Special Reports

Firefighters carry heavy load

The bouquets of flowers that for months spilled from the open bays of this Theater District fire station are gone, along with the memorial candles and well-wishers' cards and banners.

But the flag remains at half-staff atop the firehouse roof, and the surviving crews of Engine 54 and Ladder Truck 4 say they will never forget the 15 men from the station who lost their lives Sept. 11.

"There's a scar there that's going to take some time to heal," said Battalion Chief Joe Nardone, the man in charge of the station house at the busy corner of West 48th Street and Eighth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.

The first hijacked airplane struck the World Trade Center at 8:47 a.m., just as the station's day crew was arriving to relieve the night shift. Truck 4 wasn't even technically available for service that day.

But when the alarm came in, both the day and night crews - companies known as "The Pride of Midtown," whose Broadway motto is "Never Missed a Performance" - raced to Lower Manhattan.

None of the 15 firefighters returned.

As the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches, the memories of that day weigh on the survivors, Nardone said.

"We're all walking around with what feels like an elephant on our shoulders, just trying to get through Sept. 11," he said. "It's starting to feel like a heavy load."

The firefighters' burden also includes the weight of hero status. New York firefighters have become living symbols of bravery and fortitude, and three-story electronic billboards in nearby Times Square advertise firefighter toy action heroes.

The crews of Engine 54 and Truck 4 were among those honored when a joint session of Congress met Friday in New York. Many New York firehouses have become popular tourist attractions where visitors pose for photos wearing fire helmets or turnout coats.

While recovery efforts were under way at the World Trade Center, women would often cluster at the perimeter gates to volunteer their time to help the weary crews, recalled Manhattan officer worker Stacy Gelt.

"They were all hanging out down there, to give the firemen massages on their break," Gelt said. "To be a New York firefighter in the past year - oh, man, they were very, very popular."

Firefighters seem to tolerate the attention, although most will close the firehouse doors to the public for a time to mark the Sept. 11 tragedy. Ceremonies planned Wednesday at fire stations throughout New York will be small, private affairs for the surviving crews and the families of those who died.

Next month, on Oct. 12, New York firefighters will hold their memorial service for all those who died in the past year. The service was not held in 2001 because many firefighters were still unaccounted for in October, so this year's memorial will honor the 343 firefighters who died in the World Trade Center.

"On Oct. 13, then we can begin the healing process," Nardone said.

In the meantime, the firehouse has reclaimed much of the appearance it had before Sept. 11.

The tourists who stream steadily in front of the open and welcoming doors of the station's apparatus bay are no longer struck numb at the sight of memorial flowers or the framed photos of 15 fallen firefighters. The flowers are gone, and the photos have been moved from the front of the station to an inside wall.

The top row displays photos of Battalion Chief Ed Geraghty, Capt. Dave Wooley and Lt. Dan O'Callaghan. Below them are firefighters Carl Asaro, Al Feinberg, Jose Guadalupe, Christ Santora, Joe Angelini, Len Ragaglia, Mike Haub, Mike Brennan, Mike Lynch, Paul Gill, Sam Oitice and John Tipping.

Dozens of banners from well-wishers and other bits of consoling memorabilia were donated to a museum. Among the few mementos that remain on the station walls is the metal nameplate that hung on the ladder of Truck 4 before the rig was destroyed by falling debris.

Firefighter Arnie Galvez of Engine 54 said some in the fire station have watched videos of the scene at the World Trade Center before the towers collapsed. Galvez said he is amazed at the bravery of his fellow firefighters.

"Guys just kept going. Two buildings going down, fires all over the place," he said. "But everybody just kept going. Nobody stopped."

Many new faces have appeared to fill the roster of Engine 54 and Truck 4. Firefighters transferred to the station from throughout New York, even though Truck 4 is the busiest truck company in the city.

Chief Nardone said the city's fire department continues to attract high-quality applicants, despite the job's apparent dangers.

"We're still able to draw great people," Nardone said. "The new ones want to carry on."

On Sept. 11, the station's firefighters plan a quiet in-house memorial service with a local priest, followed by a lunch for the families of the victims.

But not all the station's crew will be on hand.

Galvez said he plans to travel to California, about as far away from New York as he can get. The ceremonies and other memorials planned for Wednesday bring back too many memories, he said, so he telephoned a buddy in Newport Beach south of Los Angeles.

"I called him up and said, 'I gotta get out.'"

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