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The Smoldering Fires of 9/11

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Nigro says there will be no limit imposed on how high firefighters will climb in a burning skyscraper. How long they stay there, however, is still under discussion. "One of the things we're very well aware of now is the need to conserve our forces. Retreat is okay," one senior chief says. "Rather than find yourself surrounded and cut off, and now the entire force is destroyed, well, we might have to retreat in order to conserve enough resources to do some good somewhere else. But the public is not prepared to see firefighters stand back and have hundreds or thousands of people jumping 100 floors. They would never accept it. It's going to be a very difficult decision."

One weakness that's plagued the FDNY for years, and only became a public scandal at the World Trade Center, is its antiquated communication equipment. Firehouses send messages on ancient teletypes limited to 160 characters. Dispatchers still process large amounts of data by hand. Some firefighters carry radios, the MX330, that were issued during Ronald Reagan's first White House term. "When we go to a call in the subway, we set up a relay, four or five people, so you can talk from the train tracks to the street to the department radio," says a member of one of the FDNY's specialized rescue units. "The police officer standing right next to you pulls out his radio and calls dispatch right there! Bam!"

Von Essen spent $14 million to upgrade from analog to digital radios, but hastily pulled the new gadgets from the field in March 2001, after a firefighter stuck in a Queens basement couldn't speak to his colleagues one flight up. Nigro is scarily honest on the subject. "What's gonna happen, I don't know," he says. "Nobody's said, 'Boston's radios, Chicago's — that's the one.' We're doing some tests right now." Last week, a consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, began investigating the department's September 11 operations and is supposed to deliver its report July 1.

And — incredibly — the Fire Department, victimized by the intelligence failures of other agencies, remains in the dark about new threats. "We were getting some notifications back when we were worried about a couple of bridges," Nigro says. "Either there are none now or we're not getting them again. I don't know which it is."

On the wall opposite his desk, Nigro has a framed poster with the photographs of the Fire Department dead. Stuck behind the lower left corner of the gold frame is a sliver of orange construction paper. In blue marker, in a child's handwriting, are the words YOU DID THE RIGHT THING. Nigro plucked it from a stack of inspirational notes sent to the FDNY. "It's a simple message," he says. "This seemed like a good place for it, next to 343 people who did the right thing. I look at those pictures each day. I can't get away from it."

The walls are covered in cheap rec-room wood paneling, and on the paneling hang framed photos from long-ago softball conquests. There's a chop-chop-chop of beef being sliced on the grill for today's lunch, cheese steaks. Gundersen is regaling the assembled with the tale of his A.C. blackjack winnings. Alfano is mulling the taste of his new cigar. Aside from the occasional squawk of a disembodied dispatcher's voice — "Second alarm, Third Avenue, East 86th Street, box 1-1-6-3" — this could be poker night at the men's club instead of Saturday afternoon inside the kitchen at Borough Park's Engine 282, Ladder 148.

"Boy's club, more like it," Gerard "Chip" Chipura says with a laugh.

"Boys away at summer camp, with the pranks that go on," Jimmy Urkonis says.

"A lot of wives don't really have a clue what goes on here," Bobby Ward says. "Twenty years, I've kept a lot of it a secret. Every time I come home, I tell her I'm tired 'cause we were out all night at fires. But we earn our money."

Chipura, 35, joined the department in 1991; he's got a gentle voice and a quick grin. The square-jawed Urkonis, 38, wearing his blue knit hat pulled low over his forehead, would have been cast as an On the Waterfront enforcer. Ward, 46 years old and rangy, is the company wise man, a skilled craftsman and surfer with two decades on the job. Ward doesn't bluster or impose, but everyone defers to him.

This firehouse was lucky on September 11. Its trucks were tied up on a local run and arrived downtown after the collapses. The company lost only one member, Chris Mozzillo, who was temporarily detailed to Engine 55 in Manhattan.

There will be other, slower departures. One young lieutenant has already quit. Ward is considering putting in his papers, too. He'd just been "relieved" on September 11 and was driving home along Ocean Parkway when the recall came through. These days, Ward's wife is reminding him that twenty years is a long time to be lucky. "I've got four boys, ranging from 20 down to 5," Ward says. "I'm thinking I'd really like to spend more time with my 5-year-old. I'm thinking about possibly going in September."

But saying the words out loud seems to shake him. Ward pauses. "I can't picture myself not coming into the firehouse every day, seeing these guys. I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts I probably won't." Ward and other vets can pass along how to anticipate a fire's path, but more important, says one lieutenant, "is that they can teach the young guys that this job isn't all about death."

Though the overtime accumulated since September 11 provides a powerful incentive for officers and firefighters with twenty or more years of service to retire now — pensions are based on a retiring firefighter's final twelve months of pay, and wages are up $5,000 to $10,000 in the aftermath — no one took this job to get rich. Still, it's galling that there's little permanent bottom-line reward ahead. And the firefighters blame their own union as much as they do politicians. "Our union is a social club, not a labor force," one disgusted firefighter says. "The leadership is a bunch of good ol' boys, and even the Trade Center isn't going to change that."

Another firefighter pops in to say hello — and to report that he's flunked the department's lung exam. Already 144 firefighters are off duty with breathing ailments.

Some damage doesn't show up on X-rays. Tuesday morning was Gerard Chipura's turn to stay home with his two small daughters, or else on September 11 he would have rushed to the World Trade Center. His older brother, John, was already downtown, as was their sister, Nancy, who worked on the sixty-ninth floor of 1 World Trade.

Nancy escaped. It was past midnight before Gerard Chipura heard that his brother was on duty that morning with Brooklyn's Ladder 105 and that all six on the truck were missing. It was longer still before Gerard accepted that John, six weeks away from marriage, was gone.

Now, when Chipura speaks, his tone is surprisingly upbeat. "After this happened, I didn't know if I wanted to come back," he says. "A very good friend of mine said, 'You're on the promotion list. You're going to be teaching guys soon how to be good firemen.' So I had to dig down."

Even after all they've been through, the city's firefighters remain inspiringly — almost na´vely — uncynical and true blue. "I'm gonna try to be a good boss," Gerard Chipura says. "For the memory of my brother. He's part of this department's history now. I'm part of its future."

From the March 18, 2002 issue of New York Magazine.

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