You Never Forget Your First

The following story was sent to me by Lt. (Ret) Thomas R. Ziegler. It contains a raw account of several firsts he encountered in his first 18 months on the job. He retains all rights to the story and it is reprinted here with his permission.


The Author is second from the right on the top row.

Appointed to the FDNY on January 27, 1973 at the age of twenty-two, I was sure that "I had seen it all." Having already served three years in the Army, including a tour inViet Nam, and completing an apprenticeship in an Ironworkers union that started on the forty-third floor of the south tower of the World Trade center, nothing could surprise me.

Ignorance was bliss.

My first tour in the firehouse, it is a Tuesday night in April 1973 and I am as sick as a dog with the flu. That first box comes in right after the change of tours; No longer am I an individual. My role is now "canman" of Ladder 17-2, (pronounced, seventeen dash two) a "South Bronx" truck company and my riding position is the "phone booth" of a Seagrave rear mount fire apparatus.

In my twenty- seven years of service with the department nothing came close to the feeling of my first emergency response. The rig flying down the street, the diesel engine, air horn, and siren and bell (yes we had bells on the rigs then) blending together to create the "fire music" that announces our presence and intentions to the world.

Combined with this music are the blinking, flashing and rotating beacons of red light creating a show that would make rock concert patrons jealous! There are no traffic rules to be obeyed, people stop in their tracks to witness twenty tons of a red blur flash by. The world understands that the difference between life and death is on the move and they do not impede us.

As we roll I busy myself preparing for "That First Job", coat buckled to the neck, gloves on, collar and boots up, eye shields down. The rig slows and grabbing the can and hook I'm off and moving before it comes to a stop, and with nothing showing on my side, I race around the truck ready to battle the flames that unquestioningly wait.

With brain screaming "what have we got" the feeling of blood pressure at 250 pounds per square inch pounding in my ears and mouth sucking in air like the intake of a jet engine, I come face to face with "a mongo fire" In a 55-gallon drum, three junkies are burning the insulation off copper wire ripped out of the walls of vacant buildings, in front of a vacant storefront on a vacant block.

They burn the wire in the middle of what I later took to calling "The Devastation", which are areas totally devoid of normal life, just block after block of vacant buildings, populated by rats, packs of feral dogs and a smattering of people who looked and acted like extras in a zombie movie.

The reason for burning it here is simple; there is no one who cares enough to transmit an alarm. When the mongo is almost completely cleaned one of the junkies "pulls the box" and we show up and extinguish the fire, which immediately cools the wire for them.

Before the engine company had their booster rewound, the junkies have their ever present, all purpose shopping cart loaded with the copper and are on their way to the junkyard to sell it and then to their dealer to "cop" some dope and get high again.

Lesson learned: It takes a huge amount of time and energy to be a junkie!

This was the first of innumerable lessons that I was to learn, many of which I still pray to forget, none of which I have. Three junkies, a smoldering 55-gallon drum and a fully geared-up brand new, shiny Proby standing together on the sidewalk, listening to all of the good natured, wise assed verbal abuse aimed at us by the rest of the truckies, none of whom even got out of the rig.

Lesson learned: a mongo fire gets a quick squirt from the engine and everybody goes home. Do not ever get off the rig unnecessarily!

First job

The hours pass in false alarms and bullshit runs. I suffer from the flu raging through my system. However this all changes around six AM in a vacant tenement. It is fuzzy but I think we came in as an extra truck on the "All-hands."

What is clear was my first view of a "working fire", which occurred as we emerged from the roof bulkhead of the adjoining building. The roof bulkhead door of the fire building was open and fire filled the entire frame, there was so much fire it just could not get out fast enough.

I had heard of fire being described as "blowing out" and whoever thought of this vivid description had gotten it right. Picture a funnel. When the wide top is filled, all that volume must come out through the narrow bottom and when it does it is under pressure.

Well this building became the wide top, the bulkhead doorway was the narrow bottom and this fire was most definitely "blowing out"!

Suddenly, while standing there mesmerized by this unfolding scene, presto-chango the fire disappeared, instantly replaced by a column of white smoke, and the Lieutenant says "OK, let's go down there".

My brain screams, "TILT". What is going on here? First, where did the fire go? Second, what is that white smoke? And third, we are going WHERE?

In those days, we seldom wore masks and this morning was not an exception. The lieutenant sensing that I did not have a clue as to what was going on told me, "Just hang on to my coat, Kid" and hang on I did as we descended into a scene from Dante's Inferno.

My third question was answered first. Down there meant DOWN THERE. The second question was answered next. The white smoke was actually steam and in this steam alternately appearing and disappearing was the indistinct ghost like shapes of firemen operating on the fire floor.

Combined with these sights were the sounds: orders shouted, tools disemboweling the walls and ceilings being searched for hidden pockets of fire, hundreds of gallons of water under pressure slamming into those same walls and ceilings, men coughing their lungs out, laughing and cursing. Bedlam.

Now for question one. Where did the fire go? At this point it dawned on me, the fire went where all losers go when beaten, AWAY. What a fucking RUSH. This was dope and I wanted more.

Since we are an extra truck and there is really no need for our services, the order comes, "Take up 17-2" so down the five flights of stairs we go. As we reach the entrance door on the first floor the Lieutenant who has been chuckling for the last few moment's stops, looks at me and says "You can let go of my coat now, Kid"!

First Occupied Building Fire

It's the following Saturday, my first day tour, mid morning, when the voice alarm comes to life. The disembodied voice of the dispatcher announces, attention Engines 83, 60, 41-1, Ladders 29, 17-2 and Battalion 14, respond to... The box number and address are given and then "we are receiving numerous phone calls for a fire on the fourth floor at this address. Be advised you are responding to a working fire in an occupied multiple dwelling."

We arrive second due at the address and there are a thousand people in the street looking up at the building. The front fire escape is packed with residents self-evacuating.

I go with the Lieutenant and the forcible entry man to the rear of the building where the same scene is taking place. The fire escape is jammed and I remember thinking, how can there be this many people in one building?

The drop ladder has not been lowered and there are people packed on the fire escape. I drop the ladder and before the people can start down we climb up. Shortly, enough people have climbed down the drop ladder to ease the crowding and we advance upward.

Between the second and third floors, we encounter a man carrying a console TV down. He looks me right in the face and says, "Hey fireman grab my kid," and with a twist of his head indicates a young child, maybe 10 years old following behind him. I look to the Lieutenant for guidance, and he says, "Keep moving".

As we reach the fourth floor, the window of what turned out to be the fire apartment flies open and appearing from it is an unconscious teenaged girl cradled in the arms of a member of Ladder 29 who found her during his search of the apartment. He passes her out to us, and the Lieutenant and I hold her limp form between us, as 29 starts to climb out of the apartment and on to the fire escape.

I remember looking at her and thinking how pretty she is despite all the soot and snot that cover her face. Suddenly we are showered by a cascade of broken glass and an instant later a halligan drops from the sky, smashes across the forehead of this poor soul and bounces off, adding a large profusely bleeding gash, and she is not as pretty any more.

At this point, I do not know whether to shit or go blind because events are unfolding so rapidly. The Lieutenant hands the girl off to both 29 and our FE man, grabs me, and hollers, "GO" into my face. He pushes past me moving up the fire escape to the top floor.

Ladder 29's "above the fire team" is searching the apartment directly above the fire and one member of the team has reached the window to the fire escape that turns out to have a padlocked gate across it.

Unable to open the window or breathe, he took the glass by shoving his halligan through it and at the same second was overcome by smoke. That was where the flying halligan had come from.

We got to the window and saw a gloved hand sticking out of the apartment through the gate and a hole poked in the glass. Somewhere along this journey, I had lost my hook so we had no tools. The Lieutenant grabbed the gloved hand, pushed it back into the apartment, and started kicking the remainder of the glass from the window, I caught on quickly and we busted in the gate and pulled out the fireman.

At this point, I can remember nothing more of the fire or the rest of the tour. My next memory is sitting in the home of my girlfriend's parents. Somewhere there is about eight hours missing from my life.

I must not have fucked-up though because when I returned to work the next day for my second day tour, There were a few 'ataboys and for a proby that is high praise indeed.

Lessons learned: You can always have another kid but TV's are hard to come by.

Once again, folks you can't make this shit up!

First occupied top floor fire interior attack

That spring is when I learned: fire is alive and has a personality. This particular fire was a motherfucker! It was blowing out several windows, devouring this tenement with wild abandon daring us to try to stop him. It roared, "I am fire, I am elemental, I have lived since the dawn of time, I am a creation of the gods!"

As we run into the building witnessing this awesome display of might up close and personal my thoughts are "what the fuck am I doing here?" Whoever was last out of the fire apartment had left the door open as he fled. The fire was well advanced at the time of our arrival, commanding not only the apartment and cockloft but the public hallway of the top floor as well.

I'm one scared shitless proby as I look about on the floor below the fire and watch two companies of heavily experienced firemen nonchalantly preparing to do battle with "The Red Devil", enginemen, flaking out the hose line and a truckie on the half landing taking out the glass.

Suddenly from above, in the voice of a saw opening up the roof I hear this response to the fires boasting, "Hey, fuck you dickhead, you're about to get your ass kicked, these guys here eat your kind for breakfast."

Just then, the call went out over the handi-talkie to "start water." In the sound of the air bleeding out of the inch and three quarter line, I heard another friendly voice add to the din "shit's on fuckface, your ass is grass!" And Fire declared, "bring it on."

This job was going to be the FD equivalent of a knife fight in a phone booth! We pushed in hard and Fire pushed back just as hard. There would be no quarter sought or given here, this fight was to the death.

The fire was rapidly consuming all of its fuel and since we were being quickly reinforced with more companies, the outcome was inevitable. Although this fire was eventually extinguished, both fire and fireman alike knew that this eternal battle was not ended; it was just postponed, to be continued at a time and place chosen by fate.

Here in a ruined kitchen, among the remains of the almost completely destroyed top floor, where the entire roof was burned away, the interior walls consumed half way down to the floor with charred studs pointing to the sky stood a refrigerator covered with debris and heavily scorched from it's middle to it's top, one of the old fashioned kind of refrigerators with the locking handle, the type kids used to suffocate inside. I witnessed a sight that I will never forget.

As we stood there with the spring sunshine pouring down on us taking a "blow", an old-timer opened the door of the 'fridge, reached in, and passed around several ice cold, long necked bottles of beer, the contents of which we quickly swallowed in celebration of our temporary victory.

First Signal 5555

I came in to work a mutual; it was a night tour in October 1974. The companies were out at a job and we were going to relieve them in the field. When we arrived at the railroad yard, it was all over but the shouting. Most of the companies had already left and those that remained were in the last stages of overhauling.

The messenger van that had brought us, gathered up the members of the day tour who were going home and left. Jonnie came to where we congregated, a cup of third alarm wagon clam chowder in hand, and gave us the low down on what had taken place.

He had worked the 9x6 on a mutual and responded into the fire on the initial alarm. A large three-story warehouse had caught fire and went to a third alarm before being brought under control.

The chief in charge had just ordered the power restored in the yard so the commuters would not be inconvenienced any longer and then ordered the remaining companies to take up.

Tom and I tracked down some misplaced tools, returned them to the rig and proceeded to the warehouse to lower our thirty-five foot aluminum extension ladder and replace it on the truck. As we approached, to our great delight, we spied Jonnie and Russell each grasping a beam of this beast of a ladder and a member of Engine 83 who was working with us on OT that night, up on the loading dock one hand on each beam pushing the ladder to the vertical.

I say great delight because raising and lowering the thirty-five footer is a bitch, so it was with some joy as we approached that scene we watched the three of them performing this difficult evolution. The guy on the loading dock had pushed the ladder as far upright as he could, removed his hands from the beams and took hold of the lanyard. The guys on the ground took control and steadied it in anticipation of extending the fly to unlock the sections, then bedding the fly and lowering the ladder to the ground in order to return it to the rig.

They were poetry in motion right up to the moment when the ladder contacted the eleven thousand volt overhead power line and the world turned to shit. We watched, frozen in our tracks, as Jonnie and Russell, their muscles contracted by the electricity, hands locked to the aluminum beams stood there fully erect and violently shaking as the juice coursed through their bodies and into the ground.

In what seemed like minutes but in reality could not have been more than three or four seconds, the fellow on the dock, with great bravery and presence of mind used the lanyard to pull the ladder away from the wire, breaking contact. Free of the current locking them to the beams, Russell and Johnnie fell straight down like two puppets whose strings had been cut.

We ran over, Tom to Russell, me to Johnnie. I got no pulse, felt no breathing and started CPR, oblivious to the events unfolding around me. Urgent radio transmissions go out requesting immediate assistance as someone joins me working on John.

Fuck, five months ago we were dancing side by side at my wedding. Now he is laying in the dirt with me kneeling by his head trying to breathe life back into him. Trying, but because I had failed to establish a good airway, instead of supplying his lungs, his stomach was being pumped full of air and only so much can go in before it comes back out, and back out it, came filling my mouth with clam chowder puke.

I turn his head, clear the mouth, and start again as Rescue 3 pulls up. A voice orders, "load them aboard." We were not waiting for an ambulance we were going now! Packed in the back of rescue continuing CPR, I am vaguely aware of a wild ride as we barrel towards Lincoln hospital.

Upon arriving, we climb from the rear of the rig to the sidewalk where medical teams are awaiting us. They take over the resuscitation attempt but I attach myself to the stretcher and don't let go until we are inside the emergency room where I stand against a wall out of the way but in a position to watch everything. In less time then it takes to write this, Johnnie and Russell are cut out of their turnout coats, boots and clothes. They are laying there naked I see where the electricity exited their bodies; it must have had something to do with the steel tips of their boots because both of them, all twenty of their toes are horribly burned and burst open.

The medical team did everything humanely possible but in the end the doctors pronounced them both dead and someone led me to a chair in the hall where I sat and cried. Hours later I am back in the firehouse. How I got there is a mystery to me.

Someone asks did I call my wife and, if not to get on the phone right NOW. When she answers, she is crying. You see the radio and TV had been broadcasting that two firemen from L17-2 had been killed in the line of duty. Since she had not heard from me she, was convinced that I was one of those two and that this phone call was from the department to inform her of my death. I took an oath to myself then and there that whenever required I would immediately call home to say that I was OK, but I would never discuss what happened at work; never would I speak of my working life to her and until this day, I never have.

For more stories from Tom go to Mr Bellers Neighborhood and search for "Ziegler".

Copyright 2005 TRZ. Use without written permission is prohibited.