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Thread: From a New Orleans News Paper PART 1

  1. #1
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    Nov 2001

    From a New Orleans News Paper PART 1

    By Keith O'Brien
    Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

    NEW YORK -- They call it the firehouse in the ghetto. They can call it the ghetto, this area in the rusted shadow of the subway line in Brooklyn, because it's their ghetto. They have protected it, even as they have dodged bullets in the street. They have fought the fires here, even when it seemed no one else cared. They wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
    But Capt. Rocco Rinaldi, of Brooklyn Engine Co. 283, would just assume that most people would rather avoid their stop on the subway line. If someone wanted to honor New York firefighters, he figured, they would go to Manhattan and stand under the shimmering skyline, instead of coming to Brownsville, Brooklyn, to standamong the walls of graffiti.
    So when they first got word about the new fire truck from Louisiana, the men at Engine 283 didn't make much of it. It was just a truck, they thought, just another donation in a parade of donations made to the New York City Fire Department since the terrorist attacks brought down the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. They figured it was a political thing, one of those deals where all the politicians could give speeches, use fancy words, thank everyone for coming and then leave Brownsville to get back to Manhattan before lunch.
    But it didn't happen that way, and now the firefighters pass time between calls sitting in the kitchen of the firehouse, talking about the day the truck from Louisiana arrived in Brooklyn.
    They grab Hubig's pies from the counter and recall how there must have been at least 100 people at the firehouse that day, how the people from Louisiana cooked enough jambalaya for an entire borough, how a governor they had never heard of shook their hands, looked them in the eyes, and told them how much the people in his state cared about their firehouse.
    They loved that governor, wanted to buy him a beer, take him out and just hang with him. They wanted to talk to him, talk to everyone, and find out how these people could care so much about them, care enough to bring them a fire truck, when they didn't even know them, hadn't even been there. They didn't understand it.
    Maybe, Rinaldi later thought, the firefighters had spent too many months buried in their own grief to realize that other people in other states were grieving there with them. Maybe that's why they hadn't expected much. Even Marc Morello, the brother of the only man from Engine 283 to die in last September's terrorist attacks, hadn't expected what he saw at the firehouse that day.
    But as the speeches ended and the bagpipes began and Morello shook the hand of a governor he had never heard of, the men emerged from inside themselves and realized something for the first time. They hadn't been there, these people from Louisiana. But they were there now, crying with them, laughing with them, sharing different tales from a similar story.
    And Morello found himself lingering to hear it. He found himself not wanting to leave these people, people he didn't even know. He went back for seconds, then thirds, of jambalaya, while around him men built for pain, men built strong enough to fight a fire while sopping wet on the coldest night of the year, hugged each other and kissed each other and cried.

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    Nov 2001

    Part 2

    It began with Gov. Foster's weekly radio show back in September. Callers suggested that Louisiana replace the equipment that firefighters had lost when the towers collapsed.
    There was plenty that needed replacing.
    According to New York City officials, the fire department lost a total of 92 vehicles that day, including 15 ladder trucks, 18 engines, 11 rescue squads and 10 ambulances. It would cost an estimated $47 million to replace them all.
    Foster told the callers that he would look into the idea, and within a month he launched "Bucks for Trucks." It would be a private fund-raiser, state officials said, private money donated by private businesses and ordinary citizens. Word got around.
    Plumbers raised money. Teachers and students wrote checks. Homes for the elderly held bake sales and firefighters across the state stood at stoplights shaking boots. People gave ones, fives, and tens. The money piled up, eventually exceeding the $330,000 needed to buy the new fire engine and totaling more than $945,000.
    Officials said the state would use the cash overflow to buy more equipment for New York in the months ahead. Meanwhile, in mid-December, the first truck, dubbed "The Spirit of Louisiana," left New Orleans and rolled northeast toward its new home in Brooklyn.
    Rinaldi was waiting for it. He knew the truck was coming; he had been informed about the plans for a ceremony of some kind later that week, the week before Christmas. But even as state troopers from Louisiana and New York made a security sweep at the firehouse three days before the truck's arrival, Rinaldi didn't fully understand all the excitement.
    "We didn't know," he said.
    In the weeks to come, that would change. The firefighters would begin to realize that the truck had done more than just make the drive from Louisiana to New York; it had actually in some way connected the two and, more specifically, connected Louisiana to a little corner in Brooklyn in the shadow of the subway line.
    People from Louisiana mailed letters there. Some, visiting New York, even dropped by. They wanted to see the truck that was now more than just a 29-foot, 21-ton hunk of marine-grade aluminum on wheels. They wanted to hear the story that had become their story.
    But before the truck arrived, the firefighters at Engine 283 didn't know any of this. They didn't even know why they had been chosen to receive the truck. Like many other companies, they hadn't lost their rig when the airplanes crashed into the towers and the towers came tumbling down.
    They had lost a man.
    His name was Vincent Morello.

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    PART 3

    The new guy arrived at the firehouse in the ghetto in February 2000. He was just another hopeful pledge on probation -- a "probie" -- wanting to join up with this fraternity of fire. He would have to pay his dues first, and the probie knew that. Vincent Morello had been raised in New York firehouses.
    His father, John, worked in them for 34 years. He had climbed up the ranks and become a battalion chief. But he always found time for his boys, Marc and Vincent. He would bring them into the firehouse after school and on weekends, and they would scamper from floor to floor. They would play games and turn the place into their own private jungle in the middle of the city while the firefighters, the men who would become their second family, ran off periodically into the face of danger.
    The Morello boys didn't understand that then. They knew their father fought fires. But they didn't see the danger. They only saw the happiness. Their father always seemed happy. Everyone at the firehouse seemed happy.
    It was an image that stuck with them as the boys grew up, took jobs that paid the bills, and settled into comfortable mediocrity. Marc got a job as a sales manager for a cookie company. It was miserable work, "a horrible, horrible business," he explained. But for 10 years, he said he ran routes, went to supermarkets, handled cookie accounts, and nearly went mad from the boredom of it all.
    Vincent, on the other hand, had a mind for carpentry. He could fix anything with his hands, some tools and a little time. He became a mechanic for the fire department, repaired the trucks, and made enough money to support his wife, Debi; two kids, Justin, 8, and Paige, 5; and the lifestyle he wanted.
    But something was missing, Marc Morello said, something that left the brothers feeling hollow inside. So when their father brought home applications to join the fire department, the brothers filled them out, took the test and waited for the call. They waited for years, just two more names on a waiting list of more than six thousand, until they finally got called -- Marc in 1996 and Vincent in 2000. For Marc, it was a no-brainer. He had no kids. He hated his sales job. He could take a pay cut, if he had to. For his brother, however, it was different.
    "He had two kids. He was making probably $30,000 or $40,000 more a year" as a mechanic, said Marc Morello. "He had to change his finances. He had to prepare for it."
    But when the call came, Vincent Morello didn't hesitate. He took his assignment at Engine 283 and did whatever he needed to do. When ordered to go check the rig, he went out and crawled beneath it. He would fix anything on the fire truck, the firefighters said, do anything they asked, because, as he often told them, "It's more fun to ride on them than under them. I've been under them long enough."
    Like all probies, Vincent Morello had to take a rotation in Manhattan. So on a bright sky morning in September, Morello found himself not with his brothers in Brooklyn, but on temporary assignment to Ladder 35 in Manhattan.
    When the alarm bell rang on Sept. 11, Vincent Morello, 34, picked up his gear and got on the truck. He had just finished his shift. He'd been relieved. He apparently could have gone home. .
    Marc Morello said his brother hated Manhattan, wouldn't even go there for dinner, even when he could afford it. He was guy who would have rather worked in Brooklyn, at Engine 283, than anywhere else, he said.
    But Morello was a fireman. When the alarm came in, he stayed, got on the truck and drove south toward the burning buildings in the sky.

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    PART 4

    There was no volume on the television on Rinaldi's desk, no sound whatsoever. There was only the image: seven stories on fire, smoke spilling skyward from the burning ribs of the towering structure. And then, there was this thought: We're going. Whatever it is, whatever happened, we're going.
    Rinaldi called his wife and told her that. He told her that she might not hear from him for a while. Then he hung up the telephone and began to learn more details about what had happened to one tower, then the other. He found out about the planes -- one, then the other. The department issued a total recall, the first that many remembered in at least 20 years, and hundreds of able-bodied, off-duty firefighters, including Marc Morello, gathered at Engine 283 in Brooklyn.
    But by then the rescue mission had turned into a recovery assignment. The buildings had come down and Rinaldi had a new thought on his mind. Hundreds of firefighters are in the rubble, he thought, and he would know them. He knew he would know hundreds. Rinaldi, 45, had been around too long not to. He had talked too much to too many people because he was a talker, the guy that slaps your back and sits you down for a drink, and talks. He had made fighting fires his life and it wasa good one. And to think, he almost held a desk job.
    It makes him laugh just thinking about it -- a loud, booming laugh that lifts the room and twirls it around. But 22 years ago, Rinaldi said he was an engineer with a firm in Manhattan. He spent his days doing the same thing, calculating angles, filling his mind with thoughts about math and physics, until he couldn't think anymore and went out to lift weights.
    He lifted a lot then, he said, so much so that his girlfriend at the time suggested that he take the firefighter's test. Rinaldi, then just 22, didn't know much about fire-fighting. He wasn't part of the fraternity like so many others who choose the profession. His father was a sanitation worker. But Rinaldi liked the challenge of the idea, so he took the test. He surprised himself when he actually passed and took the job.
    Maybe it was what his father had told him. "Rocco," he recalls his dad saying, "you can always go back to what you're doing." So Rinaldi said he quit, signed on to the department, and never thought about it again. He became a firefighter because it was exciting, because there would be something different every day, because he wouldn't have to sit at a desk and watch the world pass him by.
    And he found everything he was looking for at Engine 283. It wasn't the kind of place that Hollywood stars and recording artists preferred to visit after the Sept. 11 attacks. It's short on a glamour, this garage next to a revival church in Brownsville.
    But they get fires here. And that's the way Rinaldi and the other firefighters at 283 like it. They came here, then stayed here, because they wanted to be busy. Rinaldi always wanted to be busy. So as the buildings came down and morning turned to mid-day, he and others set up a command center at Engine 283. They needed to account for the hundreds of off-duty firefighters getting on buses and heading downtown to the hole in the earth where the World Trade Center once stood.
    Marc Morello was among them. He hoped to find his brother.

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    PART 5

    At the staging area near ground zero, they waited. The firefighters waited for authorities to secure other buildings that were still crumbling. Meanwhile, rumors swirled. Someone said another plane was coming and someone passed it along. Morello, 38, looked around. It didn't seem all too crazy a thought. There was nothing left where the towers had once stood. Nothing, he said, and he couldn't stop staring at it.
    "You're staring at it," he said. "You're looking at it and thinking,

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