If the present presidential politics have you in despair, take a moment to watch a video that can serve as an antidote to that Access Hollywood outtake of Donald Trump.
This curative footage was shot Saturday night as three young North Carolina men were rescued from rising floodwaters after they sought refuge atop an SUV that could have been swept away, taking them with it.
The rescuers were from Urban Search and Rescue New York Task Force 1, a team composed of FDNY firefighters and NYPD cops. The FDNY commander was Battalion Chief Joe Downey. He is the son of FDNY Battalion Chief Ray Downey, who also fathered the concept of specially trained and equipped rescue teams across the country that are perpetually poised to deploy to wherever they might be needed.
The elder Downey possessed a preternatural ability to arrive at even the most chaotic disaster scene and immediately know exactly what should be done. He spoke calmly and quietly in such a way that his orders were clearer and better understood and more swiftly executed than if he had shouted.
His nickname was simply “God,” which gave a measure of the loss the FDNY felt when he became one of the 343 of its members killed on 9/11. His spirit lives on whenever Urban Search and Rescue teams race to an emergency, all the more so with his son as the FDNY commander in New York Task Force 1. The task force has responded as close to home as Hurricane Sandy in New York and as far away as Haiti after an earthquake.
On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the younger Downey was down at the memorial observance with his family, as they are every year on that day. The media was focused on the arrival of the two presidential candidates and on Hillary Clinton’s early departure when she fell ill and fainted.
Clinton left behind a shoe, and someone who had been at the World Trade Center during the attack might have been prompted to think less of a sexagenarian Cinderella than of the seemingly countless shoes that littered the area 15 years earlier, left by people who were so terrified they had literally run out of them. But even as people fled, first responders such a Chief Ray Downey hurried toward danger that made it seem as if the world were so transformed that hell and not heaven was on high.
Inspired by the pure and selfless good that rose to meet pure and heedless evil, the city and our nation came together as one. President George W. Bush was cheered by flag-waving liberals of Greenwich Village as he rode uptown from visiting the burning ruins.
Fifteen years later, we had never seemed more divided, with our leaders unable to set aside their differences even during an anniversary observance at ground zero, with the Democrats standing in one group and the Republicans in another. Neither group of politicians offered more than a small fraction of the proportion of decent folks to be found in any firehouse or police precinct or military base or nurse’s station or teacher’s lounge.
The names of the dead are etched along the edges of the two memorial pools that mark where the Twin Towers once stood. The Downeys were over by the south pool, the one where the names of the first responders are displayed. Joe Downey was not the only first responder who stood before the name of a fallen father, and there were also fathers who had lost sons and brothers who had lost brothers. One had lost a father and a brother.
To see them carrying on was to know the great goodness that rose on 9/11 had not left us. And it was once again displayed in action on Thursday, when 45 members of New York Task Force 1 embarked for the Southeastern region threatened by the approach of Hurricane Matthew.
On Saturday, Joe Downey and the swift-water team were in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where 15 inches of rain fell. They went on 21 calls between 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 a.m. Sunday, rescuing 64 people.
“There were numerous addresses underwater,” Downey later told a reporter.
By chance, the team was in a darkened park when they saw a group of three young people stranded in rising floodwaters atop a gray SUV.
“They were trying to pass over a bridge where the water was running under it, and thought that they could make it, and the water was too high, and just picked up their car and floated it off to the side, and I just happened to be in the park area,” Downey told a local TV station afterward.
The team quickly unloaded an inflatable boat equipped with an outboard motor from the back of one of their vehicles. FDNY Lt. Vinnie Pickford, FDNY Firefighter Mike Wood, and NYPD Det. Dennis O’Sullivan climbed in and started upcurrent from the SUV, then swung around behind it and took the first of the three from the roof. They then cut across the current to dry ground. They repeated it twice more and before long had all three people out of danger.
Somebody shot a video of the triple rescue, and it was soon online for anyone to see, a remedy to the despair engendered in so many of us by the present state of the union, or at least of our politics.
Of course an environmentally minded viewer might see the rushing flood as the latest manifestation of climate derangement and wonder why it is so little discussed by the campaigns, particularly in the debate.
But nobody could help but be heartened by the rescue itself. And none of the factors that otherwise divide us apply. Not politics, not race, not gender, not class. The first responders only know that lives are endangered. And the stranded three only know that they are being rescued.
At last report Joe Downey and New York Task Force 1 were homeward bound. They bring with them the living spirit of Ray Downey, who demonstrated what does matter. Bravery. Selflessness. Smarts. Integrity. Toughness. Empathy.
Here was an example of true manhood, which is to say true humanhood.
Ray Downey never considered himself an exalted being, but you cannot fault those who gave him the moniker God. And whatever happens, however low our politics go, we will still have true spirits such as his to lead us.
We need only recognize them.