In Company of Best And Bravest

Halberstam's response to Sept. 11 is to focus on his local 'Firehouse'

Daily News Feature Writer

David Halberstam was out walking his Lakeland terrier in Central Park when the first plane hit on Sept. 11. He returned home to a phone message urging him to "turn on my television."

By then, 13 men from Engine 40/Ladder 35 at Amsterdam Ave. and 66th St., Halberstam's local firehouse, were already heading down the West Side Highway to the disaster from which only one of them would return alive.

"Everybody assumes they would not have made it down to the World Trade Center before the towers collapsed" under normal traffic circumstances, says Halberstam. But in the kind of historical irony he has explored in much of his work, the roadway was virtually empty. The firefighters arrived in plenty of time to perform acts of heroism and self-sacrifice before the devastation consumed them.

Those acts, but also the fabric of the firefighters' everyday lives, their families, their work rhythms and their down time are reported and chronicled in minute detail in Halberstam's new book, "Firehouse," due out from Hyperion Books on Friday.

In his books on Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, the media and car industries, or in his most recent work, "War in a Time of Peace," the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has tended to an almost Olympian perspective on his subjects. But with this one, Halberstam admits, "the idea that it was therapeutic is not to be underestimated."

"What happened on Sept. 11 happened to New York as a whole, " he says. "When something like this happens to the city, the family, the people you love, you want to do something."

Company firefighter Sean Newman, a former journalist, says, "He understood us from the beginning. We gave him our trust, and he never took anything we said out of context, and we always felt comfortable being truthful with him. [The book] is a testament to what those 12 men did."

The tall, casually well-dressed Halberstam, 67, is sitting in the kitchen of his imposing apartment overlooking a landmark block. He is as solemn and composed as ever, but there were moments during work on the book that he cried