Book excerpt: Notes from the Fireground: Memoir of a New York Firefighter
Deputy Chief Thomas Dunne’s memoir explores the dynamics of being a firefighter, lessons learned on the job, and the brotherhood
In the following excerpt from “Notes from the Fireground: Memoir of a New York Firefighter” (Chapter “A Brush with Mortality”), Deputy Chief Thomas Dunne describes the experience when his unit is fighting a fire inside a Manhattan tenement and the building starts to collapse. The story speaks of the importance of rapid decisions on the fireground and exemplifies the brotherhood that exists in the fire service.
The darkness came just seconds after the sound. One moment I could clearly see my way to the exit and then, in a mere heartbeat, I was immersed in a cloud of utter blackness that didn’t allow me to see anything at all. Despite the fact that it was bright and sunny outside the massive load of falling timbers and masonry pushed forward a cloud of dirt and soot that instantly obliterated any sense of daylight. And behind it all the sound of the tumbling bricks increased to a terrifying roar.
I never cease to wonder about the flexibility of the human mind. I was extremely scared, yet even in my fear I had a brief absurd thought when I heard the overpowering noise of the building collapsing around us. I had never been much of a literary critic but I didn’t like when a writer described a noise as sounding like a freight train rolling down the tracks. It seemed so trite, like the author wasn’t creative enough or just got lazy. Yet, in the middle of all that was happening, I noted that that was precisely what this sounded like. Here I was, on the verge of meeting Jesus, or Allah, or Odin, or eternal nothingness and for a brief instant all I could think was “Damned if some things actually do sound like a freight train.”
Such a thought remained in my head for only a millisecond as I stood in that dark cloud on the first floor. It was instantly replaced by the terror that reached deep into my core. But at the same time I felt a real sense of sadness, an immense regret that this life I loved so much, and all the people in it, was about to be obliterated. And I had only myself to blame. It was my choice of a career and my effort at being promoted that had placed me in this situation.
I knew that I wasn’t alone. Before the chocking blackness engulfed us I saw two of my men moving toward the rear exit. Another firefighter had been standing somewhere just to my left and I blindly reached out to locate him. I found him instantly and wrapped my arm around him and he did the same thing to me and we moved together, arm in arm, toward the exit. That was the most frightening time. He had my back and I had his but for a few seconds neither of us knew if we would make it out in time. In a strange way an abrupt end would have been easier to deal with than those torturous few moments when we waited for an unimaginable crushing impact and wondered if we had enough time to escape.
Funny thing about humans. They are often at their best when things are at their worst. That firefighter had reached out for me in the exact same way I had reached for him. Despite the fear he too must have felt he was not going to just run out and abandon his officer. And I was not going to leave without him.
All of these thoughts were put on hold once I was outside. Standing there in the rear of the building, back in the sunlight, back in life, I did all the things an officer was supposed to do. I accounted for the presence of all of my men, made sure we were a safe distance from the collapse zone, and reported to the battalion chief with my radio. I think that I clung to my role of captain because it was my job but at the same time I hadn’t quite accepted the reality of what had just happened. A major portion of the old tenement had totally collapsed. The metal door jamb we had just passed through on our way out was completely bent out of shape by the falling debris. And I wasn’t sure just what to feel. Relief? Elation? It was more like a simple numbness.
When I look back I can’t seem to fully appreciate how lucky I was to survive this experience just as I tend take for granted the exceptionally good fortune I have had in so many other situations in life. It seems as though the accidents and injuries that do hurt us leave more of an impression than the bad things that don’t happen to us. Perhaps it is denial or just a manifestation of “not me” syndrome, that belief that disaster and pain and even death are just concepts and not reality, things we are personally immune to and that only apply to others.
However, I did walk away from that building with two lessons vividly reinforced. The first was about the “Brotherhood,” an expression that is so often used in the fire service that it sometimes loses its significance. For all of the exhaustion, sleep deprivation, occasional bureaucratic annoyances, and missed holidays with your family, in this line of work you did make a rather unique connection with your coworkers. If you crawled into a burning building with another firefighter, or ran out of a collapsing one, you shared an experience that created an unspoken bond, a kind of intimacy that can’t really be duplicated in most professions or even fully explained to friends or family members outside of the firefighting world. As a “covering” officer I wasn’t in a position to really know much about that guy I ran out of the building with. But regardless of the danger, and despite our fear, we had our arms protectively wrapped around each other as I looked out for him and he looked out for me.
The other lesson was about decisiveness and how one timely decision made by one individual can affect so many in an inherently dangerous job. A major section of that building collapsed and there was not a single injury. However, it would be inaccurate to label the incident as any sort of “miracle.” That would imply that it was fate alone that determined the outcome. On the contrary, it was all the result of an order given by one man, the guy in charge, the battalion chief who was standing out in the street, supervising, evaluating, and weighing alternatives. It was he alone who made the right call in that delicate balance that exists between knowing when you have given it enough of a shot and when it’s time to call it quits. In short, just doing his job as a chief and being able to “pull the trigger,” change the entire strategy of the fire fight, and withdraw all of us from the building. You won’t see his name in any newspaper article. He received no medal or commendation for his actions. But his gut reaction to pull us out undoubtedly spared a number of firefighters from dying on that sunny day in a sad old Harlem building.
This would be etched deep in my memory when I eventually became a chief and would also experience that lonely, uncomfortable position of making quick, difficult fireground decisions that could determine the survival of others.
About the Author
Thomas Dunne is a retired deputy chief and 33-year veteran of the FDNY with extensive experience working in mid-Manhattan and the Bronx. He has been the incident commander at hundreds of fires and emergencies in residential, commercial and high-rise buildings. He also served as a training and safety coordinator and media liaison for the FDNY. Chief Dunne has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering magazine, and lectures at colleges, conventions and fire academies throughout the country, including FDIC and Firehouse Expo through his Third Alarm Fire Training seminars.
Notes from the Fireground: Memoir of a New York Firefighter
Publisher: McFarland & Co.
© 2020 by Thomas Dunne