It Wasn’t Our Turn



E 143rd St. & Willis Ave, Bronx, NY 10454

Neighborhood: Bronx, Outer Boroughs

Arriving at work for the night tour on October 29, 1974 I discover the firehouse to be as abandoned and silent as a cemetery at midnight, I was spooked by something but wrote it off to the approach of Halloween when in reality it was actually an omen.

I am the first member of the night tour reporting in for duty and a quick call to the dispatchers’ office solves the mystery of the empty firehouse.

Earlier in the day the entire house B-14, E-60, L-17 and my company L-17-2 had responded to and were still operating at a fire in the railroad yards, so we of the night tour will be traveling there to relieve the day tour.

Shortly after 1800 hours, the division messenger van arrives at quarters; we climb aboard and are driven to the fire scene.

While en route, I realize I’m not the junior man for a change, that dubious honor goes to Russell.

Although we are both 24 years of age, he’s still a proby with only five months on the job compared to my almost two years.

Arriving at the scene we discover that most of the companies had already “taken up” and those that remain are in the last stages of overhauling.

The van pulls up alongside our day tour guys who are taking a break, they’re drinking coffee and eating cups of New England clam chowder alongside the Salvation Army canteen truck that supplied this hot chow; they are filthy, exhausted, wet, cold and very happy to see us.

After recounting to us where the various tools and ladders used during the operation are located, they climb into the messenger van and wave good-bye.

Jonnie is a senior man with almost twenty years on the job; he is also a fantastic human being who has taught me a great deal, not only about fire but also about life in the eighteen months that I have had the honor of knowing him.

He had worked the day tour on a mutual and now he’s continuing on duty with us.

Having responded into the fire on the initial alarm, he tells us of the large three-story warehouse that had gone to a third alarm before being brought under control.

About this time, the chief in charge issues two orders.

1) Restore electrical power to the yard.

2) All remaining companies are to take up.

Only the second order reaches us.

Before we can take up we must gather together and return to the rig all of our equipment.

Tom and I retrieve some tools from the far side of the warehouse and return them to the rig.

From there we start walking back to the warehouse with the intention of lowering our thirty-five foot aluminum extension ladder and replacing it on the truck.

As we approach; to our great delight we spy Jonnie, Russell and a member from an adjoining firehouse who’s working with us tonight on overtime, already in the process of lowering the ladder.

I say great delight because the thirty-five footer is the largest portable ladder in the fire department inventory and rising or lowering it is a bitch.

Tom and I stop spontaneously several yards away to watch the guys perform this difficult task.

In order to lower an extended ladder you must first push it away from the building it’s resting against until the ladder is perpendicular to the ground.

Then while two members hold it steady the third pulls on the rope lanyard to extend the top section a bit further thus releasing the locking mechanism and allowing the top section to retract.

On the ground is Jonnie on one side and Russell on the other each grasping the ladder.

Up on the buildings loading dock the OT guy pushes it as far upright as possible before letting go of the ladder and grabbing hold of the rope lanyard.

They are poetry in motion right up to the moment the ladder becomes electrified by the eleven thousand volt overhead power line and our world turns to shit.

We watch frozen in place as Russell and Jonnie, their muscles contracted by the electricity that locks their hands to the aluminum ladder, stand fully erect and shake violently as the juice courses through their bodies and into the ground.

In what seemed like minutes but in reality could not have been more than several seconds, the fireman on the dock with great bravery and presence of mind uses the rope lanyard to pull the ladder clear of the power line.

Freed from the current holding them to the ladder Russell and Jonnie collapse straight down like puppets whose strings have been cut.

We run over, Tom to Russell me to Jonnie.

Neither of them has a pulse nor is breathing, we start CPR.

Urgent radio transmissions are sent requesting immediate assistance as someone joins me in working on Jonnie.

Fuck, five months ago, Jonnie and I were dancing alongside each other at my wedding, now he is lying dead in the dirt and I’m 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 air to his lungs, I fill his stomach with it.

You can only load a stomach with air to a certain point before it must come back out and back out it came, filling my mouth with clam chowder puke.

I spit it out, turn his head, clear his mouth and resume, this time with a good airway.

In response to our urgent calls for assistance Rescue Company 3 arrives on the scene and immediately I hear a commanding voice order, “Load ‘em aboard, we ain’t waiting for an ambulance, we’re going now!”

As we continue with CPR while packed together in the back of Rescue, I am vaguely aware of a wild ride as we speed towards Lincoln hospital.

Upon arriving, we scramble from the rear of the rig down 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.

There I stand against a wall out of their way but in a position to observe everything that occurs.

Just as they were in the rail yard, Jonnie and Russell are still side-by-side here in the emergency room, a separate team working on each.

Their turnout coats, boots and clothes are rapidly cut away and discarded, everything humanly possible is being done to save them, but it is not to be.

They are eventually pronounced dead and as the medics move away from them I observe where the electricity had exited their bodies; it must have had something to do with the steel tips of their boots because all twenty of their toes are horribly burned and burst open.

Someone leads me to a chair in the waiting room. I cry. Time stops.

Its hours later and I am back in the firehouse, how I got there I still don’t know, when someone asks if I have called my wife and if not to do so immediately.

She’s crying when she answers the phone.

You see the radio and TV have been broadcasting for hours that two firemen from Ladder 17-2 had been killed in the line of duty.

Since she has not heard from me she was convinced that I was one of those killed and that this was the dreaded notification call from the department to inform her of my death!

As I hang up the phone, a thought hits me, if instead of going to the far side of the building to gather tools, Tom and I had first gone to lower the ladder we would have been the ones killed.

The only reason I can think of for us still being alive is… it wasn’t our turn!

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