FDNY Squad 1 was preparing to conduct a drill on rescuing someone from a hole on Wednesday evening, when a man then dashed up to the firehouse and reported just such an emergency to one of the firefighters.
The firefighter got on the firehouse intercom to alert the others.
“We have a guy across the street who fell down the elevator shaft.”
A firefighter hurried with the man to the parking garage on the other side of this block of Union Street in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. He put a call over the radio.
“We have a 7-year-old boy.”
The firefighter has a 7-year-old son. He was using his boy’s size to guess the age of this other boy who had fallen through a 10-inch gap between and the elevator and wall on the third floor and now lay at the bottom of the shaft. This other boy would prove to be just 4-years-old and tall for his age.
The firefighter radioed for his comrades to bring a medical bag and a neck collar and a backboard, which they were already bringing anyway, having trained and drilled again and again and again, year after year for every possible type of rescue. They were at the scene in the next instant.
The boy’s parents were there and said their son’s name was Jack. The firefighter who had been the first to arrive spoke to him by name on the possibility that the seemingly unconscious boy could hear him.
Jack, the firefighter explained, we are putting a collar on your neck.
Jack, we are now going to roll you ever so gently on the backboard and secure your head.
Jack, we are going to lift you up.
The firefighters had put in a call for an ambulance. The boy’s condition had imparted an added urgency.
“Put a rush on the bus,” a firefighter radioed.
The ambulance arrived just as the firefighters hoisted the boy the four feet from the bottom of the shaft up to the first floor of the garage. They did not want to lose even the moment it would take for the paramedics to come to them.
Instead, the firefighters no sooner had the boy out of the shaft than they themselves were rushing him to the ambulance, performing CPR, squeezing air into him with an Ambu-bag, administering oxygen, calling for the paramedics to open the ambulance’s back doors.
In that saved moment, Jack was aboard the ambulance and on his way to New York Methodist Hospital nine blocks away. Jack was in the care of the trauma team not seven minutes after the man dashed into the firehouse from the parking garage. The boy was later transferred to specialists at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan.
Whatever could have been done to save Jack had been done as quickly as was possible, with speed and skill that comes from experience and continual training.
But with the next day came word that 4-year-old Jack Roberts had died. Someone placed a bouquet of flowers and white teddy bear along with a picture of a smiling Jack taped to a piece of cardboard next to the garage entrance.
People who saw the photo remembered him climbing and swinging in the playground nearby. A woman who had been his babysitter since he was 2 months-old spoke of how he loved soccer and music and dance. She said she had last seen him an hour and a half before the accident.
Another woman, the babysitter for the 4-year-old girl who is Jack’s best friend, stood in tears and remembered taking the two children to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden a fortnight ago.
“He was a very great kid,” the second woman said. “Very smart. Very happy.”
The second woman said that the little girl in her charge has been asking for Jack.
“She said, ‘When is he coming?’” the woman reported. “We say, ‘He’s not feeling well today.’”
Inspectors from the city Buildings Department arrived at the garage. They were reportedly told that Jack’s parents had wanted to retrieve something from their car on the third floor and that the boy had gone up with them along with an attendant. The question was exactly how he had come to suffer the fatal fall.
From the quarters of Squad 1 just across Union Street, there came the whine of a power saw on Thursday evening. Another shift had taken up the perpetual vigil and the firefighters were testing the saw in case it might be needed in a rescue.
The firehouse has been one constant in this neighborhood that has gone through startling changes. The cops had driven crime so low that people with money had turned it into a wealthy realm where no cop could afford to settle. Working class Irish who spoke of “the neighborhood” were pushed out by upscale types who spoke of “my neighborhood,” enjoying urban excitement, but suburban safety. These refugees from suburban boredom drove cars and the influx made stickball impossible, street parking an ordeal. The parking garage on the other side of Union Street went condo, with a single space listed for as much as $279,000.
However high the real estate prices rose, however many old residents were driven out, however many new ones poured in, the mission at Squad 1 has stayed unwaveringly the same. The unit lost 12 members on 9/11, but remained not a heartbeat slower in responding to a call for help.
With each new rush to save a life comes the hope that the life will indeed be saved, that training and dedication and teamwork and heart will pay off, that giving your all will make all the difference. The hope is never more fervent than when it is the life of a child. The hurt is never deeper than when a child’s life is lost.
“Do you know the family?” one of the firefighters who gave their all to save Jack asked on Friday. “Please send my condolences.”
The firefighter celebrated his own son’s 7th birthday on Thursday. The days ahead will see him back on duty with Squad 1.