Budget Burns the Bravest

April 16, 2003

The firefighters at Engine 278 in Sunset Park sat in front of a television yesterday and listened as Mayor Michael Bloomberg told them what they already knew - their goose is cooked.

They knew because the bantam billionaire told them Sunday morning that the clock was ticking on their beloved home away from home. Their firehouse, built in 1912, will be shuttered, perhaps forever, on May 22.

"It was depressing," said Bryan Horan, who has worked at Engine 278 for the past 14 years.

The mayor spent two hours Sunday at the firehouse on Seventh Avenue and 50th Street in Brooklyn. He had to walk through a door that told him he wasn't welcome.

"Mayor Bloomberg, Shame on You! You Have No Idea What We Do!" read the sign on the door. Under that was an epitaph for the many firehouses the mayor is closing in an effort to close the city's multibillion-dollar budget gap.

"Heroes to Homeless," it read.

Yesterday, the men sat around a table made by a retired firefighter. The mood was dark, even though spring had finally put in an appearance. The mayor's Palm Sunday visit had taken much of the fight out of them. "It's either I lay off firefighters or I close firehouses," he told them Sunday.

"He doesn't care about us," one of them said during the mayor's budget presentation.

The heart has been drained out of the once iconic firefighters. They are going through the motions, fighting fires. Yesterday they were waiting for what they called the "burning of the bread," a Passover ritual that requires their attendance for safety reasons.

Morale, one of them said, is "at its lowest ever."

The past 19 months have taken a toll. You cannot lose 343 of your comrades in one disaster and shake it off as just part of the job. There has been no tragedy in the department's history that comes close.

Then there were the funerals, day after day, the dirges, the eulogies, the mothers and wives weeping, the children frightened and bewildered.

"We argue with one another now and then we take our bad moods home and argue with our wives and children," Horan, 48, said.

His wife, Moira, has seen his disposition darken over the past year or so. After Deputy Mayor Marc Shaw said that firefighters were slackers, she wrote an impassioned letter to the mayor. "How dare you and the city turn around and treat these men in this manner? I truly cannot find the words to adequately express my anger, outrage and hurt at this treatment of these wonderful men," she wrote.

Firefighter Mike Leahy, 32, told me yesterday, "This is going to hurt the community here more than anyone else." Like many of the men in the company, he has a tattoo commemorating Sept. 11, 2001.

But there was little show of support from the community yesterday, even though a local newspaper proclaimed "Engine Co. 278 to Close."

Maybe that's because when the mayor's bean counters declare that a firehouse closing will mean only a minute or so in response time, people don't think it's a big deal.

Former firefighters like Dennis Smith, author of "Report from Engine Co. 82" and "Report From Ground Zero," say a minute can mean the difference between life and death.

"Fire travels real fast," said Smith, who spent 17 years fighting fires in the South Bronx. He cites the recent Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed nearly 100 men and women.

Inside the firehouse where she has come every day for the past 40 years, Lynn Aronson, 48, said she would miss the camaraderie of the firefighters who have "adopted" her. Aronson's mother started sending her over when she was a youngster.

"She loves this place," said firefighter Richard Vetland, 42.

The mood yesterday was heavy otherwise. The firefighters were the toast of the town for a few months. Not anymore.

"I used to look forward to coming to work," said Horan, who spent six months at Ground Zero looking for body parts. "Now it's an effort for me to come here. I have six years to go to retirement and I am looking forward to that.

"When the mayor walked out of the firehouse Sunday I felt like running out of there myself," he added. "This used to be my home, the people here my neighbors. Now I just don't care. I want out."