Friday, September 11, 2009

The Big One

I wear a pager on my hip. Much of the time, I leave my pager "open," that is to say, so I can hear calls for other fire departments in the county, not just my own. I do this partly because I'm as curious as the next person, but also because I know a lot of people in the fire service now, and whenever there is a call, it is likely friends of mine who are putting themselves in danger.

Whenever there is an emergency that requires either firefighters or emergency medical services, the information that tells them where they are needed is preceded by tones on the pager. Listen to these tones often enough and you begin to recognize them before the dispatcher says anything. There is a department near here that has a tone that is distinctive, and is used when they need to alert off-duty personnel that they may be needed. My family calls this the "shit hitting the fan tone."

Whenever we hear that tone, we stop and pay attention. Likewise, whenever any area department is called to a structure fire. Often, when it is a real emergency, or even when it's clearly not, someone will suggest that it's "the big one."

It's sort of an emergency services in-joke. Most of the "big ones" out here in the middle of nowhere aren't really big. Big for us, or for our neighbor departments, maybe. But not much compared to a lot of other places. Some departments, a cat in a tree might be their "big one." And that's not a complaint, at all.

The thing is, whenever anyone says that, there is an underlying suggestion that it COULD actually be "The Big One." Anything can happen. Anywhere. You just never know.

I can't help but think about what must have gone through the heads of all the FDNY responders on 9/11.

It's the big one.

The REALLY Big One, no joke.

That thing, that specter in the back of everyone's minds, this is really it.

And yet, as big as it was, each individual firefighter, each EMT, each person, what they needed to do, their job, was quite simple. One thing at a time. The same as always. Set up water supply. Pull hoses. Make entry. Search and rescue. Triage. Patient care.

And that's what they did. In impossible circumstances, a situation so beyond the ordinary that there is no way to train for it. They went to work, did their jobs, and were there to help people they had never met.

Only the world came down around them.

I will never forget the moment I saw the first tower begin to fall. Slow motion. Looking exactly like one of those planned demolitions of the old casinos in Las Vegas that there are documentaries about.



My mind froze the moment I realized.

There are people in there.

People who had simply gone to work as usual that morning.
People who could not possibly escape, and who likely had time to realize that.
People with families. Husbands. Wives. Sons and daughters.

And heartbreakingly, sadder than sad, those who had gone to rescue them.

People often say that a firefighter is "willing to die for others." That they "rush into burning buildings."

Like hell.

No sane person is "willing to die."
No sane person rushes in without considering the circumstances, the risk/benefit ratio.

They may choose to take a calculated risk.
And they may underestimate the risk, for whatever reason.

No one knew what the risks were that day.
No one could imagine them.

They can, now.

Since that day, I have met people who were there. People who have stories to tell, about how they were able to survive when others didn't make it. Stories they don't often tell. It isn't about them.

It's about those who can no longer tell their stories.

We lost a lot of good people that day.

Let their sacrifice inspire you to make a difference in the world. We're left with a lot of catching up to do, to do all the good they might have.

Do something in their memory today.

EVERY day.


Michael Morse said...

Fantastic post Hilinda. You cptured things perfectly.

I finally added you to my blogroll, I honestly thought you had been there all along. Sorry about that.

Blanche and Guy said...

brilliantly written. thank you for this!