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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.

October 11, 2008

Proud Children

Right after 9/11, a firefighter in Manhattan approached me with a special request.  It seems the wife of a member of his company brought their newborn daughter around for the guys to meet.  The firefighter, still in his turnout gear from a run, held his daughter in his arms while someone snapped a photo of them.  Soon after, he was one of the 343 men killed at the World Trade Center.

Patrick explained that photo might be the only one the child would have with her father.  He went on to tell me that he and his wife were expecting a child in a few months and asked if I would return then to take that photo for him.  

Although I originally set out to provide portraits of firefighters, from that day on I never turned down a request for a child to be included in the photo with the firefighter.  In fact, along the way it became a significant choice many made.

Taking photos of children was a relief from the more somber and stern images of big, tough guys expressing their grief.  When I arrived at one station in Queens in the Spring of 2004, there were so many men with young children waiting for me. Clearly, a number of them had been born post 9/11.  It was a wonderful and hopeful sight.

Watching children playing at fire stations always makes me wonder if I'm witnessing the next generation of firefighters.  New York stations make families an important part of fire house life with annual Christmas parties, picnics and more.  The children of firefighters get to know each other.  They know where the soft drinks and snacks are.  They respond to the other firefighters like members of their own extended family.

It's much the same in many of the departments I've visited.   For instance, while in San Marcos in northern San Diego County, I saw a family arrive to be photographed with Firefighter Tom Spencer.  Mrs. Spencer arrived with their two sons.  The youngest one marched right in like he owned the place.  He was wearing a full firefighter's outfit, including a holstered axe.

"You know what I think would be cool?" he asked me.  "If I got in the driver's seat and you took my picture there, alone."

We took a few pictures of Tom and his entire family.  But we took many more of Tom and his youngest.  I also took several of the boy alone.  It was clear he had a reason to want them.

During a break I asked his mother, "Does he want to be a firefighter when he grows up?"  He turned around to look at me, smiled and nodded his head positively.

His mother offered more proof.  She explained that one day she found him in the backyard in full firefighter regalia.  The garden hose had a smaller version of the nozzle his father uses on the fire hose.  The boy was spraying water over the fence onto the neighbor's roof.

"What are you doing?" his mother shouted.

His answer was simple and direct.


October 10, 2008

When The Press Called

When I started photographing members of FDNY, I wanted to keep my work quiet and private.  I was not interested in publicity or any other kind of attention for this work.  I certainly didn't want to wake up any sleeping giants.  More importantly, the trust and confidence the guys placed in me as a friend before 9/11 was important to honor.  It was common to hear something about being there for them before the attacks.  It pleased them that I hadn't "jumped on the bandwagon" as they put it.  In the years that followed, some would say they felt forgotten by the public but appreciated that I was still there.   It meant a lot to them and to me.

So I wanted this work to be between me and the firefighters.  It was no one else's business.  I didn't want anyone to think I was doing this for attention.  I certainly didn't do it for money since I volunteered.

But on March 10, 2002, I feared my privacy had come to an end.

I was making a return visit to a station in my neighborhood, Engine 22 & Ladder 13 on East 85th St. on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  

It was a cold Sunday when a woman and her child approached the firefighter I was photographing.   She explained that during the week, her daughter Sophie's class delivered a handmade poster honoring firefighters.  But, she added, her daughter was ill that day, stayed home sick, and missed the class trip to the fire house.  Sophie looked sad and disappointed.

"Would it be okay if she comes in to see the poster?" she asked.  Her daughter, clinging to her mother, seemed a little shy and anxious.  I know how anxious I was the first time I approached a firefighter and asked to enter his home.

But Doug Mitchell, like most firefighters in New York City, was gracious and hospitable.  "Of course," he said, taking the child's hand and leading her to the back of the station where the poster was prominently displayed above the vending machines.  Connie and I followed to see the poster, too.  

Sophie looked at it proudly, but it didn't seem as fun as it would have if she'd been with her classmates.  I had an idea.  "Would you like me to take your picture with the poster?" I asked.  I thought it might be fun to take the photo to school and share with her classmates. 

I studied the scene and thought if Doug lifted her on his shoulder I'd be able to get the poster and a firefighter in the shot.

Doug picked her up and placed her on his right shoulder.  She was thrilled!  She settled into the shot, letting go of her shyness and anxiety.  She felt safe on Doug's shoulder.  Who wouldn't?

Afterwards, her mother approached me and asked, "How can I get a copy of this photo?"

I asked for her address and promised I would mail a copy to her.

"Just mail it to my office," she said, handing me her business card.  I looked at the embossed letters on the card and felt an earthquake under my feet worrying that I might be in trouble.  Constance Hays was a business reporter at The New York Times.  Among her many credits, she covered the Martha Stewart trial for the Times and was the author of a gripping book, "The Real Thing:  Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company."

I could have avoided her and not mailed it.  But once again, I kept my promise to deliver the photo.  So I mailed it to Constance.  I wanted the thank you she emailed to be the end of it.  I hoped nothing more would come of the encounter.  But four months later a surprise call came in.

"This is Lydia Polgreen from The New York Times," the voice on the other end of the phone announced.  "I hear you're working on a large project," she said, laughing on the word "large."  She went on to explain that she wanted to follow me for a day through fire houses with a photographer for one of the articles planned to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11.  

The story idea had come from Constance Hays.

I called several friends and asked, "What should I do?"  They helped me to see that the story wasn't about me.  It was just a different angle on a story about brave firefighters who survived 9/11.  A story about honoring them through photos was a way for the Times to focus their story through my camera.  I wasn't the story.  Firefighters were. 

That became my reason for allowing other interviews that followed.  Another way to focus attention on firefighters.

The impact of the article went beyond my expectations.  It appeared on September 3.  Before the end of that day I heard from The Today Show, CBS, Ladies' Home Journal, NY1, Fuji TV in Tokyo and more.  

I took the New York Times to Brooklyn so I intentionally asked CBS to follow me to Queens, LHJ to Staten Island, Fuji TV to Manhattan, and NY1 to the Bronx.  Chief Rocky Jones (read her story below) made all the arrangements for approvals from the Department.  I asked her to accompany me to 30 Rockefeller and appear on The Today Show with me.

When the article appeared, I called Constance and thanked her.  It was a brief conversation.  I know reporters are always on deadline.  I heard from her a couple of years later when she called to request another copy of the photo.

I left New York in November, 2005 to begin adding other firefighters to the FDNY portraits already recorded.  But I still read all the New York newspapers online.

So imagine how stunned I was to read in December, 2005, that Constance Hays died from cancer at the age of 44.  My heart sank recalling that day in March.  We may have only spent 30 minutes together, but we made an important connection that would change lives.  By shining the bright spotlight of The New York Times on the project, it attracted the attention of firefighters and their families across the country.

Like so many others who have made small and enormous contributions to advance The Archive, Connie Hays made one the biggest.

As firefighters say, we will "Never Forget."  Thank you Connie.  Our condolences to Sophie and the rest of your family  for their loss.

October 3, 2008

Chief Rocky Jones

According to the official website of the City of New York, organized firefighting in the city began in 1648.  In 1865 - right after the civil war - the department became a paid, professional service.  It wasn't until 1982, that the first women entered FDNY.

More history was made on June 25, 2003 when Rochelle Jones became the first woman to be promoted to the rank of Chief.  Previously, she also held the distinction of being the first female captain. 

Like all the other women who entered the department in the late 1970s, Rocky had to endure sexism, humiliation, intimidation and more.  But just like the other women who supported each other through the challenges, she endured.  I still laugh when I think of the story she shared about a male firefighter who called her "Babe."  Her quick and perfect reply was, "That's Lieutenant Babe to you!" She made her point without losing her cool or diminishing her authority. The guys laughed with her and their respect for her continued to grow.

During the years I photographed in FDNY fire houses, Rocky's portrait was in my portfolio.  It was heartwarming to hear stories from the guys about what a good firefighter she is.  I heard comments like, "She's always the first one into a fire and the last one out," or "I worked with her - she's great!  I'd work with her again."  

In the early days of The Archive, I delivered a few photographs to Engine 4, Ladder 15 on South Street in lower Manhattan.  The fire house lost 14 of its members on 9/11. Rocky, a captain on the engine, served as the primary coordinator of memorials and tributes for the families of those men.  

She saw my photos and grabbed them from a guy to look at.  She made jokes about how ugly he is and how he probably couldn't take a good picture if he tried.  But when she saw the photo I'd taken of him she was surprised.  She told him that I must be a good photographer if I could make him look handsome.  

Not long after, Rocky called me and asked me to return to her station to take a full company photo.  She was coordinating a private screening for her station of the 9/11 documentary filmed by Jules and Gedeon Naudet, two brothers from France.  The documentary would eventually be seen on CBS but first a few firefighters would get to see it together in their fire houses.  All members of the engine and truck companies would be present - a good time to plan a photo.

Rocky became my friend and guide through FDNY.  I called her my moral compass.  It was extremely important to me that all my actions and deeds be seen has honorable and respectful of the integrity and culture of the fire service.  If I had doubts about how to respond to a request or what to do in a tough situation, Rocky had the answer.  When the New York Times wanted to do a story about me, Rocky called the commissioner's office and explained why she thought they should give approval.  Several more interviews followed, including an interview on The Today Show.  I asked Rocky to do the interview with me.

Many have written about her life in the fire department.  I've been honored to be able to provide some of the photographs of her life in the service, including those I've taken of Rocky as a captain, as a battalion chief, and with her late husband Jon, a highly respected firefighter.  

We have pictures of Chief Jones with the other fire fighters in her family including her father, her stepson, brother-in-law and her nephew.  All are or have served in the FDNY.

Rocky asked me to attend her promotion ceremony and take a few photos.  The department sent out press releases to let the media know about the historic moment.  I walked into the auditorium wearing fully loaded, professional camera equipment around my neck.  I was immediately greeted by an earnest young woman who escorted me to a front row seat that had been reserved for the press.  Several friends who were also being promoted during the ceremony rushed over and asked me to take their photo, too.

As the moment approached, I got up from my chair and walked up to the front edge of the stage.  A perfect place to get the right photo.  But as Rocky began to step across the stage to shake the commissioner's hand, members of the press leaped forward and tried to knock me out of the way.  They play rough.  But I fought back and held my place.  

After the ceremony, Rocky introduced me to Commissioner Nick Scopetta as her "personal photographer."  We laughed at that one later on.

Rocky's promotion was a proud and memorable moment for all the women of FDNY.  Some of them carried signs and waved them energetically. Their cheers shook the auditorium when Rocky stood center stage for her moment in history.  But the impact reached far beyond New York City.

A few years later, I met and photographed a young, female firefighter in California who, according to her captain, is a bright and rising star in Cal Fire.  She was looking over my portfolio and stopped at the photo of Rocky.  After studying it for a moment, she held up the book to show it to the guys at the station.  "That's going to be me one day," she said.  "A battalion chief!"

No doubt she will.  The path will be easier thanks to Rocky and so many other brave and determined women across the country who helped break down some of the barriers.