDNY’s losses; I wanted to write about the lost firefighter I knew. But the truth is that it’s not my place to tell you his story. There are those who could and will pay better tribute to him than I. But, just as he is the face, for me, of this whole tragedy, he remains the face of the fire service. This man was the picture in my head — the swagger, the grin, the ability to shrug off the fear. Because someone has to.

And like most every firefighter I’ve met, this man told me he had “the best job in the world.”

I will grieve for all those who were lost last Tuesday. And I will grieve for my heroes, who, I’ve found, are all too human.

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ellen shanman is an actor and co-founder of singularity, an independent production company in new york city. her dream man is a gemini.