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Fanning the Flames

Before 9/11, would this have been such a story? Why firemen have become tabloid fodder.

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When Michael Silvestri swung a metal chair inside a Staten Island firehouse two weeks ago, the worst and most immediate damage he inflicted was to fellow firefighter Robert Walsh. But the hurt is rippling through the entire Fire Department, for reasons Silvestri is likely too boneheaded to comprehend.

Having been deified by everyone from the daily papers to David Halberstam, firefighters are now a fat target for feet-of-clay stories. The Post’s grotesque elevation of tawdry FDNY-related domestic disputes—cheating husbands in December, a widow’s breast implants last week—into front-page news shows that firefighter gossip will continue to rate as much tabloid play as Michael Jackson’s sleepover schedule. After 9/11, any FDNY misbehavior seems fair game for major headlines. “This Staten Island thing would have been a two-day story before September 2001,” says a veteran Queens firefighter.

Of greater consequence are the political repercussions. On the parochial level, the Staten Island episode has stoked the endless battle between the FDNY and the NYPD: One firefighter claims that nurses at the hospital where Robert Walsh is being treated are leaking embarrassing information to their cop husbands. More broadly, the brawl has given City Hall an opening. Mayors have long been resentful of the FDNY’s hold on neighborhood sentiment; in August, Michael Bloomberg needed clandestine police maneuvers to shutter an engine company in Williamsburg. So while Bloomberg certainly didn’t welcome Walsh’s injuries, he surely understands that dents in the FDNY’s image diminish the department’s political untouchability. “This plays right into the hands of Bloomberg and Marc Shaw,” says a Manhattan firefighter, referring to the deputy mayor who in 2002 denounced firefighters as lazy. “They can say, ‘Hey, look at these assholes—they’re sitting around doing nothing, getting into trouble.’ ”

And all the clucking about the FDNY’s male-and-pale “culture” creating the atmosphere for the assault fits the push for a more politically correct department. “How in the world is this about race?” asks a recently retired chief who’d just read a prim Times editorial on the Staten Island affair. “One guy hits another over the head because the Fire Department is too white? That’s a big stretch.”

Firehouses, which have always combined acts of bold heroism with ones of retrograde dopiness, can also thank Michael Silvestri for another looming change, because he allegedly hit Walsh with an anti-gay verbal slur before bashing him with a chair. “We’re hearing that the department is going to start policing what we say, in the name of harassment laws,” says a senior Manhattan firefighter. “Yeah, guys say things that are brutal and adolescent. But it’s always been brutal among friends.”


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