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Firehouse by David Halberstam
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Firehouse (2002)

by David Halberstam

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I love Halberstam's books and usually make an effort to read them as soon as they come out. His tragic death last year hit hard. This book I postponed reading until recently. I suppose the events of 9/11 needed to be viewed through the distance of time. Even with that lens, it was often difficult to forge on.

The Engine 40, Ladder 35 firehouse was close to where Halberstam lived in New York. Twelve of thirteen who left for the Twin Towers on that day were killed. Halberstam recounts what happened to the men (as best as one can tell) and their families. His book reinforces again how small random decisions often make the difference between life and death. One fireman had worked with a saw on helping a man with bicycle lock for which he had lost the key. During the use of the saw, it had slipped and cut the hand of a fellow firefighter. Because of that injury he wasn't on duty on 9/11. Everyone else was killed. Another man in a different company had a doctor's appointment. He was off duty. Or the story of some firefighters from a different firehouse who exited out of the North tower minutes before it collapsed. Some turned to the north, others to the south and west. Only those who turned north survived.

The impact on the families was huge, perhaps especially on the children who not only lost fathers, but often uncles and friends of the family as well since the firemen had particularly close relationships with other firefighters. Listening to the platitudes of politicians was particularly galling to many of the survivors with their pat encomiums.

These sketchy biographies are hagiographic. If you are looking for an expose or sordid details of one man's divorce or affair or whatever, you won't find it. And that's as it should be ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
This short book by the great David Halberstam looks at the terrible losses suffered by his local firehouse in New York on 9/11. ( )
  wanack | Jun 30, 2010 |
I just finished reading Firehouse, a book by David Halberstam about a New York City firehouse where 12 of the 13 men who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center died. The book is beautifully written, and manages to draw a vivid picture of the powerful bonds that unite firefighters with their comrades. It's almost unbearably sad, especially when I stopped to think that for all the impact of the stories of these 13 men, they are but a tiny fraction of the lives that were lost that day.

I would strongly recommend Firehouse to anyone who is interested in a glimpse at the impact of that day on the NYFD. There is little detail about the scene at Ground Zero because little is known about what, exactly, the men of Engine 40/Ladder 35 experienced there. The one member of the firehouse who survived did so with severe injuries, including a concussion, and his memories of the day are incomplete. Most of the book examines both the individual lives of the firefighters who died and the culture of brotherhood that is the modern firehouse.

As good as the book is, though, one thing did trouble me. Although Halberstam tries to portray the firefighters realistically there is still an element of sanctification about their individual lives and stories. There are hints, mere wisps of suggestions, that some of the men may have been less than perfect (in the ways that all of us are less than perfect), but the tone quickly reverts to unstinted admiration. The book was published less than a year after the attacks, so it's understandable that Halberstam did not have the luxury of distance to more objectively draw his portraits. It would be interesting to read an updated version of the book to see where the families and comrades of the firefighters are now, but that won't ever happen given that the author Halberstam was killed a couple of years ago in a traffic accident.

So why does Halberstam's idealization of the firefighters of Engine 35/Ladder 40 bother me? Because none of us are perfect, and by writing as if these men were, Halberstam diminishes their lives. There's no question that it takes a special kind of person to be a firefighter anywhere, let alone New York City, but to pretend they were perfect is as if to say that what they were — strong,tough, proud, brave, sure, but also impatient, angry, intolerant — was not good enough. But all of us deserve to be remembered for who we are, warts and all. Anything less is like watching only half of a movie, or reading random chapters out of a book. We are the sum of our thoughts and actions and emotions, and it's in the experiencing of the full spectrum of life that we are truly alive. ( )
2 vote rosalita | Dec 4, 2009 |
Firehouse tells the story of Engine 40 Ladder 35 who lost 12 fireman on September 11, 2001. Only one member survived with terrible injuries. It details the lives of each of these heroes, their duties; their families; and their jobs. ( )
  dara85 | Sep 28, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0786888512, Paperback)

Thirteen men from Engine 40, Ladder 35 firehouse initially responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; only one survived. Located near Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the firehouse was known for its rich tradition and strong leadership. This gripping book details the actions of the 13 men on that horrific day and the heartbreaking aftermath--the search for the bodies, the efforts of their families to deal with overwhelming grief, and the guilt and conflicting emotions of the surviving members of the firehouse. The book is also about the men themselves and the tight bond and sense of duty and honor that held them together. David Halberstam does a masterful job of illustrating the inner workings of a firehouse, with its traditions, routines, and complex social structure that in many ways resembles a "vast extended second family--rich, warm, joyous, and supportive, but on occasion quite edgy as well, with all the inevitable tensions brought on by so many forceful men living so closely together over so long a period of time." He also explains why so many men choose this life despite the high risk, relatively low pay, and physical and emotional demands of the job.

Halberstam and his family live three and a half blocks from Engine 40, Ladder 35, and he writes of these 13 men in such a loving and precise way that he could be describing members of his own clan. Deeply felt and emotional, Firehouse is a tribute to these decent, honorable, and heroic men and a celebration of their selflessness not only as firefighters but also as husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and friends. --Shawn Carkonen

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:53:32 -0400)

This book is about Engine 40, Ladder 35, located on the West Side of Manhattan near Lincoln Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two rigs carrying thirteen men set out from this firehouse, only one would return. The reader watches the day unfold as the men are called to duty while their families wait for new of them. One comes to understand the culture of the firehouse itself. Why gifted men do this and why in so many instances they are eager to follow in their father's footsteps and serve in so dangerous a profession. And why it is not just a job, but a calling as well.… (more)

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