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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.

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