The Bonus Book of the Week is “Strong of Heart, Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York” by Thomas Von Essen, published in 2002.
The bulk of the book recounted 9/11 through the author’s eyes. At the time, he was the Fire Commissioner of New York City, overseeing about sixteen thousand firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and civilians at the then-240 fire stations across the city. The deaths of firefighters on 9/11 numbered 343.
Additional workers passed away due to illness in the months and years following that disastrous day. The author admitted that the men who aided in the recovery effort refused to wear equipment that would have prevented their exposure to toxins at Ground Zero– the location of the tragedy. Goggles, masks, hard hats and respirators were uncomfortable and hindered communication.
The fire department consists of two divisions: the ladder company, which searches for and rescues victims, and the engine company that operates the hose that puts out the fire.
In 1970, at Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx, the author began firefighting at 24 years old, but still wasn’t sure he wanted to make that his career. The alarms were nonstop every shift in those days; many fires were made worse by fire-code violations of slumlords, and the proliferation of poorly constructed wooden buildings.
The author soon realized he enjoyed the unpredictable nature of the job, and the ego satisfaction he got from saving lives. He got elected president of his union in 1993. This allowed him to get to know every borough’s firehouse and politician in the city and state.
Read the book to learn of the author’s trials and tribulations in his chosen profession; what he was able to accomplish as an officeholder in the fire department with the help of his ultimate boss and friend, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani; and why firefighters were less than thrilled with the late former mayor Ed Koch in the late 1980’s.