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Reflected in the Smoky Rubble Was the Image of True Courage

September 11, 2002|ANNE NELSON | Anne Nelson is the author of "The Guys," which has been presented in a number of cities and has been published by Random House.

Last September, my life was irreversibly changed by two phone calls. One was from my father telling me a plane had just struck the World Trade Center, only a few miles from the desk where I was sitting. The second call came the next week from a friend of my sister's looking for someone to help a fire captain compose eulogies for the eight men he lost in the collapse. I answered the call and was moved both by the experience and by the grace of the man I was working with.

A few weeks later, when I was asked to write a play about this experience, I agreed. The play--"The Guys"--has been successful.

Yet the most that I can claim is that I've held up a mirror, polished by journalistic technique, to reflect a culture that people needed to know about, and through the power of theater, presented it in a way that made an emotional connection.

One reason people seek this mirror is that, in the rubble of the World Trade Center, we also encountered a shattered self-image. New York in the 1990s was an exciting place to be, but it wasn't always a kind one.

We were told that everything was for sale and went to the highest bidder. If you were smart, you became a CEO with those glorious stock options or a dot-com millionaire. Left in the dust were us chumps, plodding along on a paycheck in a mundane job.

Sometimes it seemed as though the rule was that the greater the contribution, the stingier the public recognition. Inner-city teachers and social workers striving to rescue lives seemingly written off by everyone else. Librarians struggling with shrinking budgets and shortened hours. Nurses laboring to put a human face on managed care.

Firefighters have had the same gripes about city budgets and stagnant pay as everyone else. But at the same time--as I have come to learn--they love and celebrate the job.

Their trade secrets include the humor and camaraderie of the firehouse, the unlikely combination of structure and spontaneity in a day's work and the very nature of the mission and the people it attracts.

Sept. 11 took a devastating toll on firefighters' workplace companions and environment. Holding on to their collective identity and asserting their core values have been part of the challenge.

When I wrote my play, I decided that I was not simply going to write it and move on. To the extent that I was welcome, I would accompany friends I made in the firehouses over the difficult year ahead.

Their first few months after the attack were a time of blinding, disorienting grief, disbelief and overload.

Even the firehouses that had no casualties suffered the loss.

Every firefighter who survived Sept. 11 has been tormented by the question: "Why him and not me?" And every firefighter has family members who look at him differently now when he goes out the door to work.

One of the trickiest aspects of the last year has been the firefighters' relationship with the public. New York firehouses traditionally are good-natured fixtures in the neighborhoods and, in a city of walkers, have always made a welcome pause along the way.

But there have been hordes of what the firefighters call "well-wishers," laden with the best of intentions but sometimes overwhelming gifts. So the officers have had other tasks this year--rerouting thousands of teddy bears, dispensing vast boxes of cookies and pies stacked to the ceiling. Visitors arrived, unannounced, from many states and many lands, and some firefighters complained that, at times, it was impossible to hold a drill.

At the same time that the firefighters were being deluged by symbols of sentiment, they were anxiously seeking more concrete forms of support.

The city has been slow to remedy a quirk in the pension system that might cost the department more than a third of the senior officers and firefighters over the next few months just when their knowledge and experience are needed the most.

Most firefighters are uncomfortable with the "hero" label. They don't want to be canonized--they just want to be liked, respected and given the tools they need to do their job.

For my part, I think of them as role models.

I've made a point of taking frequent reality checks and realizing that every community must have some flaws. But what I see overall is a group of people who have the courage and commitment to do work they love, in the company of people they care about, for the good of the community.

They've taught me a lot.

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