Monday, January 10, 2022

01.10.21 Prayers for the victims and responders in the Bronx.....

     I think around 11 am yesterday morning I was in The Christmas Tree Shop in Freehold, New Jersey. My life at that moment was in search of some picture frames before driving to Red Bank to take the kids out for a bite. Hours before that I woke and fed the dogs and chickens and had a few cups of coffee. Just the life of a regular-old-retired-once-fireman. But I know how things like yesterday go.

    For the guys in the Bronx it was another Sunday shift. Sundays aren't usually too bad in the winter. In the nicer seasons it sucks because you have to leave the family to work. But the first week of January its not too bad. If the temperatures aren't too bad for fighting fires then a Sunday in the fire house can mean a few good meals and watching playoff NFL football most of the day. 

     At the start of the shift the kitchen is abuzz as coffee and cigarettes are shared amongst the outgoing and incoming shift. Hopefully someone bought in donuts or bagels along with the morning coffee. They talk about the night, who had a job (fire) in the city and then just shoot the shit. By 11 am everyone has prepared for the day, rig check, gear check, the company journal is written up, and now its time to figure out which company is shopping where for the days meals. 

     333 East 181 Street is a building they have passed, been too, drilled out probably 1,000 times since it was constructed in 1972. A 19 story building that over 1,000 people call home. This building, poor the NYC Mayor Eric Adams, is home to mostly immigrants from the West African nation of Gambia. These buildings, and they exist in every big city, from New York, to Newark, to Chicago, to Los Angelos, can be referred to as nice, not bad, or a shit hole. For the shit holes, that means elevators that are spotty in operation, garbage piles and dumpsters that are often set on fire, garbage and urine stench in the stairwells, power plant and services like electric and gas that are always leaking, and smells that fluctuate between poor housekeeping, poor cooking and overcrowding. Otherwise the building could just be alright. 

     For the Bronx dispatchers it is a special day. On the microphone is Bronx Dispatcher 150, today is his last day on the job. He retires at 1800 hours, or 6 pm. Below you can hear the fire go down, from the initial dispatch, which sounds like any other dispatch to that building. The fire is reported on the 3rd floor, in an apartment that was altered to make a duplex, this two floors, with several doors to common hallway areas. Shortly after the dispatch "we're getting a second source", or another phone call, and then the first due company calls the "10-77" or FDNY signal for a working fire. 

     With the doors left open to the common areas, and a fire load from an oversized unit, coupled with the toxic materials used in todays furniture, clothing and building construction, thick, black, smoke filled the stairways and upper floors trapping tens of occupants and killing 17 to this morning, with a death toll that will appear to hit over 20. 

     I can tell you from experience that these fires just shake your being. When you protect a neighborhood from fire thats what you do, and things happen. But I can bet you that no one in the first due firehouse of Engine 48, Ladder 56. Division Chief 7 on Webster Ave ever thought this building would be the seen of such a tragedy. Watching several videos and listening to the audio 

 the fire starts off as a run of the mill fire for this type of building. Then the victims are reported and additional alarms and resources are requested, and then the bodies start coming out, and they keep coming. In the moment you focus on what your task is at hand. If you are on the engine then you have 

work to put the fire out, if on the truck you have to work to ventilate and forced entry looking for victims. If and when you find one then that is what you focus on, even though the big picture is way bigger then what you are doing or working to save at the moment. That all sets in later. The images, 

the sounds, the screams, the smells. What once was a building where you may have had your first fire, made your first save, delivered your first baby, is now and will always be the scene of unthinkable death and heartache. Shock does and will set in. Responders will second guess themselves, its just natural in that business. Some will be traumatized and leave the job, it'll happen. This trauma will unlock other 

fires that have been stored away deep in their brains. The worst fire closest to this, outside of 9/11, was the Happy Land Social Club fire in 1990, where 96 people were killed when an arsonist threw a Molotov cocktail into a bar. But there have been other fires with a large loss of life. I think another Bronx fire a years back killed 13. But trust me that is a different type of fire. The ones in the private dwellings are just different. They burn. They are wood. They get overcrowded. They are shocking and sad, but somehow understandable. But when these "fireproof" buildings burn and cause such a large loss of life it changes how we, as firefighters, view fire, building construction, and even the people that habitate them. 

     The building that was built in 1972 as part of the federal program for affordable housing was sold to a group of investors in 2020 for $24,675,000. Since it was build under federal guidelines, it didn't have to meet New York City fire codes. When it is all said and done, I believe the building will be demolished. No one will want to live "in that building", and for the firefighters that serve its first due area won't be reminded of what happened there on a cold Sunday morning in January 2022.