The request was simple, carried to Los Angeles by area firefighters who had rushed to New York to offer help amid the ruins of the World Trade Center. The New York Fire Department would need ongoing support from fire veterans, anyone who could come. The loss had been tremendous--314 deaths--and so were the unfinished tasks envisioned by those who prepared to go.
"We were willing to do whatever was needed," said engineer Bruce Price, who has been with the Los Angeles County Fire Department for 29 years. "We offered to wash fire trucks, to clean the stations, to cook for them."
But 88 county firefighters, drawn from stations from Palmdale to Pomona, encountered a more pressing need when they traveled East in late October. Custom dictated that any time a single New York firefighter died, 10,000 of the city's 11,000 firefighters would attend the services, providing a sea of uniforms and support, even in bad years, when 20 firefighters might be lost. Now survivors despaired. Some days there were 25 services, and a presence of only 150 or 200 firefighters at each.
Unexpectedly, the L.A. County visitors were thrust into the tight, tradition-rich culture of their New York peers, where generations of ritual shape life, and death, on the force. For five days, at least, there would be Los Angeles County firefighters at as many of the funerals, memorials and tributes as they could attend.
At St. Patrick's Cathedral, the packed streets held a throng of civilians paying their respects and more than 2,000 firefighters crying and holding a salute as the grieving family and fire trucks passed. It was one of the two funerals the group attended en masse, and the visitors were struck by how different the memorial was from those for firefighters in Los Angeles.
"I've never been to one out here like that," said firefighter John Mosier of Fire Station 110 in Marina del Rey. The firehouse sent 11 members, the most from any L.A. County station, and they gathered recently to talk about their experiences. "There they crank up the bagpipes and the drums," said Mosier. "As days got on, it got me worse and worse because it goes right to your heart."
A second funeral took the group to East Islip, Long Island. Truck engineer Jim Wright remembers what one New York firefighter called "one proud moment," when they arrived for the church service just as the bagpipes were warming up. They marched in twos, 40 rows deep, until they were lined up outside. The large crowd watched quietly as they marched through, and then one clap led to two until the entire crowd was clapping in unison for them. "It made the hair stand up on my neck," Mosier said. "They acknowledged us for acknowledging them."
The group stayed in the heart of Manhattan, impressed by the street activity that continued through the night and by the unexpected celebrity welcome they got from the New Yorkers. "We had a couple of guys go to the Yankee playoff games," Mosier said, "and as they were coming out, a cop said, 'You're the guys I heard about from L.A. You want to meet the mayor?' Mayor Giuliani came up introduced himself and signed some baseballs. This homeless guy got up off a cardboard bed and said, 'You the guys from L.A., thanks for comin'.' It was amazing that people knew who we were. Word got around that the guys from L.A. were there because there were so many of us."
The group was organized by firefighter John Whiteside at Station 79 in the Antelope Valley and Capt. Chuck Broman of Station 110. All who joined paid their own way, and they are quick to point out that those who couldn't go covered the shifts of those who did, without being repaid.
In the days following the large services, they broke into smaller groups, fanning out to funerals, memorials and visitations, then returning to their Times Square hotel at 2 or 3 a.m.
Grief was often leavened by generosity. As they traveled the city, pedestrians would come over to hug them or pay their restaurant bills before they could, token booth cashiers would pass them through and taxi drivers didn't want to take their money (they paid anyway).
After one memorial in the far reaches of Brooklyn, the local fire company offered to give the visitors, who had taken a subway and bus to get to the service, a ride back to the subway station. Once they'd boarded the communications truck, the roof lights started flashing, and they sped through the city. "We thought they had a job, that's why the lights were on," said Broman. "After a while, we wondered how far it was to the subway station, and they said they were taking us to our hotel all the way in Times Square. They dropped us off right across the street."