Trial by Fire

Tom Von Essen is talking about the kindness of strangers since September 11, about all the people who hug the former fire commissioner on the streets. “Nobody knew me before,” he says, with tears in his eyes. “I wouldn’t have any problem at all if we were back to that. If we were back to September 10.”

Von Essen would give anything to bring back the 343 firefighters who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. But he has a substantial, if secondary, personal reason for wanting a return to anonymity. Von Essen was the only public figure whose image was tarnished by the tragedy.

Now he has written a book. Though he’s not trying to live up to an advance anywhere near Rudy Giuliani’s $3 million, two-book deal, the stakes couldn’t be higher for the 56-year-old FDNY lifer. Strong of Heart is Von Essen’s chance to rescue his reputation. Even if the book doesn’t earn him sympathy, he deserves credit for being true to himself: a mix of boyish enthusiasm and acid temper.

He details the agony he felt but rarely displayed in front of TV cameras; Von Essen repeatedly sought out rooms where he could close the door and cry, alone. Describing his decisions, however, he is either bravely honest or foolish. Where sensitivity and savvy are called for, he shows himself totally misreading the situation. As plans are finalized to cut the number of firefighters searching the wreckage, Giuliani asks Von Essen, “Will this be a big deal?” He replies, “For some of the workers, maybe. But not the average guys. They’ll understand.” The redeployment sets off fistfights.

In other places, Von Essen – since January a senior vice-president at Giuliani Partners – spreads the blame. He criticizes staff fire chiefs for not taking command of NYPD and Port Authority forces at the Trade Center site.

A senior chief, told of Von Essen’s commentary, is incredulous: “The cops are the ones with the guns – we’re gonna tell them what to do? The PD and PA wouldn’t even meet with us! Von Essen had the mayor’s ear; why wasn’t he getting Giuliani to have everyone play nice in the sandbox?” Von Essen’s response, over the phone, is so blistering that he insists it remain off-the-record.

He has no illusions that Strong of Heart will win over his bitter enemies, but he says, “The really solid firefighters and the families that didn’t understand why I did certain things, I’d love for them to understand.”

New York’s firefighters were deified after September 11. By including his spite as well as his sorrow, Von Essen accomplishes a rare and good thing for a memoirist: He portrays himself as entirely human.

Trial by Fire