With David Halberstam
Author and Journalist
Monday, June 3, 2002; Noon EDT
When terrorists flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, firefighters from all over New York City rushed to the scene -- including Engine 40, Ladder 35, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Thirteen men left the firehouse on two rigs headed for the scene; only one returned.
Author and journalist David Halberstam lives just a few blocks from Engine 40, Ladder 35, and chronicles the story of the men, their families, and why they do what they do in his new book, "Firehouse" (Hyperion Books, 2002). He was online Monday, June 3.
The transcript follows.
Halberstam is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Best & the Brightest," a chronicle of the men who planned and executed American policy in Vietnam. rise of The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and CBS, and portraits of the men and women who built them and made them run. He is also author of several other books, including "The Powers That Be"; "The Children"; "October 1964"; and "The Fifties."
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washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Mr. Halberstam, and welcome. What has been the reaction of the firefighters of Engine 40, Ladder 35 to your book? How are the firefighters there doing?
David Halberstam: They've been extremely generous about it. The relationships I've had there are extraordinary. I like the men there very very much and am very admiring of what they do and why they do it. It's been a rich addition to my personal life, and I'm equally admiring of the families and the way that the widows are handling their grief and loss.
It's hard for me to comment on how they feel about me, but I have a constant sense of welcome, and they have signalled to me that they feel that I have captured who they are and why their 12 colleagues did what they did.
I think it's a hard time there now. I think when you have an extended family like that, with that rare degree of intimacy, men who've worked with each other 15 or 20 years, lived with each other, eaten with each other daily, shared terrifying risk, and then one day you carve out 12 lives from that, it's devastating to any family. It's like being, I suppose, in a World War II platoon where one platoon is hit disproportionately. One day a large number of men are there, and the next they're gone. No one was prepared. I think they did well in the weeks after the tragedy, because there was so much to do. Digging out at Ground Zero, attending to the families and loved ones of their friends, trying to make a new firehouse -- they were all stretched thin, but there was so much to do. I think it's harder now, because there's less immediacy of pressure, and there's more time to think. Reality sets in, and the reality is this: they're never coming back. And that's hard. So I think this is a very tough time.
Baltimore, Md.: Did the men of Engine 40, Ladder 35 go and assist in the recovery efforts?
David Halberstam: They were all down there. And it was heartbreaking, because they all knew it was not going to happen. There were not going to be any of those voids where you might find someone still alive. At best, you were really looking for bodies.
Mike Kotula, one of the veteran firemen there, very very good guy, had a very interesting response. He found digging down there so painful emotionally that after the first day he took on an assignment that he virtually created himself. He answered the phone for the loved ones. Starting Wednesday through Sunday, really without a break, he answered the phones and talked to the families of the firefighters as they checked in.
Somehow it was comforting to the families that the same person answered the phone all the time, and he could adjust the nuance of what he would say to the family members. I think they dealt with this in different ways.
Washington, D.C.: You seem to have a genuine affection for these men. What drew you to them?
David Halberstam: I think they're extraordinary. It isn't just the bravery, which I admire. It's a profound sense of civic virtue, of trying to save lives. These are all men who could make two or three times as much money doing something else -- they're smart, they have skills, they're talented -- and they do this because they love doing it. I think it has a real religiosity to it, that you are willing to lay down your life for utter strangers. When I was a young man in Vietnam, you saw a lot of bravery. Generally in combat, you see guys trying to rescue their buddies. These guys are ready to do it every day for strangers. I don't think you can understand firemen in a place like New York or Boston without understanding the culture of it.
I once asked Capt. Jim Gormley about the religiosity, and he said, "Yes, we all have our daily conversation with God. Do we do it for God? Not really. But it's in there and it's a part of the mix -- that you are supposed to be doing something worthwhile with your life and larger than yourself."
They're raucous, funny, zestful men -- there's a kind of firehouse humor that's edgy and really funny. There's a kind of old-fashioned earthiness there. I feel really comfortable there.
One of the things that's really interesting about is that here are guys who can't afford to live in Manhattan, yet they come in here and are willing to save the lives of people in a neighborhood where they can't afford to be. That's magical. When you live in Manhattan, as I do, you're overwhelmed on all sides by people who are doing things for their own material reward. So the contrast really striking.
It's what I call the nobility of ordinary people. I think it's crucial to a democracy. And if you're a reporter that's why you keep doing it. Democracy is premised, I think, on the idea that there is a capacity of ordinary people to rise to the occasion at critical moments and to do the right thing. It happens again and again -- and it's something you get to see as a reporter when you have a long career. Are they ordinary? Yes. And on occasion are they noble? Yes yes. That allows a journalist not to be callous, and not to be dark. I found doing this book very rewarding. I have not liked being a reporter so much in a very long time. It reminded me of being a young reporter in Vietnam -- and that's 40 years ago next month.
Norristown, Pa.: Dear Mr. Halberstam,
In October my friend and I visited New York. We took some small gifts and pies with the intent it leave them at the firehouse nearest our hotel. To our surprise it was Engine 40, Ladder 35. Next week I may have the opportunity to make a visit, again. Do the firemen like people visiting, or does it make it harder for them? Thank you for the article in Vanity Fair and the book.
David Halberstam: I think they like it. I think they like the connection to the community. I think people coming by, as you suggest, helps validate in their minds what they do. They're a part of the community and they like it when they feel the community can reach out and touch them, in a non-crisis situation. I think they like people coming by.
I tell the story in the book of Jimmy Giberson, who was really one who they considered a great firemen, and was one of the dominating personalities of the firehouse. A big, strong, thoughtful, dedicated man. And I tell how Jimmy liked to start his day by going out in front of the firehouse every morning with a cup of coffee, say at about 7:30 or 8, and watching the city go by. Young men and women on their way to work -- as if he could reach out and touch them -- and had a sense that these were the people he was supposed to save. And it was a source of strength for him, watching and being among them.
After the tragedy, the other firemen noticed that there was a young woman who came by and seemed very moved by it all. And she kept coming by every day. And they finally said, did you know one of the firemen? And she said not really, but there was always one fireman who always said hello to her and she said hello to him. She felt she knew him, and she pointed to a picture of Jimmy Giberson, and she felt that he was her personal fireman.
Long Beach, Calif.: Do you feel as though the mythification of the working class in regards to the WTC is realistic or simply a maudlin ploy to pull on heartstrings and confuse the real issue of Wall Street vs. the world's poor? Is it easier to sympathize with the death an Irish fireman than a day-trading bond broker?
David Halberstam: I think there are moments in life when you have to drop ideology. And you have to look for humanity in its most elemental, and in this case, I think, most remarkable form. I did the firehouse book and the firehouse article because I'm a New Yorker, and it was an attack upon where I live and the values that are important to me. And because the most lasting image of that day will always be of everybody else fleeing the building, and the firemen going in. And I think that's what most Americans respond to. I think that there is an awareness that you have in New York, or in any venue, when something like this happens, that you are part of a community. It's easy to forget that in other times, and to be more selfish, and to be concerned with narrow, more material or more ego-centric matters, and not to see the faces of so many people upon whom you are dependent. And because of whose sacrifices your life is easier. When you have something like the World Trade Center, it makes you much more aware of the invisible part of the iceberg of the community. Not just the firemen, or the cops or the other public officials, but the guys who work the pizza stands -- all those people in the kitchens, some of them, probably many of them, without green cards. And what happens when it's over -- and it's not just me -- the sense of a heightened awareness that you're part of a community and that you owe something. Before it all happened, I used to say that I was a New Yorker. Now I feel differently. I feel like I'm a citizen of New York, because I feel a stronger sense of community.
Harrisburg, Pa.: There has never been an event such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. We watched on live television as the World Trade Center and surroundings buildings collapsed. You are a resident on Manhattan. If I may, what were your thoughts that day? Were you in Manhattan that day? When did you decide to write this book, and did you know any of the fire fighters prior to writing this book?
David Halberstam: I was in Manhattan that day. I'd come in the night before from lecturing at Drew University. And oddly enough, I guided in through the twin towers. I walked my dogs in the park, and a friend of mine named John Gregory Dunne called and said turn on the television. First, what struck me was that the immunities of America, which had protected it from the carnage of so much of the rest of the world over the last very bloody century, had finally run out. There were no immunities any more. The darkest part of the world had come to us. I remember thinking as well that it could have been worse -- that it could have been a nuclear or biological weapon, something I had long feared and had written about in the book that was being published that year. And I remember thinking of the irony of 39 or 40 years later that in order to sample the conflicts of our time, I had volunteered to go 12,000 miles to Vietnam as a young reporter. And now in my 60s, that conflict had come home, to within four miles of where I lived.
And I knew that I wanted to do something about it. Any New Yorker had this feeling that I want to do something. I don't know what it is that I have that will be of use, but I want to be involved. So when the editors of Vanity Fair asked me to go to the firehouse, and the men at the firehouse made it clear that I would be welcome, from that moment it was very clear to me that I wanted to do this. That in some odd way that I didn't understand at the time but I understand better now, that it was therapeutic for me. And I also understood maybe a week into doing it that it wasn't just a magazine article, that it should be a small book. That I had found something worth writing about in a bit more length.
Vienna, Va.: Mr. Halberstam,
Firehouse does an excellent job of capturing the quiet, unpretentious courage of the men of 40/35 and provides keen insight into the world of New York City firefighters. As the son of a retired New York City firefighter and the brother of another (my older brother is a lieutenant with FDNY Rescue 1), I especially enjoyed your observation of the firefighter ethic embodied in the simple phrase, "Doing the right thing." In a world of spin, equivocation and qualification, this simple, always practiced, philosophy seemed preciously rare to me. And most noble. For those who have not yet read your book, can you comment on this insight based on your experiences with the men of 40/35?
David Halberstam: I think it's elemental what they do, which is it's not what you say you do, it's what you do. You can't strut around in a firehouse. You can't come back from a fire and do a lot of bragging. Everybody knows. Everybody was there, everybody knows who did the right thing and who didn't. It's a rare spin-free zone.
One of the great new growth industries in America is spin. That is, maximizing the reputations of people whose deeds are in fact often inconsequential in terms of larger value to the society. In fact, you could set up a theorem: the less consequential the person, the deeds and the profession, i.e., movies, television, sports, the more likely the person is to have a professional, full-time public relations assistant. And that doesn't wash at a firehouse. And so the code, "Do the right thing," the knowledge that everybody there knows who did the right thing and who didn't, is an extraordinary part of the culture. And something that was, for someone tired of dealing with public relations people, quite thrilling.
I like to operate on the theory that if you do the right thing, in my own profession, people will know. If you go out every day and try to do one more interview for one more book, in the end it will be part of the signature of your work. That you don't have to shout in front of a television camera, as some modern TV people seem to think. Just do it. I found that part of the culture very comforting.
New York, N.Y.: Good afternoon, Mr.Halberstam.
I was in the city, though not downtown when Sept. 11 happened. I recall the day and its immediate aftermath as a time of complex, morbidly beautiful and rich, if very painful and sorrowful, emotion. I recall when this period ended: It was the day Rudolph Giuliani, for whom I had suddenly been filled with respect, to my surprise, declared that he was seeking an extension on his term. Since that day, Sept. 11 has rapidly become cheapened by jingoists, like Bush and gang and other patriotism hucksters. I wonder if you have observed a similar cheapening of the meaning of the event.
David Halberstam: I think the meaning of the event is private. And each person has his or her own definition. And whatever the first and subsequent truth of it, that truth probably doesn't change very much. Because this is America. And because we are much given to hype -- in fact, even as I am answering this question I am participating in hype. It's really more a matter of how you go about it. And about tone. I think the mayor did a wonderful job in those immediate weeks, and he really did speak for the city and probably for the country. As for his momentary impulse to stay in office longer than the constitutional mandate, that passed and it's probably just as well. I think the good thing is just to try and remember him at his best in those immediate first few days, which was the ultimate test when he represented the best in the city.
Arlington, Va.: What sort of means do these guys have for coping? Do they tend to be the kind of people who will go and seek counseling or some way to deal with this, or are they more likely to bury the pain of it to keep going?
David Halberstam: I think counseling is in general somewhat alien for them. I think the other side of the strength of the codes that make the firehouse so attractive -- the virtues, the sense of honor -- is that you're not supposed to show weakness, or you're not supposed to show doubt or fragility. I think it's hard for some of them. They're trying to, but it's really alien.
Washington, D.C.: Can you talk about what the lives of firefighters are like day in and day out? How do they make peace with the idea that they're working in such danger?
David Halberstam: They know the risks. They never thought the risks would be that high. The apocalyptic moment. An event that was just barely sub-atomic in its awesome intensity. They are prepared every day for a very bad fire. And a very bad fire is one where you would lose, at the worst, one or two men from the house. This was different. I think the codes are so deeply graven into them -- respect for the command, respect for the leadership, taking care of each other -- that they are able to overcome what on some occasions for most people would be paralyzing fear. One of the key things in a firehouse is the role of the officer and the need on their part in whatever danger, in the worst kind of crisis, to stay calm. Because if they're not, and if they show fear, it will ripple right through the men. And so the men will say of an officer, "He's a very good officer. He always stayed calm." I think officers in the fire department are very interesting, and they're different from officers in, say, the police department. In the police department, generally, if you're an officer, the higher you rise, the further you are from the immediacy of danger. But in the firehouse, the captain is the first in, by tradition, and the last out. What's absolutely fascinating about the men of 40/35 are the video clips I've seen that were shot just as both the men of the engine and separately, the men of the truck, as they entered the buildings at a moment when they had to know how terrible it is. And that there was a very good chance that they might all die. And yet those images, and I've studied them, are of undaunted men, stoic of manner, ready to do their job. Quite amazing to me.
Baltimore, Md.: How is your book of benefit to the men and their families and not exploitative thereof?
David Halberstam: Reporters report. And they take terrible events and they write about them. The remaining men at the firehouse after Sept. 11 wanted someone to memorialize the men who had died. And they wanted a writer to come in. They apparently had several names of different writers, and the person they wanted to do it, apparently, was me. And they and the widows all accepted me for a variety of reasons. I guess, previous books of mine that they had read, and perhaps the way I went about it, and the kinds of questions they asked. But there was, from the start, an extraordinary trust and acceptance. What I tried to do in the book, in terms of not being exploitative, was just to write about the men and who they were as honestly as I could. In addition, from the start, we suggested giving a significant portion of the author's royalties to the different families, so that that would not be an issue.
Washington, D.C.: What struck me was the idea of generational firefighters -- those who are in the "family business," following their fathers and grandfathers into becoming firefighters. Why do you think so many firefighters have such a strong family connection to it?
David Halberstam: It's almost like there's a firefighter DNA. The father of Michael Roberts, one of the young men who died, is a former fire captain, and he told me something very interesting. When he was a young man, you went into the fire department because you didn't have a lot of education, and there was nothing else you could do. But of the men of 40/35, he said, we gave them a better life [more education, etc.], and they still wanted to do it.
When his son Michael wanted to become a firefighter even though he went to college, Tom Roberts said to Michael, are you sure you want to do it? Michael said yes. Because you always came home from work happy. I think that's very important -- their fathers liked their work and were proud of it.
Angie Callahan, the widow of Capt. Frank Callahan, said where else in a time of peace can a man be brave? I think they really liked what they did. I think it allows them lives that they feel proud about. They love what they do, and are proud to do it. There's a real elan of the firehouse. And a sense of camaraderie. It's very attractive.
St. Leonard, Md.: Thank you for documenting the story of the men of 40 and 35. I am a firefighter here in D.C. and we have the Brothers on our minds as well as their families. Thanks again.
David Halberstam: One wonderful thing about firemen is that they're brothers to each other. You go over to the firehouse and there's always someone visiting. From Norway. From Italy. From San Antonio, Chicago, wherever. They do the same things. They understand this job and this life.
When the book was coming out, I was going up to the Kennedy School to lecture. The guys of 40/35 are connected to Ladder 4 of the greater Boston area. And there were about 30 guys from the 40/35 in the audience. There's a sense of powerful kinship that's very attractive.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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