Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Biography of a Face

Patrick Hardison’s face was not always his own. Three months ago, it belonged to a young Brooklyn bike mechanic.

for the moment, the face belongs to no one. It floats in a bowl of icy, hemodynamic preserving solution, paused midway on its journey from one operating room to another, from a 26-year-old Brooklyn bike mechanic who’d been declared brain-dead 48 hours earlier to a 41-year-old Mississippi fireman whose face had burned off in a blaze 14 years ago. The mechanic’s face, though nearly flat, still bears a few reminders of its former owner: a stubble of dark-blond hair, pierced ears, a hook-shaped scar at the spot where surgeons had entered his skull trying to save his life. A surgeon reaches his gloved hands into the blood-tinged liquid and kneads the face, draining the last of the mechanic’s blood. Then he lifts the face up to a camera, showing off his handiwork. As he raises it, it seems to inflate and take the shape of a face again, one that no longer resembles the cyclist. The forehead is shorter, the cheeks puffier. The lips have fallen into a crescent, as if smiling. The face looks like it will when, an hour later, it is fitted over the raw skull of the fireman waiting in the next room.

Patrick Hardison

September 5, 2001, was a beautiful late-summer day in Senatobia, a town of 1,497 families in northwest Mississippi, not far from the Tennessee border. Business at Senatobia Tire off Main Street was slow, and when owner Patrick Hardison had seen the Senatobia Fire Department dispatcher at lunch, he had needled him, half in jest: “Get us a call.” Hardison, 27 at the time and a volunteer for seven years, had known most of the 30 other volunteers since they were schoolkids; they’d hunted and fished together, then in their 20s signed up to fight fires together.

The two-tone alarm emitted by the pager on Hardison’s belt sounded at about 1 p.m. Speeding up Main Street in his Chevy pickup, Hardison could get to the firehouse in just a few minutes. Only the first arrivals got seats on the truck, and a seat meant you’d fight the fire. “You wanted to be the one telling the story, not listening to the fun other guys had,” Hardison said. That day, Hardison pulled up just in time, beating out his former brother-in-law for one of the spots. When the volunteers arrived at the mobile home 15 miles away, flames were shooting through the roof. “The worst fire I’ve ever seen,” said Bricky Cole, one of the volunteers that day and the husband of Hardison’s cousin.

Both of the family’s cars were parked outside the mobile home, and a man was in the yard screaming, insisting his wife was still inside. Hardison and three other firefighters entered the house, turned into a living-room area, then into what looked like a den. The ceiling was already collapsing in sections; not seeing anyone, Hardison backed out of the door. Then he spotted a window and climbed through it back into the burning structure.

A few minutes later, Hardison’s chief screamed for his people to get out. Hardison was retreating when the ceiling collapsed on his head and shoulders. He fell to his knees. He could feel his mask melting and wrestled it off. He held his breath and closed his eyes, which spared his lungs and preserved his vision. Somehow he made his way back to the window. A fireman pulled him out.

Hardison’s face was on fire. Another fireman doused the flames with water. Cole held him as the paramedics slid an IV line into his arm, though Cole didn’t know who the burned man was. “His face was smoking and flesh was melting off,” Cole recalled. “It was all char.” At about that time, the woman who they thought was trapped in the house walked up the road. She’d been fishing at a nearby stream.

David Rodebaugh

In september 2001, David Rodebaugh was 12 years old and living in Columbus, Ohio, where he was on his way to becoming an accomplished skateboarder, snowboarder, and BMX biker. He could do backward somersaults in the air and 360-degree helicopters, swinging his bike in a complete circle. Rodebaugh bounced around as a kid. Later, his mother, father, and both grandmothers would all claim to have done the lion’s share of raising him. Rodebaugh couldn’t sit still for school, but there was little he couldn’t do with his hands. At 20, he announced he wanted to move to New York. Neither his mother, Nancy Millar, nor his father, Gregg Rodebaugh, believed in reining him in. “I never put a leash on him,” recalled Millar. “Just call me before the ambulance does, that’s all.”

In 2009, Rodebaugh landed in Brooklyn among the hard-core bike-messenger community. “We live by the bike. We ride hard as fuck. We own the streets. We are the streets,” said Al Lopez, whose one-man messenger company is called Cannonball Couriers. Lopez took to Rodebaugh immediately: “He was down. He was fun. He was smart. He was a bro.” Lopez got to know him through the Lock Foot Posi, an insular gang of a dozen or so cyclists (“Lock Foot” refers to the way to brake on a gearless bike). “We’re like from the land of the misfit toys,” said Lopez. “Rejected from a larger mass but united through a kind of personal ­dysfunction. We’re our own family. Dave fit right in with us.”