Heroes

The Marine and His Cousin the Firefighter

Former Marine and Iraq War vet Maurice Decaul and his cousin, a NYC fireman, reflect on September 11, 2011, and the meaning of service and sacrifice.

Bravery is the ability to overcome fear through fortitude, instinct, compassion for others and training.

FDNY Mission Statement

My cousin Al is a Navy veteran, a former EMT, and now a fireman in New York City. As a former Marine and Iraq War veteran, I’ve thought a lot about what heroism means, what bravery means, and how they are forged and tested. When Al and I spoke recently about September 11, 2001 and the actions of New York’s bravest fighting their way deeper into the inferno to save the lives of those trying to get out, it wasn’t as two weary vets, jaded and swapping stories. It was like we were kids again, awed by the might of superheroes and quietly inspired to search out the possibility of that kind of sacrifice in our lives.  

After we had talked, I followed Al’s directions and walked west from Engine 224s firehouse on Hicks Street along Remsen Street to Brooklyn Bridge Park. The river smelled faintly briny as waves brushed up against the pier. Further out in the harbor speedboats and ferries turned up white water, the chop chop chop of tour helicopters whirled the air and cumulus clouds peeked through Manhattan’s canyons. I put on my sunglasses. A lone jet trailed vapor as it raced the sun. It was a bright September day like it was a dozen years ago.

At his firehouse in Brooklyn Heights, Al asked me if I wanted to try on his gear. He reached into the cab of the fire engine near the Control-man’s seat, took out his helmet and handed it to me. I put it on. Al said that for the first few months on the job, his neck was sore. The helmet weighs about 12 pounds, and sits slightly unbalanced unlike the Kevlar I wore as a Marine. It’s designed with an air pocket, which acts as a cushion between the skull and falling debris. I slipped on Al’s fire retardant jacket next and immediately felt beads of sweat form on my back. The weight is almost 20 pounds and the jacket feels the way body armor feels. Heavy with security.

The adrenaline rush of anticipation, the extra weight of fear as those men walked on into the unknown.

Al reached into the cab of the engine and took out the mask system; it includes a bottle of oxygen with forty-five minutes worth of air, the face mask itself, and the harness to which everything is attached. I put the mask on and Al snapped the buckles. There’s a carbon filter attachment in case of gas or biological weapons attack. This piece of gear is so well designed that you barely feel it. I asked Al about this and he says that the FDNY has been attempting to lower the weight of the kit. Next, he gives me the Control-man’s toolbox, which can be carried by hand or slung across the body or shoulders. Al prefers to hold it. So do I. It feels less heavy this way. He hands me the Control-man’s hose next. It is a lighter hose than the type that would have been used on September 11 but still heavy. Lastly, the radio with its orange mayday button.

I stand there in the protective gear, it weighs about 120 pounds altogether. I remember images of firefighters walking to the Trade Center and up the stairs and I think of them carrying a 20-or-so-pound, canvas-covered flexible hose while wearing a helmet and a fire-retardant jacket and pants and boots, a mask, a tool kit. The adrenaline rush of anticipation, the extra weight of fear as those men walked on into the unknown.

Al is not big, maybe 5-foot-10, 160 pounds. He is lean, well muscled, the complexion of a hazel nut, with black, sympathetic eyes. He tells me how much it bothers him when he sees someone hurt or to see the human body damaged. He tells me of holding a woman’s hand who had been hit by a vehicle on Atlantic Avenue, as she passed from this world to the next. He is reserved when saying this, his Brooklyn accent influenced by the rhythms of the Caribbean of St. Vincent.

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It all starts with Snake-Eyes. In “GI Joe and the Mass Device,” the Joe team enters a mine in search of crystals. The robot defenders ambush the Joe team and a firefight ensues. The Joes fire their lasers to little effect. Snake-Eyes beckons the Joes and they take cover in a corner. For a moment, they are safe.

Snake-Eyes, the ninja, is muted by and scarred from a helicopter crash. We know little about him except that he is a commando with the rank of E-8 or Master Sergeant. He is dressed in black with black goggles covering his eyes. He is fearsome but loyal to his GI Joe comrades.

The Joes are in a bind as the robot defenders move in on their hiding spot but Snake-Eyes tricks the robots into smashing each other instead of his friends. For a moment, the Joes seem to have gained the upper hand and they attempt a break out. They blow the door but are immediately attacked by Cobra tanks, a cloud of radioactive gas sweeps through the mine once again threatening the survival of the team. Snake-Eyes, in an act of bravery and sacrifice, races through the tunnel and shoots down the radioactive glass shield, it falls and traps him. The rest of the team is saved though, and they discover that an escape route has opened.

Al and I talked about heroes and what it means to be one. He told me that the watching the Snake-Eyes story was a defining moment in his childhood. Al was maybe 7 years old and Snake-Eyes sacrifice, his own life for the lives of his team, inspired him. He, too, wanted to be the hero. To wear a uniform. To serve the nation first as a sailor and then again as an EMT, a TSA agent, and now as a member of the FDNY for the past five years.

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Al kept mentioning how healthy the young man walking up the cable to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge must have been. It can’t be easy to walk on an inclined tightrope as the wind sweeps across. It’s incredible that he even made it to the top. The police were overhead in a helicopter trying to persuade the young man to come down.

Because of its location and proximity to the East River, Engine Company 224 is responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge and conducts water rescues and recoveries. Al paced, his face taut with conviction as he recounted the young man’s jump. He had trouble understanding why a seemingly healthy human being would choose to end his own life this way.

He tries to never bring work home but this occasion was different.

The young man had somehow missed the water and landed on the ground. His parts were scattered and it was up to the firefighters to recover them.

They did their duty.

For a while, Al says, he just could not bring himself to drive across the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Engine Company 224 operates a 2002 Seagrave 2000/500 engine. The engine carries an onboard water supply of five hundred gallons of water and is crewed by a team of five: the Chauffeur, the Boss, the Control-man, the Nozzle-man and the Backup-man. The Chauffeur pulls the engine up to the scene of a fire making sure to park the engine in front of but just beyond the building to make room for the ladder trucks. The crew exits the cab of the engine and practices a precise drill of connecting to water supply and entering the building. The Control-man and the Chauffeur work together. First, before any hoses are attached, the Control-man ensures that the hydrant is free of detritus that could clog the engine's pump. If any junk is missed and gets sucked into the hose it can render the engine’s pump inoperable, sabotaging the firefighting crew’s mission. After the sweep for junk and once good water pressure has been established, the hose is connected to the engine.

As this is happening the Nozzle-man and the Backup-man grab the length of hose that they will need to get to the front of the building. The Control-man helps set everything up. He counts the lengths of hose and connects the last of them to the engine, then follows the line, checking for kinks or for the line being caught under vehicle tires, until he has run the whole line into the fire.

The Boss is the first man in. The Nozzle-man and Backup-man follow. By the time all three have entered, the truck company has already found the seat of the fire and is now directing the Engine Boss to it. When the Boss finds the fire, he gives the order to the Nozzle-man to “go ahead with water.” The Nozzle-man opens the mouth of the hose, releasing its stream while the Backup-man braces the weight.

Al holds up his hands a few inches from his face and says that at times fires can be dim with smoke so that it is impossible to see one’s hands.

No engine company ever puts out a fire alone. When one team is exhausted another will relieve them.

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