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November 11, 2011

VETERAN'S DAY - 11/11/11

Thank you to all veterans for your service to our country.  But a special show of appreciation to those who have performed double-duty.
The fire service is fortunate to have so many brave men and women who serve their communities and their nation by wearing two uniforms.  I am proud to have met so many including these men from New York, Colorado and California.

FDNY firefighter, Christian Engeldrum (top center) volunteered after 9/11 and sadly, was killed in a roadside attack in Baghdad.  He has often been called the 344th firefighter to die because of 9/11.

Jens Pietrzyk (top left), served as a paramedic and was awarded a Bronze Star for outstanding service and named one of two "Best Medics in the Army."  If you're in Littleton, Colorado and call 9-1-1, you might get to see Jens do what he does so well.

There are so many others, too many to mention here.  One day is not enough to show our gratitude.

Thank you to America's veterans.

September 10, 2011


Everyday should be a day we pay tribute to our firefighters.  This week in New York and across the country we honor the 343 who died on 9/11.  Today, at St. Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Ave., firefighters from around the world gathered to stand in the warm sun and high humidity to show their support.  I was happy to join them.

 I met and photographed firefighters from Los Angeles, London, Houston, Wales, Arizona, Australia and more.  I also connected with old friends from Las Vegas, San Diego, Dallas, etc.  I made new friends with firefighters in Chattanooga, Portland, Memphis, Houston and more.

But first, in the morning I attended a Mass at St. Ignacious Church on Park Avenue for Battalion 10.  I lived in this battalion and got to know all the guys.  There could not have been a warmer homecoming.  I promised myself that I would return from the road for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 and thanks to my friends I did.  It wasn't a coincidence that when asked by NY1 to do an interview I chose a firehouse in my old neighborhood.   They invited me to their  annual event.  

The ceremony began with the choir and the congregation singing "Amazing Grace."  So naturaly, I lost it and began crying.  I tried to fight back the tears but not an easy thing to do under the circumstances.  The woman sitting next to me in church was from Florida.  She lost two close friends from the Battalion and has a brother and nephew in the fire service in Idaho.  She began sobbing during the service.  I reached over and placed my arm around her with hope of comforting her.  We held hands throughout the ceremony.  We became friends.

During the collation, I reunited with so many old friends.  They are the men from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th stations I photographed right after 9/11.  

But Andre Cox stands out for me.  He saw me and said, "You're Laura the photographer!"  Seems he's retired from the job and did so without any photographs except the ones I took of him.  But he didn't know how to get in touch with me.  I can't describe the sheer joy and happiness in his face when I approached him with my camera.  Especially since it was right after another firefighter saw his photo on my iphone and showed it to his wife.  She'd  never seen it and immediately asked if there were more photos available.  She added that he was forced to retire and is having trouble coping.  The photos mean just that much more to them now.

I'm so glad to be "home" for this.  It's been a great homecoming, filled with love and affection from FDNY.   Every minute is uncomplicated and pure.  Even a trip to ostco yesterday was an encounter with a Harlem crew I photographed years ago who invited me to their 9/11 reception.

Standing on 5th Avenue and applauding FDNY came naturally for me and all the other people with whom I stood shoulder to shoulder.

We are united.  We will never forget.

January 15, 2011

Marine 1, The Plane on the Hudson, and 9/11

Tom Sullivan
Two years ago today, members of FDNY's Marine 1 - the Manhattan based fire boat - performed an amazing rescue on the Hudson River.  US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing on the river with 155 people on board.  The New York Times ran a story about it today that's worth reading.  The article describes the valiant and quick actions of Tom Sullivan, Tom Piambino and other members of Marine 1.  I remember watching the news coverage on that day and thinking how gustsy those guys are and how proud I am to know them.
Tom Piambino
During the time I photographed members of FDNY, I heard many stories about 9/11.  One had a powerful impact on me.

While working at a station in lower Manhattan, one firefighter described how someone from a marine unit saved his life on 9/11.  Benny was studying to become a driver of a fire truck.  Most departments call the driver the “engineer,” a term that comes from the days when a firefighter operated the steam engines that pumped water for the hoses.  The term “chauffeur” is more commonly used in New York City.

On the morning of September 11, Benny was attending chauffeur school when the call came in for all personnel to report to their stations.  His station is not far from the World Trade Center.  He and his family also live in the neighborhood.  
After grabbing all the flashlights, batteries and other gear he could, Benny rushed to the site.  There he saw his best friend and the two agreed to enter the building together.  Just then, Benny’s commanding officer called him over.  Benny asked his friend to wait for him.  His friend said he would only wait a couple of minutes then was heading into the building with or without Benny.  The officer had a special assignment for Benny.  He looked over at his friend and watched him race into the building fully loaded with his gear.
 His officer asked Benny to assemble  a team and begin removing bodies.  But when the building began to fall dust and debris flew in all directions making visual sighting impossible.  Benny didn’t know what direction to go.  Forward?  Left?  In reverse?  
Benny grabbed his handy-talkie radio and called out an S.O.S.  “Help!” he shouted.  “We’re lost.  Which way is safe?”
Suddenly, a voice from one of the marine units responded, “Listen for the fog horn.  That’s the river.  Follow the sound.”  The firefighter began producing the loud, deep blare repeatedly.

Benny and his team followed that beautiful noise and made it to safety.  When I asked him if he knew who it was on the other end of the walkie-talkie, Benny said he didn’t.  Sadly, Benny never saw his friend again. 

I thought about Benny’s story when other facts and details about the boats began emerging.  With no fire hydrants at Ground Zero, it was up to the fire boats to pump water from the river to the guys on land trying to put out the flames.  Without subways, trains or taxis and cars, the boats helped carry stranded people across the Hudson River to New Jersey.

Tom Sullivan (l) and Neal King (r)
A few months later, I was delivering photos to a station near the United Nations.  As I entered, there was a man dressed in civilian clothes leaning comfortably against the watch desk near the front door.  He was chatting with the crew on duty.  Everyone passed the photos around making the requisite jokes about the various men in the portraits.

The man in the street clothes, Neil King, smiled at me and asked, “When are you coming to my station?” 

“Where's your station?” I asked, still struggling with transportation issues.  Getting to Brooklyn or Staten Island was not easy.

“I’m on the fire boat,” he said, matter-of-factly.  I fought back the tears and moved quickly to Neil and extended my hand to shake his.  I told him the story Benny had shared with me.  I offered to schedule a photo session as soon as possible. 

Neil invited me to join him and his crew on Marine 1 for lunch.  The boat is docked behind the sanitation station on the West Side of Manhattan near the Meat Packing District.  It sits at the end of a pier next to the dock originally constructed for the Titanic to anchor after its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.  
Over the next year, I was invited out to Marine 6 in Brooklyn and Marine 9 in Staten Island.  I told the story of the fog horn but never learned the identity of the quick-thinking firefighter who became a beacon in the darkness for Benny and his team.

Tom, Neil and the other guys on the boat gave me a baseball cap and t-shirt with their logo on it.  I wore the cap always and played a lot of golf in Palm Springs with it on.  So much that I wore it out.  On a trip to New York, Marine 1 was one of the stations I went to visit.  I took the hat with me.

One of the guys told me I couldn't represent them that way and gave me a fresh new cap.  I played golf today - the first time in a long time.  In their honor, I wore my Marine 1 baseball cap.  It was one of the best games I've played.

December 1, 2010

Peter Acton & The Lights

When I photographed FDNY Firefighter Peter Acton and the other guys at Engine 79 and Ladder 37 in the Bronx, the lights went out.  Tonight, Peter helped turn the lights back on in a really big way.  They were seen around the world.
While photographing the guys on August 14, 2003, the power went out at 4:10 pm.  Initially, we didn't think it was a big deal.  The guys took proper steps to turn on all the back up power sources.  The station was without television or lights but the rig's battery radios were operating and connected to headquarters.  Any 911 calls would be received.

Assuming the power would return shortly, we decided to keep shooting.

But a few minutes later, someone arrived to start his shift.  He gave us the news he'd heard on his car radio. . . the power was also out in Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Newark, NYC and everywhere in between.  It was the Blackout of 2003.  

Instinctively, I stepped back to get out of the way.  I watched as some of the guys took a quiet corner, made the sign of the cross and prayed that this wasn't the next 9/11 we were all expecting.  All grabbed their cell phones to call home.  I saw proof that firefighters are willing to take risks that most of us will never have to consider.  I was in awe of their courage, their readiness, and their commitment to serve.  But what was coming?  Who did this?  Were terrorists responsible?  

Eventually, we learned it was a power grid problem with a domino effect that staggered city after city.  Peter and the other members of Engine 79 and Ladder 37 were kept busy the rest of the night.  Without buses, taxis or subways, I was stuck in the Bronx . . . but that's another story.

Peter was a first responder on 9/11 and was, according to media reports, deeply touched by the outpouring of respect and gratitude from New Yorkers who lined the West Side Highway holding signs that read "Thank You Firefighters" or donated cash and gifts to support the guys at Ground Zero and the firefighting families who lost their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. 

Stephanie Acton, left, her husband Peter Acton, ...
The press reported that when he had the chance, Peter found a way to say "Thank You" to New Yorkers and all of America.  Peter and his family donated their 75 year old Norway Spruce tree to Rockefeller Center and tonight they helped light the Christmas Tree.

We all watched across the country as the lights went on.  Peter returned a few - make that a lot - of smiles to the faces of New Yorkers.  Thank You Peter, Stephanie, Seamus and Fiona!  We will never forget your generosity.  Have a Merry Christmas.  You've made ours brighter.

Tree Photos © Yahoo

November 17, 2010


Eric Matteson asked how long he had for his wife and daughter to join him for a photo before I left the station.  I told him it didn't matter, I'd wait for them.   It was a busy day and I could tell I'd be at Station 20 near the San Diego Sports Arena as long as the sun held out.  

I finally got a couple of minutes to gobble down some  lunch while Eric and his crew responded to a call.  I ran across the street to a Mexican restaurant and returned to the station with take-out.  

While I was eating, Eric's wife, Rachel, and his daughter, Izzy, arrived to be photographed with him and came over to introduce themselves. 

It's hard to talk with a mouth full of taco.  So when she asked me a question, I put my hand up to pause while I chewed and swallowed.  Rachel, an elementary school teacher, saw this as a teachable moment.  "She has good table manners," Rachel told her daughter, Izzy.  "She doesn't talk with her mouth full."

Rachel explained that Izzy doesn't like to have her picture taken and warned me that she might be difficult and resist.  I learned later from her father, Eric, that it was even hard to get Izzy to go to the station when they told her it was for a photo.

Stalling for time while I finished my lunch, I invited them to look through my portfolio of photos of firefighters from across the country.  Izzy raised herself over the edge of the desk where I was eating.  Her legs dangled off the side.   Aggressively, she flipped through page after page and boldly explained, "I'm looking for a picture of my daddy."  

I told her that I was waiting for her father to return to the station so I could take his photo.  It prompted her to ask, "Then will you put my daddy in here?"  She repeated the question over and over as her mother and I tried to talk between bites of lunch.  

"We're having a conversation," her mother said.  "Please don't interrupt."

Izzy waited.  As soon as Rachel and I finished, Izzy asked again, "Will you put my daddy in here?"

So I bargained with her.  I'd take her daddy's picture and put it in the portfolio if she would take one with him.  She agreed.  

When the engine returned, we went right to work.  We took several photos of Eric and his daughter, with Rachel and Izzy.

Rachel, Eric, Izzy & The Guys
I got a kick out of it when we took a family portrait and she kept asking, "Can I get my guys in it?"  She earnestly positioned her stuffed animals on the bumper of the engine, including a "firefighter."  Clearly, she's the child of a firefighter who wanted to make sure she took care of her "guys."

Next, it was time to work on some solo portraits of Eric.  As I was setting up a shot with him, Izzy wandered into the frame.   Eric didn't know she was there.  He was looking at the camera expecting me to click at any moment.  Rachel saw her and started to reach for Izzy.  Instinctively, I put my hand up - once again - to halt Rachel and quickly grabbed the photo above.  

Almost immediately Engine 20 got another call that brought my session with Eric to a halt.   So, used the time to return to my computer to download the photos and get them off my camera.  Izzy followed me and started looking through the portfolio again.  "Did you put my daddy in here?" she asked again.  She is a very determined child but I'm not that fast.

When Eric returned to the station, I asked him to fill out a photo release for my files.  Izzy jumped up on the desk, grabbed a release and a pen then began to fill one out, too.  I'll keep it in the files with her father's.

Afterwards, some of the firefighters and I were looking through the photos on my computer and couldn't stop smiling at the photo of Izzy and Eric.  There was a long silence as everyone just stared at it.  

Then someone said, "Imagine what Izzy's children will think of this photo when they see it."  

Suddenly, the project came into clear focus for everyone in the group.  They got it!  These photos are for the families of firefighters to treasure for generations to come.

Izzy makes the photo.  The smile on her face says it all.  Like so many family members, they are proud of their firefighter.

Izzy and her father are now prominently featured in my portfolio.  I tried to arrange for her to see it before I left San Diego but the flu prevented her and her family from meeting me.  I will stay in contact with them and make sure she knows we are all proud of her father and grateful to her and her mother for giving him the support and confidence he needs to do the job he loves. 

Another teachable moment . . .  she can trust some people to keep their word.

March 23, 2010

A Mother's Pride

Shortly after I took this photo in September, 2004, Chris Dunic’s mother called me. Her son, she said, was being deployed to Iraq. A member of FDNY’s Squad 288 in Queens, Chris was part of the elite unit’s team that rushed to the pile in a futile attempt to find survivors. Squad 288 shares a fire house with Hazmat 1. Together, they lost 14 of their members on 9/11. The search, rescue and recovery effort was a grim job, but one that had to be done, and Chris was well trained to do it. Of course, he was only one of many ready and willing to get the job done.

Linda Dunic wanted me to know how much the photo meant to her, especially now that he would be so far away and in harms way. She and her husband, Slavko, own a very popular restaurant in Manhattan, Campanile. She planned to proudly display the framed portrait at the entrance to the restaurant for all to see.

"I want everyone who comes in to see my son," she told me. "I'm so proud of him." Her voice quivered on the edge of tears.

We never met, but we exchanged a few emails. Then time slipped away. I left New York a few months later to visit other fire departments.

But a recent article in the New York Post about the rescue of a young boy made famous by a photo of him rising out of the rubble, arms spread wide, embracing life, caught my attention. It described the work by members of the New York Task Force who rushed to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January. While all the highly trained police officers and firefighters joined in the search and rescue efforts, one name leaped off the page for me.

Looking deeper into the story, I read the London Times article which stated:

“The final, magnificent breakthrough fell to Chris Dunic, a veteran New York fireman whose tunnelling skills were forged in the smouldering ruins of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.”

I got chills. I also got back in touch with Linda Dunic to tell her how proud I knew she must be - indeed, how proud we all are. But proud is not the word to describe what Linda felt. Like many of us who saw the rescue on television or saw the now famous photograph of 7 year old Kiki in newspapers, magazines and on-line, Linda saw it too. While watching the evening news with the rest of America, Linda said she was moved to tears at the amazing sight of that young boy and his life-affirming smile and joyous response to recovery.

But she didn’t see her son in the pictures. As soon as Chris lifted the boy out, he went back down for the sister. The tv cameras didn’t catch that.

And Chris, a humble man, didn’t tell his mother about the crucial role he played in this miraculous recovery. He would occasionally reassure her in phone calls and emails that he was safe and well, but never mentioned Kiki. It wasn’t until he got back to New York and, together with his mother, was watching another news report about the rescue that he finally told her, “That was me.” It must have overwhelmed her.

I can't imagine how it must have felt for Chris and the other rescuers to make such a successful recovery - especially since so few such successes were possible following the terrorist attack on September 11.

By now the story has been told in newspapers and magazines - most recently Reader’s Digest. But no story can capture the emotional pride and joy of a mother who has instilled in her son the integrity, humility and bravery that inspires him to commit his life to protecting other’s whether it’s Ground Zero in New York, Afghanistan and Iraq, or the devastated streets of Port-au-Prince. Without a doubt, he will be called upon again and he will answer the call without hesitation. It's who he is. It's who she raised him to be.

Maybe it will take a photo to express her pride - worth a thousand words, right? It’s certainly a mother and son photo I hope to take one day. I will be honored if it too takes it’s place on the wall at the entrance of Campanile along with the new photos - seen here - that she’s added from Chris’ extraordinary days in Haiti.

Haiti photo credits: Matthew McDermott, January 2010

May 9, 2009

Far From Home

Iraq, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, Australia . . . just a few of the distant lands where firefighters have been able to share their photos. Unlike some firefighters who assume they don't need a photograph for themselves, these men put their families ahead of their own camera shyness.

As he entered Station 22 in El Paso to began his shift, David Maylone came up to me with a joke. Over the next 6-7 hours, he kept me laughing, that is, until I asked about his family.

I learned a long time ago to make sure I get a smile out of each
firefighter for his or her family. When I see a wedding ring, I'll remind him that his wife will be disappointed if he doesn't smile. It's not always easy but sometimes all I have to do is ask, "Who is this picture for?"

David wanted these photos for his parents - both of whom have been serving in Iraq for the last three years.

David joined the department after his parents were posted to Iraq. "They've never seen me in my gear," he said with disappointment in this voice. They were already over there when he got out of the Academy.

As always, I left the station and immediately returned to my desk to begin the process of preparing the photos for viewing.

I was back at the station a couple of days later and saw David again. He was eager to tell me that as soon as his photos were posted, he emailed his parents and shared the link withe them. "Now they'll believe that I really am a firefighter!"

Jens Pietrzyk, a distinguished member of Littleton Fire Rescue in Colorado, requested many poses, including photos with his battalion chief, crew, lieutenant and others. I found out later that he wanted his mother and family in Germany to see the men and women he worked with and who had become his friends and mentors.

According to Jens, his mother had to ride a bus for nearly two hours to get to a computer with internet access so she could see his photos. She chose a few prints which he lovingly sent to her.

A couple of years later, I was back in Littleton and went to meet with the Chief at headquarters. Above the entrance was a large banner reading, "Welcome Home Jens Pietrzyk."

Jens had been serving for 17 months in Iraq as a combat medic, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his outstanding service. In his honor, LFR arranged to have his rig - Squirt 12 - on the tarmac at the Denver Airport so he could see it from the plane as he landed safely back home.

David McWatters (right) and Elliott Robinson (below) approached the camera with thoughts of their families back home in Australia.

McWatters is assigned to Station 11 in El Paso. When his photos were available for viewing, he notified his parents. In turn, his mother forwarded the link to over 40 of David's relatives in Australia.

I could see how pleased he was that his family back home was proud of him.

Robinson works out of Station 43 in Irvine, California in the Orange County Fire Authority. He's one of the newest members of the C Shift. I doubt he expected the other members were preparing to drop a bucket of water on him.

But I did.

October 23, 2008

Thank You Midland Fire Department

In the Summer of 2002, an article in the New York Post began with the words, "Each picture Laura Yanes takes of a courageous firefighter is worth a thousand thank-you's."  Those words were never truer for me than in Midland, Texas last April.

My 18 year old niece, Gabby, was a passenger in her boyfriend Jordan's car when they were hit head-on by an adult driver, who, according to the police report, crossed the double yellow line while text messaging.

Midland Fire Department Chief Russ Conley gathered the crews (photo above) who responded to the traffic accident so our families could thank them and I could thank them with a photo.  The teens' parents joined me and through tears of relief and gratitude, we looked each firefighter in the eyes and said, "Thank You!"

Gabby and Jordan were badly injured.  According to Chief Conley, the guys knew that she would need immediate surgery if she was to survive.  Their quick action provided her with just that opportunity.  

I took quite a few photographs that day and in the days that followed.  The main station is just around the corner from the hospital.  As I prepared to photograph the two EMTs on the ambulance, a third (on the left) approached me and asked, "Can I get in this shot?"

I'd been told the other two drove her to the hospital.  I wanted the photo so Gabby could see the faces of the men who saved her life.

"I'm usually on the Engine," he said to me.  "But that day, I jumped into the back of the ambulance to work her on the way to the hospital."  I had to hold back the tears to focus the camera.

Three members of the Rescue Unit described their efforts to rip open the crushed vehicle to extricate Gabby and Jordan.  

Another guy told Gabby's mother about squeezing into the back of the car to hold Gabby steady while the jaws of life and saws buzzed around her.  He spoke comforting words to Gabby the whole time.

My niece spent a month in the hospital.  Jordan spent weeks with doctors hoping not to have to remove his foot.  Thankfully, both are doing well and getting stronger every day.

The large group photo above was given to Gabby whose mother taped it to her hospital door.  It caught the attention of patients, visitors, doctors and other hospital personnel, many of whom acknowledged they never thought about the work firefighters have to do to get accident victims to the emergency room.  One of Gabby's nurses was surprised to see that her brother was in the photo (wearing sun glasses).  She regularly walked people over to Gabby's room to brag about how proud she is of him and the others.  

So are we!

October 12, 2008

Gunga Din - Six Months At Ground Zero

My friend Toolie spent nearly six months providing orientation and everything else firefighters who worked at Ground Zero needed.  He describes it as the honor of being a Gunga Din to FDNY.

In his humility, no doubt Toolie is simply comparing himself to a mere water bearer.  "I was chokin' mad with thirst, An the man that spied me first was our good old grinnin', gruntin' Ginga Din."

But as Rudyard Kipling also wrote at the end of his heroic poem, "Tho I've belted you and flayed you, By the livin' Gawd that made you, You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din."

Indeed.  Toolie is a better man.  I would add, a better "GENTLE man."

On January 3, 2004, like most days that I photographed in New York, my doorman hailed a taxi for me and lifted my shopping cart filled with my gear into the trunk.  It was a perfect fit.  On this day I went up to the Bronx to Engine 89 and Ladder 50.  But that's another story.  A good one, too.  But I'll save it for later.

When I finished there, someone drove me to Engine 90 & Ladder 41 on White Plains Road in the Bronx.  I was greeted by Firefighter Joseph O'Toole who is now retired from FDNY.  Everyone knows him as Toolie.

Toolie grabbed my gear out of the car and walked me through the station into the kitchen.  On the way I saw the big chalk board where notes, telephone messages and reminders are kept by the guys.  In big letters were the words, "Laura The Photographer will be here at 3:00."

"Hey, that's nice to see," I said.

Toolie paused and looked at the board.  He stepped up to it and with his fingers erased the word "the."  He picked up the chalk and inserted the letters d and a so it now read, "Laura Da Photographer . . ."

"You're in da Bronx, now," he proclaimed.  I felt welcomed.

As I was photographing one of the guys, I glanced to the side and saw Toolie standing in the shadows in a semi-state of undress with a big smile on his face.  I smiled back and kept working.  He was still discreetly wearing his shorts.  I could tell he wanted to surprise the guys and make them laugh so I said nothing.  Part of my work with FDNY was to allow the guys to put a little laughter and humor back in their work days.

When it was Toolie's turn, he walked out holding his turnout coat over his mid-section.  All the guys started laughing out loud and busting his chops.  He jumped up on the bumper of the truck and posed like a pinup model.  

The fire house is located on a major street across from a row of low-end, high-rise apartment buildings.  It's not uncommon for neighbors to come out to watch me work -- they love their local heroes and enjoy seeing them honored.

But as Toolie reclined languidly on the ladder's bumper, I heard a chorus of female voices from across the street, carried on the crisp January air.  I turned around and saw at least a dozen women leaning out of their apartment windows.  Their urgings inspired Toolie to vamp even more than he already was.

"That's what I'm talking about," a woman on one floor shouted.  "Yeah, baby!" said another.  "I want a copy of that," exclaimed a third.  "Work it, baby!" urged one more.

We finished up and Toolie asked me to take a picture of him with his son, Brian.  Toolie gave his son his helmet and grabbed a Probie's helmet to wear on his own head.  No self-respecting firefighter with over 1 year on the job would wear such a thing.  Every probie wants nothing more than to lose that damn pumpkin patch.  But that's Toolie.  Always good for a laugh.

I took one look at Brian and could anticipate the firefighter in him.   He had the look, the attitude and the determination I've seen so often.  Well, five years later, Toolie is proud to announce that Brian will join FDNY in January.  He didn't tell his father when he applied.  He wanted to do it on his own. 

He has big boots to fill.

When the session was over, so was Toolie's tour.  He drove me home.  Every station arranged to get me there safely and home again.  I was never in better or more caring hands.  In the car he said to me, "You know why I wanted to take that photo?"

I assumed he was just being silly and having a little fun.  I was wrong.

"I could be fired for that, but I don't care.  I want you to show it to headquarters.  Let them try to fire me."

Toolie explained that for nearly six months he worked at Ground Zero helping prepare Bronx firefighters to dig through the rubble for remains. 

"All bets are off now," he explained.  "The old rules don't apply to us anymore.  Not after what we've been through."  

Toolie, like all FDNY firefighters, did their rotation at The Pit.  No one was supposed to spend more than one month.  The department was rightfully concerned about the mental and physical health of its members.

According to Toolie, firefighters would spend a 24 hour shift, every 4 tours.  He explains that he, like all the others, were rarely home.  They'd do their tour at their own stations, pick up another tour in Manhattan to help out the guys there, do another tour at the Pit, then attend a day of funerals on their day off.  On the fourth day, the cycle would start again.

When Toolie arrived for his first tour at Ground Zero on January 6, 2002 - his wedding anniversary - the presiding Chief gave what Toolie describes as a "big rah, rah" speech.  The Chief told the guys they had a gruesome, tough job to do and if anyone wasn't up to it, they should leave now.  His actual language is not really appropriate for this space but you can imagine.  No one left.

Toolie approached the Chief and suggested he might have put the message a little better to make the guys feel less overwhelmed about the job they were about to do.  Then he added, "Ill do anything I can to help."  "Whatever you need," Toolie told him.  That's one of the many things I like about him.  He's not shy or intimidated by rank.

"I need an ATV man," the Chief responded.  Toolie stepped up to the task.  Of course, he didn't know what an ATV man did.  

But Jimmy Cody (read about him below) would soon tell him.  Jimmy was the leading "go to" man at Ground Zero and taught Toolie what he needed to know.  Each of the five boroughs had such a man.  Cody handled Manhattan and knew all the secrets and the who, what, when, where, and how of the site.  He prepared Toolie to rep the Bronx.  Jimmy gave him phone numbers for suppliers and resources, taught Toolie to understand how the site worked, and instructed him on how to protect and serve the firefighters assigned to work there.

Toolie drove the all terrain vehicle across ground zero getting whatever the guys needed.  His goal was to make the heart breaking and back breaking work easier.  If they needed water, tools or other supplies, Toolie was there.

On one occasion, Toolie observed police officers sitting in their cars with their heaters running while firefighters were exposed and suffering in the cold winter air.  He had to do something.  So he drove his ATV to the tool shed and found a chain saw.  He went over to some piles of construction wood and started breaking up the long, thick planks into logs.  He located a wheel barrow and broke the wheels off.  He loaded it all on his ATV and drove it over to the guys.  He filled the barrow with the logs, poured gasoline on them and lit them to provide warmth to the guys.  They thanked him, warming their hands above the flames.  Toolie gave them the saws and showed them where the wood could be stolen.  Once again, he was chastised for his actions.  He didn't care.  He was there to make it easier for the guys in any way he could.

Later, he found a supply of hand warmers - the kind sportsmen use to keep their fingers and hands warm for hours.  He filled his ATV with as many as he could and drove over to the guys.  Firefighters can be tough and stubborn macho men.  Some said, "I don't need those."  The air was chilling, the dampness crushing, and the work excruciating.  But they were going to tough it out.

"You wanna be a f---ing hero?" Toolie would ask the firefighters.  "Then go ahead."  He would then suggest they fill their pockets with the hand warmers to take home to their children for their next ski trip.  Guess what?  Yeah, you got it right.

Toolie finished his one month stint and was ready to leave the horror.  He thought about the safety of home, the normalcy of his fire house.  But when he approached the presiding Chief who assigned him to the ATV to say goodbye, the Chief asked him to stay.

"I thought you'd never ask," Toolie replied, deciding to stay on.  He knew the job and wanted to keep breaking in the new guys.  He stayed until the last day the pit was open in late May.

He watched each new crew arrive on the west side of the Pit.  The expressions on their faces, according to Toolie, said "What the f--- am I doing here?"  He greeted them with gentleness and humor, reassuring them that he would be there to provide anything they needed do the task they were assigned.  His instructions respected the pain and unbearable horror the guys were experiencing.

One time a new Battalion Chief arrived and snubbed Toolie asking, "Who the hell are you?" when Toolie suggested a route the chief should take.  Later, after needlessly circling the site, the Chief told Toolie, "I should have listened to you."

The guys learned to listen.  Toolie knew the ins and outs and passed them along to make the grim task a little easier.  Watching from his ATV perch, Toolie saw a newly arrived firefighter furiously digging with no results.  Toolie drove over to him, aware that his nose would be a more effective tool than a hunch.  It was late in the day.  Toolie stood with him surveying the site.  An opening in the pile had created a small air vent.  He could smell that something lay beneath it.  He took a can of orange paint and marked the spot.

"Tomorrow morning," he told the firefighter, "dig here."  When Toolie ran into the guy a day or so later, the firefighter told him, "I made a find!"  It meant that another family would have some comfort in giving their loved one a proper burial.  

A few weeks after taking Toolie's pinup shot, Engine 89 and Ladder 50 held a dedication service at their station.  The men designed and built a beautiful memorial with a brass plaque containing the names of the 343 who died and portraits of all the firefighters who were assigned to the station on 9/11.  They wanted firefighters who will be assigned there in the years to come to know these names and faces.

I'd taken all the photos so they invited me to photograph the dedication ceremony, too.  Toolie was there to show his support.

The guys paid for a car service to get me to the station and one of the organizers was going to drive me back into Manhattan when the event was over.  But, plans changed a little.  The guys decided to head over to a favorite pub.  "Come with us," my driver invited.  "I'll take you home after."

Toolie doesn't drink so he went right home after the dedication.  But then he began to wonder what arrangements had been made to get me home.  He called the station and asked the organizer.  "Who's driving Laura home?"

He was told one of the guys would be taking me home after a quick stop at the pub.

"No way!" Toolie insisted.  "After all she's done for us, she's precious cargo.  No one who's been drinking will drive her home.  We need to get her there safely.  I'll be right there."  

And with that, Toolie returned to the Bronx to drive me home.  I did enjoy a beer first.  After a long day of shooting it tasted good.  Sharing the pride of the guys who'd just left their mark on the posterity of their fire house was a good feeling, too.  The cold beer went down well knowing that our Gunga Din was on his way.