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The Smoldering Fires of 9/11


Yet there is also abundant, simmering anger and sorrow. Retirement-planning seminars are standing room only. Firefighters are facing the cruel joke of exalted status and stagnant wages. And while they're forever grateful for the outpouring of public sympathy, they've wearied of the attention -- particularly in Manhattan, where tourists knock in the middle of the night and demand they pose for pictures. "You're like a pet," says a firefighter with Engine 7 on Duane Street.

Lurking out of sight, like asbestos fibers embedded in a healthy lung, is a pervasive anxiety about the long-term physical and psychological damage from September 11. Medical leaves are up 35 percent. Firefighters joke that alcoholism is a requirement for the job; plenty have stepped right up to the national open bar that's welcomed anyone wearing city blues these past months.

Still, it's hard to numb the wounds completely, especially when the scar tissue is constantly being jabbed. The sharpest recent poke was Sunday's CBS documentary on the terrorist attack. The filmmakers had threatened to sue firefighters who circulated bootleg copies of the raw footage. "They have to show this on TV now, while we're still burying people?" spits one firefighter. "They don't think anyone's gonna be interested next year?" Norman, who led the first week's search for survivors, is furious that the documentarian duo didn't get him their film immediately. "We wasted time and effort and exposed people to risks unnecessarily," he says.

Compounding the strain for many firefighters is the wrenching job of ministering to the widows and children of their dead friends. "Then there are guys who had a wife and girlfriend -- and the girlfriend is pregnant," says one Manhattan captain. "Hey, we're human."

John Norman's brother turned up September 12, in a hospital, bruised but alive. Many other firefighters haven't had an equivalent moment of relief. "I hate to even think about it," Norman says, "but I expect we're gonna have people kill themselves. There's such a sense of guilt. People all around them in four directions were killed, and they were spared. People who had swapped tours with guys who died. There's tremendous, tremendous amounts of guilt."

Mike Carter put on his shiny black jacket with the big FDNY union logo and headed for a polling place in Manhattan to hand out Alan Hevesi flyers. The sun was rising on Primary Day, September 11. Carter is vice-president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, and no union membership more eagerly anticipated the end of the Giuliani administration.

The overriding sourness flowed from a seven-year grievance over money. The firefighters unions endorsed Rudy Giuliani for mayor in 1994 but got scant spoils from the victor. The infamous "zeroes for heroes" labor contract that sparked cop protests also covered the more quiescent firefighters.

Giuliani was disdained, but that was mild compared with the deeply personal reaction to his fire commissioner: outright hatred. Thomas Von Essen had risen from South Bronx firefighter to president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which represents the 9,500 rank and filers. In 1995, Giuliani proposed consolidating the city's Emergency Medical Service with the Fire Department. Von Essen, as union president, campaigned for the merger, though it was unpopular with his membership. Two weeks after the merger took effect, Giuliani selected Von Essen as fire commissioner. Firefighters saw his jump from union to management not just as political payback but as a blood betrayal.

Von Essen's style as commissioner -- blunt and patronizing, not unlike Giuliani's -- further antagonized his firefighters. Some of the commissioner's post-attack comments, even discounted for the agony and sorrow Von Essen was suffering, worsened the friction. "He goes on 60 Minutes and says firefighters need to suck it up and move on," says Bobby Ward, a veteran Brooklyn firefighter. "Every time you turned on the TV, he had a box seat at the World Series. Why wasn't he in more firehouses talking to his men?"

Von Essen, 56, points to increased training and discipline as the proudest accomplishments of his nearly six-year tenure. But his most valuable legacy, perversely, might be the bitterness he stoked: Since September 11, Von Essen has provided firefighters a convenient outlet for their overwhelming rage. "I understand their pain," Von Essen says, "and if it's necessary that I'm the target to help them get through it, that's okay. But I don't think the firefighters mean a lot of this stuff. They're led by weak people who don't tell them the truth. It's sad."

The flowers and candles are gone from the sidewalk outside the firehouse on Lafayette Street. Inside, the bulletin board is papered with offers running from FREE YOGA FOR NEW YORK'S HEROIC FIREFIGHTERS! to seven-day complimentary Disney World tickets for DISNEY'S AMERICAN HEROES®.

These tight SoHo quarters are shared by the firefighters of Ladder 20 and Squad 18 and by the spirits of fourteen departed colleagues. On the white dry-erase board propped by the front door, next to the day's shift schedule, the names of the dead of September 11 are listed in red marker under the heading PRAY FOR THEM. "Their shoes didn't get touched for a while," John Ceriello says. "Manny Mo used to drag his feet when he walked, he kind of waddled, and the bottom of his shoes were not very even. Billy McGinn -- you could tell his were a pair of beat-up old black boots. They sat there, all that time, lined up, exactly where they left them when they pulled on their bunker gear to go to the Trade Center. It was kind of weird."

The shoes are gone now, and so mostly is the somber atmosphere. A vivacious woman, said to be Robert De Niro's son's girlfriend, stops in to buy dozens of souvenir hats and sparks appreciative smiles. Lunch today features a guest cook, a retired captain who wanted to drop in, see how the guys were doing, and serve up some chili. As thanks, he's taking abuse about the chili's mix of spices. The noise is a good sign, a sign of normalcy.

Then a man and woman in street clothes walk slowly into the kitchen. Immediately the room goes quiet. The man spots the awkwardness, smiles broadly, reaches out to shake the nearest available hand. He is Joe Pfeifer, a battalion chief downtown. On September 11, in the lobby of the north tower, he talked briefly with his brother, Kevin, a lieutenant with Engine 33 on Great Jones Street. Then the brothers went in separate directions.

Kevin's remains were found four days ago. Joe carried them out of the ruins.

"You having a wake?" someone asks.

"No," Pfeifer says. "Just the funeral on Saturday. That's enough." The woman is Pfeifer's sister, Mary Ellen.

Everyone quickly nods agreement. The Pfeifers excuse themselves to go upstairs and say hello to another officer. Some air returns to the room.

"Our company as a whole is doing pretty good," Ceriello says. "One of our pluses was that we found everybody. The other companies haven't, and they're still in that limbo stage. And they're still talking to the wives and seeing the kids and knowing the bodies are still possibly buried down there. That has tormented guys. You can't fathom how much stress that is."

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