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September 27, 2008

The TanMan

There might not be a National Firefighter Archive without Mike Tanner's help.

I first met Mike in 2004 when he called me from Littleton, Colorado with an odd question.  "Would you take a photo for the University of Colorado football team?" he asked.  I told him he probably had the wrong person.  After all, I was in New York and didn't do sports photography.  Besides, wasn't the team mixed up in some kind of scandal?

But Mike persisted.  "Where did you get my name?" I asked.

"Jimmy Cody," Mike explained.  That got my attention.

Jimmy is an FDNY firefighter stationed at Engine 1 and Ladder 24 in mid-town Manhattan on W. 31st St.  It's a very busy station located just around the corner from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.  The Empire State Building is just a few blocks away.  Across the street is St. Francis Church.  This was Father Mychal Judge's church and his fire house.  It's a no nonsense fire house and Jimmy, who drives the truck, is a no nonsense guy.

Jimmy's brother, Kevin, is also a firefighter.  Kevin arranged for me to photograph the two brothers for The Archive and for their families.  On the appointed day, I showed up at Kevin's station on W. 37th St.  He phoned Jimmy to come over.  Within minutes Ladder 24 pulled up.  

First impressions aren't always correct.  When Jimmy jumped off the truck he marched right into the station and abruptly said, "Are we doing this?  Let's go."  He only had a minute he explained.  His is one of the busiest trucks in the city.  I hurried through the process and Jimmy and the truck were gone within five or ten minutes.  I never expected to hear from him again.

So when Tanner said he got my name from Jimmy, I was surprised.  Jimmy had not spoken more than 20 words to me.

I learned from Mike, a supporter of the CU Football team and a former member of the coaching staff, that back in November, 2001, right after 9/11, members of Engine 1 and Ladder 24 were invited to Boulder.  Generous friends of the team hosted the guys at the Boulder campus for the big Nebraska v. CU game.  It was a break for the firefighters from the grim aftermath of 9/11 and a way for the team to show their support for FDNY.  The guys were on the field with the team and received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd.  CU won the game, 62-36.

To show their appreciation, the fire house etched a piece of glass from the World Trade Center with the words, "CU Buffs and FDNY, True Brotherhood."   They welded iron from the site into the shape of a cross and set it in a piece of WTC marble.  The team's chaplain, Mike Spivey, safeguards and carries them to every game for team inspiration.

The friendship continued over the next few years.  So when a recruitment scandal involving the team hit the news, Jimmy and the guys asked, "What can we do to help?  You were there for us when we needed encouragement.  We're here for you now."

Tanner and Cody put their heads together and determined that some sort of motivational poster might do the trick.  After all, even if the accusations against members of the team were true, that meant three or four guys deserved the judgement of the courts and the media.  But the pain was being endured by all members of the team, coaching staff, students, families and fans.  In the end, all the accused were cleared and never charged.  

"We just need to find a photographer," Tanner said.

"No you don't," Cody insisted.  "There's only one photographer to use.  Just call Laura.  She'll do it."

And so Mike called.  Cody is the kind of man who doesn't forget his friends.  Firefighters know what I'm talking about.  It's the brotherhood.  And in this case, I was honored to be included.  I would never have expected that from a man I only met once and who hardly spoke to me.  But underneath the gruff manner is loyalty, kindness, trust and much more.

So I was in.  I designed and photographed a poster that was presented to the members of the football team and signed by the firefighters.  It did more than achieve its original purpose.  That year the team went on to win the Big 12 North Championship.  The team leaders wanted to use the poster in designing their championship ring.  I gave my permission with one condition -- I'd get a ring.

I did get a ring and always enjoy sharing it with firefighters.  Perhaps they were already planning to present me with one, but I wanted to make sure so I asked.  It's been wonderful for show and tell in fire stations across the country.  The ring, much too large for me, has been tried on by many of the firefighters I've met.  Reporter Bruce Plasket has written a book about the incident at the University of Colorado.  Buffaloed concludes with a chapter about the fire house, the poster and the ring.

But the story doesn't end there.  When Mike learned from Jimmy about my efforts to honor members of FDNY and the financial struggle it required, Mike stepped in to help.  For nearly a year Mike sent a gift to help me pay my rent each month while I finished the project.  Mike asked me what I wanted to do next.  I told him I was thinking about making this a national project.  Mike liked the idea and deposited seed money to help cover the initial expenses of renting a car, paying for hotel bills and all the other related travel expenses.

Mike had a small fire in his office.  Littleton Fire-Rescue arrived and quickly put it out.  But in the process they saw a stack of the CU posters in Mike's office.  They asked about it and asked if he thought I would be willing to photograph them.  Mike gave posters to all the guys and assured them he would see what he could do.

In Mike's honor, my first department after FDNY was Littleton.

Mike's commitment to firefighters is endless.  He even attended hot shot school in Arizona.

Ten Colorado citizens, including Mike, were recently given an award by the Golden, Colorado Fire Department for a rescue they performed.  Mike witnessed an automobile accident, stopped his car, called 911 and rushed to help.  The car was dangling at the edge of cliff.  Mike reached into the car and pulled the female driver out to safety.  She looked up at him and cried out, "My baby!  Get my baby!"  Mike raced back to the car which was beginning to inch closer to the cliff.   Other people were running over to help.  Mike saw several young men that he assumed from their size were football players.  He asked them to hold the car while he reached into the back seat and pulled the infant, still strapped in a car seat, to safety and placed him gently into his mother's waiting arms.  

As the fire engines arrived to handle the MVA, one of the officers rushed over and asked, "Where's the car?"  

 "Down there," Mike told him, pointing below the cliff.

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