Friday, September 16, 2011

Firehouse by David Halberstam

Firehouse by David Halberstam is one of those books that quite honestly, can be termed iconic. I read this book in 2004 and recently found a copy in good shape in a donation pile at our library. I consider it to be one of the best books written on the 9/11 tragedy. It focuses on the loss of life endured at one particular New York firehouse.
Halberstam is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lived near the firehouse, Engine 40 Ladder 25 on the West Side of Manhattan. Although he lived only steps away from this firehouse, Halberstam had never visited it nor really given it much thought. Firehouse 40/35 was considered "the hidden jewel" of firehouses in Manhattan, New York because of its special degree of cohesion and loyalty.

Asked by Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair to visit 40/35 firehouse and learn about the men who died in the 9/11 tragedy, Halberstam found a story rich in humanity, loss, valour, and courage.

In Firehouse, Halberstam retraces the events of September 11, 2001 both at the firehouse and also at Ground Zero. 40/35 firehouse is staffed by 50 firefighters, in shifts of 11 men. Halberstam recounts what happened to the 13 men from 40/35 who lived and worked at the firehouse that morning and who also responded to the catastrophe unfolding before them. Twelve of those thirteen men would never return to 40/35.

David Halberstam's portrayal of each man is intimate, yet respectful - preserving their integrity and dignity, all the while quietly hinting at their humanity. These were real men, with excellent qualities and yet imperfect as all human beings are. Each one considered firefighting a calling. Each one did his duty even though he knew he would probably not return.

"There is a quick flash of videotape that shows Lieutenant John Ginley, Michael Lynch, Steve Mercado, and Mike D'Auria as the descend the stairs into the lobby of Building Four and head for the lobby of the south tower....They are loaded up with gear, and their expressions are unusually stoic. Their brothers from 40/35 find it almost unbearable to watch the brief clip, because they can imagine what the men already know about their chances of surviving, and yet they are going forward, with no panic or fear on their faces...It is a haunting moment, and the videotape reveals with rare intimacy what brave men look like at the worst moment...."

There's a good deal of information about the culture of the firehouse that an outsider would not know. The friendly competition between the engine and the truck crews, the firehouse humour and the camaraderie between the men are all deftly described, forming a backdrop for the tragedy unfolding.

Firehouse is an essential book that will help future generations understand one aspect of the magnitude of the tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001. It is also a book that portrays the courage and the humanity of the men who lost their lives that day, in the service of others.

Book Details:
Firehouse by David Halberstam
New York: Hyperion 2002
201 pp.

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