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Firefighter

Steven Schnur

September 15, 2001

He would be embarrassed by this tribute, so I won’t mention his name, though many in the community now know he was among the courageous firefighters who rushed to the scene of the World Trade Center disaster on September 11 and remain there still, searching for victims, extinguishing fires, sifting through the rubble, and providing America with an example of heroism that has reignited our national pride.

Last week, between twelve-hour shifts at Ground Zero, he took time to address a crowded gymnasium overflowing with high school students about the rescue effort and about the ways, they, too, could help. And for a few moments students, teachers, and parents sat utterly silent, transfixed by loss and by goodness.

As he came forward to speak, dressed in the blue FDNY fatigue shirt that has become a symbol of selfless courage, he was greeted by deafening applause. Eleven hundred students and teachers rose to honor this quiet, self-effacing man, many with tears in their eyes. He raised his hands as if to fend off the ovation as undeserved, but the students would not be deterred. Finally, he bowed his head in submission, touched by their tribute, his own eyes growing momentarily glassy.

I stood by the door, as stirred by his bravery as by the students’ welcome, silently wishing the cheers would never end, that the nation, indeed the whole terror-stricken world, might resound with such praise, reminding us all that wherever evil dwells, goodness will rise to meet it. What we needed most at that moment was an opportunity to say thank you, to let this public-spirited man know how honored we felt to be in his presence, how proud we were of his devotion to others, how grateful we were for the revival of our lapsed patriotism.

It was a message we all needed to hear, confirming in us our growing conviction that terror had not subdued the nation but awakened America to its best self.

I first met him ten years ago when a few local fathers decided it was time to initiate our seven-year-old daughter in the art of softball. He often arrived at the ballfield straight from a night spent battling flames, his close-cropped hair smelling of smoke, his eyes weary but full of light.

On more than one occasion he joined us, having just carried a stranger to safety. For those of us living among stockbrokers and business executives, doctors, and lawyers, he offered a rare perspective. Having chosen to devote himself to public service, he lived with the daily risks and rewards of rescue work. More than once of his colleagues had raced into burning buildings never to return. And more than one of his “saves” had returned to the firehouse years later to thank him for their lives.

When early reports of missing firefighters began to circulate the morning of September 11, he was first in our thoughts. Though he was stationed in the Bronx, we knew he would rush to the scene. We called his home but reached only an answering machine. “Just let us know you’re safe,” we asked.

Two days later he called to say he’d been at Ground Zero for the last forty-eight hours, desperately searching for missing comrades, five from his own company. After a few hours’ rest, he would be returning to continue the search, grateful for the outpouring of support, for the donated food and supplies, and for the cheering crowds greeting those who entered and left the scene each day. When I asked what more we could do, he said only, “We need your prayers.” Nothing could efface the incalculable human toll.

A week later, just before addressing the students, he said privately, “I’ve lost a hundred buddies.” By then the number of fallen firefighters had jumped to an incomprehensible 350. This was no mere statistic to him, but the world he lived, a world that eschewed personal gain for public safety. In an instant he had lost the better part of that vital, caring community.

When the students’ applause finally ebbed, he began to speak of what he’d witnessed and felt during those first terrible days, the hope of rescue that still glimmered among his men alongside a grim determination to recover every last fallen brother. And then he told them what America needs most just now: young people willing to serve their communities and the nation, acts of simple human kindness, and the trust that what we value most will endure.

It was a message we all needed to hear, confirming in us our growing conviction that terror had not subdued the nation but awakened America to its best self. What mattered now were not words but deeds of the kind this quiet neighbor has long modeled—selfless, benevolent acts that have restored our faith in community and in humanity. In time of terrible darkness, he has helped rekindle the national flame.

God bless you, Frank!

© Steven Schnur

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