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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Fire Company Finds Long Journey Back

January 14, 2002|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The men of Ladder No. 5 need a good fire.

They need to climb aboard the truck again in their heavy jackets and boots and roar through lower Manhattan to a burning building.

No one wants the destruction; they just need a reminder of who they are and what they do. But there hasn't been a big fire since Sept. 11, and now the men spend their days trying to rebuild a company badly broken when it lost a third of its members in one brutal day.

It is not the grief so much that gets in the way, or the faces of 16 fatherless children at the Christmas party that haunts them. It is that No. 5 cannot recapture its routine, the day-to-dayness that seemed to vanish under the falling World Trade Center towers.

The men did recover most of their dead brethren's bodies. They were stacked in a stairwell of Tower 1. And because their brand-new truck was crushed under the rubble, the old rig was brought out of retirement from the training academy and back to the firehouse. That put No. 5 back in business within days of the Sept. 11 attacks--and gave great comfort.

But rebuilding the company, housed in a brick building on 6th Avenue at West Houston Street, has been near impossible.

From the big things--like recruiting eight replacements--to the little ones--like figuring out where to get metal chocks--life at the firehouse is a struggle.

Who would have thought a small metal doohickey used during fires to keep doors open would be another reminder of what was lost?

Johnny Santore, one of the most devoted and now deified of the dead firefighters, used to weld the metal chocks by hand in the back of the station. He'd paint them Day-Glo green, hand one to each guy, and throw the rest in a giant Maxwell House coffee can. Now the big firefighter with the mustache is gone and a few weeks ago on Monday, the can was empty.

More difficult was finding enough guys who could steer the back of the truck. Only 20 of the thousands of firetrucks in New York City require a tiller man; No. 5 has one because the firehouse covers an area of narrow streets and alleyways in Chinatown, Little Italy, Greenwich Village and SoHo. But not enough of the surviving firefighters know how to fill the job.

"You don't want to have someone from another company come in to be your tiller man or chauffeur for any shifts," says John Maurer, who was being trained last summer to handle the job but had never done it on a run. Burly and young, the firefighter squints and tenses up his shoulders describing his first time at the tiller after Sept. 11: " 'OK, I'm doing it,' I thought. 'Barely.' "

Several guys had to take a crash course on spinning the tiller to the right when the 65-foot truck was turning left, and turning left when the chauffeur, driving up front, veered the truck right.

"There were no accidents but quite a few near misses," says Lt. Tim O'Neill, one of the officers charged with putting the company back together.

O'Neill has been with the department 20 years and knows the intricacies of its bureaucracy and of the profession. He understands the importance of ventilation during a fire--when to saw, tear or puncture a roof--and he knows how to crawl through an apartment hallway looking for survivors amid black smoke and flames.

But the last few months have tested his understanding of his role in the firehouse in ways he never could have imagined.

He and the other officers are scheduling recruits on shifts even though they are unsure of their skills. They are now talking regularly to reporters, politicians and celebrities. They are handling delicate matters for the dead men's families; they also are handling unbelievable amounts of cash because of all the donations pouring into the firehouse.

"I'm doing things I was never trained to do," says the no-nonsense O'Neill, 43. He has remained steady, but the pressure never stops, even when he gets home.

Like many of the men, he now has a family newly concerned about his job. His 15-year-old son, Tom, who never had much of an interest in what he does, now asks his father routinely where he is going, when he is coming home and what he is doing.

"There is still the same everyday garbage to do around here and at home, but too often someone says something here or there and it's 'click'--and you think about [Sept. 11] and the guys who are gone," O'Neill says.

Uneasy in the Spotlight

In the last four months little has been normal, and the men seem tense because of it, even when the so-called fun stuff happens. The relentless firehouse joking--"busting chops"--has slowed, and the men are surprisingly sensitive about the new national fascination with New York's firefighters.

When it comes up that Ivana Trump va va va voomed one of the most down-to-earth guys in the company at a fund-raiser and playfully offered her phone number, it is made clear that the name of the married subject of her attention should not appear in the newspaper.

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