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Braving The Heat

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But firefighters aren't in it for the money, notwhen a veteran of fifteen years takes home about $1,500 every two weeks, after taxes. Amidthe wakes and funerals last week, there were rumblings about a lack of respect. "We'vebeen without a contract for two years," railed one firefighter. "When the city washurting, we sacrificed and took no raises, even though we'd supported Rudy big-time inboth his campaigns."

"The city said it would remember us when times were flush," says another fire-union official. "Guess what? They forgot!"

No one wants to speak publicly about using the World Trade Center tragedy as bargaining leverage. But no one has to. In July, the firefighter's-union leadership agreed to a new contract with 5 percent raises for the next two years, but ratification, with a vote scheduled for October, was in doubt before September 11.

On top of losing more than 300 firefighters, the Fire Department is likely to find the personnel shortage worsening. "A lot of guys are going to be putting infor early retirement," says one firefighter. "They'd love to stay on the job for 45 years, but this has to make you think twice. And a lot of wives and relatives are going to make the argument they should get out now."

Last week, as the mood changed from determined rescue to edgy sadness, firefighters chafed at what they saw as their bosses' insensitivity. "They keep ordering us to show up for tours to go down to the site when we've got funerals to go to!" says one firefighter. "Fuck that! The job is not doing right by us."

The faxes flutter and ruffle on the back seat of the Chevy Tahoe. They are maps to mourning, and the stack is too high. "Which wake are we going to now?" Larry Cohen asks from the driver's seat as his wife, Anne, an elementary-school teacher, studies routes from Long Island to Queens. The surviving firefighters of Squad 18 are making contrasting sweeps so none of the families of the lost feel left out: Some firefighters are starting at funeral homes and working their way out to Long Island. Cohen and his wife and his pal Vinnie Concannon from Engine 48 in the Bronx are making the opposite arc. "Hey," Anne says softly, glancing at the date on one of the funeral home faxes. "Today is Tuesday. It's been one week." No one speaks for several more miles.

"The city said it would remember us when times were flush. Guess what? They forgot!"

The first stop is Seaford: TimmyHaskell, son of a firefighter. "He was a surfer dude," Cohen says, smiling fondly at the memory of his 34-year-old friend. " 'Hey, dude' -- that's all you'd hear from him." Haskell also trained his dog to stop, drop, and roll on command, for the fire-safety classes he taught at elementary schools.

In the funeral home, Cohen hugs the youngest Haskell brother, Kenny, a Brooklyn firefighter who made it out and now stands grimly on the receiving line beside Timmy's casket. Another brother, Tommy, hasn't been found yet.

The visits don't get any easier. Larry Virgilio, 38 years old, is in Woodside; Cohen and company will finish the night in Bay Ridge, paying their respects to Eric Allen, 41. Atnine o'clock, as the funeral home is getting ready to close, the room is still full, the honor guard still in place, when Allen's wife, Kiki, and their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Kathleen, kneel at the dark cherry wood coffin to say good-bye.

"Time to go," Kiki says. "Not yet! Not yet! Not yet!" Kathleen says, bouncing up and down, excited to beup so late, blissfully unaware of why all these people have gathered.

For Cohen, the toughest moment is probably in the middle of the day. Inside a funeral home in Bellmore, Long Island, is a coffin draped with an American flag. Inside rests 37-year-old Manny Mojica. Cohen stands at the back for a long time, steeling himself. "I found Manny," hesays. It was Saturday, four days after the attack. Cohen's teeth clench and his words raspout in anger as he relives the moment. "I just wanted to pull him out and get him out of there!" Tears surge, the red in his face creeping up under his brush-cut blond hair. "It took us three hours to dig him out. I had to lean down and wrap myself around him to secure him to the ropes." He pauses. Then his composure comes back, as does the memory of a small bit of humor. "I told him, 'Manny, you ain't making this any fucking easier on us!' "

Mojica's 7-year-old daughter, Stephanie, is bopping around the room nonstop. His 5-year-old son, Manny, just wants to sleep all the time. One of Mojica's in-laws comes over to thank Cohen, to tell him how much it means to the family to have Manny's body. She lowers her voice even further: "Was he . . . badly messed up?"

What can Cohen say? Doeshe tell her about the twenty-ton I beams that rained down from 110 stories onto human bodies? About the massive fire trucks turned over like a child's toys? About how he grabbed desperately at a foot, thinking he was about to tug out a survivor, and stood there holding only the foot and an ankle? About how Eric Allen and Manny were wrapped around each other, two firefighters from Squad 18, together at the end?

"Oh, he looked fine," Cohen says, nodding and looking away. "He wasn't hurt much at all."

He walks slowly to the front, limping on the knee he injured the first day of the disaster. Manny's wife springs to her feet and clings to Cohen, sobbing. "I don't want to let go of you,"she cries. "Then don't," Cohen says, squeezing her tighter.

He holds her for a long time, invites Anna Mojica and the kids to come upstate and go horseback riding in a few weeks. Those will be better times, Cohen promises. After a few more minutes, he has to leave if he wants to make the next wake in time. "Only 300 more of these to go," he says.


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