Some time in the summer of 1989, the husband of a friend was driving on the 405 freeway between West Los Angeles and the northwest San Fernando Valley. Right there in the fast lane—which probably wasn't all that fast considering that it was the middle of the day—he suffered a massive heart attack. Fortunately, he was able to keep his car under control, and he died without causing injury to anyone else.
Not hurting anyone else would have been important to this man. You see, he was a captain in the Los Angeles Fire Department. And it would have been terrible if his last moments on Earth had caused some massive pileup that also killed the people he was sworn to protect.
Now, like most of the public, I had been led to believe that firefighters and cops hold each other in contempt. But I remember very vividly attending this man's funeral. When we drove away from the service on our way to the cemetery, the streets were lined with firefighters saluting their brother in arms. And there were cops on those sidewalks, too. Also offering a salute to a fellow public servant and first responder.
This bond between first responders was also seen on a much larger scale in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. When the towers came down, 343 New York City firefighters and 71 law enforcement officers died. For a time, New York firefighters and cops embraced each other in their grief. Maybe they are closer today than they would be because of that atrocity.
Today, as I write this column, the city of Charleston, S.C., is mourning the loss of nine of its firefighters. And I'm sure that many of the tears being shed are streaming from the eyes of every man and woman who wears a badge in that old, elegant Southern city.
It is often said that cops run to the sound of the guns and not away from them like everybody else. That action demonstrates great courage and dedication to duty.
Firefighters rarely face bad guys with guns. What they do face is fire. That also takes great courage.
Fire is an enemy so unpredictable and so destructive that to be caught in it is the nightmare of most people. It is a living, breathing monster with no conscience and no mercy. And when it is unleashed in a large building or a forest or a grassy prairie, there's only one way to stop it. You have to kill it before it kills you.
Unfortunately, sometimes fire wins the fight. That's what happened on the evening of June 18.
At around 6:30 p.m. that Monday night, fire broke out in the Sofa Super Store and warehouse on Savannah Highway in Charleston. Multiple engine companies were called to the scene. Firefighters donned heavy bunker gear and respirators in the 90-plus heat and went into the building to rescue trapped civilians and suppress the beast.
Nine of them never came out. After an hour and 15 minutes the fire swept through the building, weakening its roof and causing it to collapse. Some of the firefighters were lucky enough to crash through the windows on the ground floor; others were trapped in the rubble. One witness told the Charleston Post and Courier that a "30-foot tornado of flame" erupted from the building. Even onlookers were injured by the cascade of burning debris.
Imagine charging into this conflagration to rescue trapped civilians and fellow firefighters and you will earn new respect for your brothers in arms who carry an axe instead of a gun.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen told the Post and Courier, "The way to honor the sacrifice they made is to go back to work and make sure you live up to what they would do if they were still alive."
You won't find a more stirring tribute to firefighters spoken by a cop, nor a more appropriate one.