Firehouses are closing?

Try telling Paddy Brown

The sign stood in the gray wet of yesterday morning, bearing the name of the fallen firefighter who spent sunnier Memorial Day weekends on the riverfront downtown from the United Nations.
"Capt. Patrick J. Brown Walk," the sign read.

Paddy Brown would bring two containers of coffee from the last mom-and-pop shop on E. 14th St. and sit by the ever-flowing East River as cars on the elevated FDR Drive behind headed for the beach or the country.

"This is better than the Hamptons," he would say.

Even on the annual weekend we are supposed to remember those who sacrificed all for their country, Brown was not likely to talk about his time as a Marine in Vietnam. He had to be pushed to offer even a cryptic memory or two of his horror at the violence of combat or his hurt at being welcomed home not as a hero, but as a war criminal.

"A baby killer," he once said.

Not that he was anything but proud of his service. He always wore a Marine Corps pin on his Fire Department dress blues, affixed to his chest along with the FDNY ribbons he won as a baby-saver.

Had he lived to see the war in Iraq, Brown would have scoffed at the French and Germans who sought to present economic and political self-interest as pacifism in the UN Security Council upriver from his spot. He would have been only proud of the U.S. service members who toppled Saddam Hussein's undeniably evil regime.

And, Brown would have taken heart in seeing them welcomed home as the heroes they are. He would have added his own smile to those greeting the Marines now strolling Manhattan during Fleet Week.

Even so, you can almost hear Brown make an observation from the world beyond about our war with Saddam's thugs.

"Those aren't the guys who killed me, ya know."

The guys who did kill Brown and nearly 3,000 other people in downtown Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, were Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Most of those guys remain at large. Nobody should be surprised by reports they are plotting another attack, quite possibly in New York.

What should shock any decent soul is that the same Fire Department that lost 343 members at the World Trade Center is being subjected to budget cuts in a time when another horror is a distinct possibility.

Unlike other sectors of government, the FDNY has always been a lean operation. Even a relatively small budget cut does not translate to losing a few office workers. It means closing firehouses.

To understand what a firehouse means to firefighters, you only needed to have been at Ladder 3's quarters on May 17. That was the day the company dedicated a memorial bearing the likenesses of Paddy Brown and the 11 other men of the house who perished at the twin towers. The present captain, Dan Browne, addressed the assemblage that spilled out onto E. 13th St.

"My fondest hope is that one day the youngest of our gathering will visit this place with their children and their children's children," Browne said. "Here, they will read the inscriptions and see the images, giving witness to the story of the brave men who gave their lives, striving to make a difference during the worst of times."

The unstated assumption was that the firehouse would stay a firehouse, that some study during a future budget crunch would not decree that Ladder 3 was an unnecessary expense, that holy ground would remain so.

Fortunately for those officials who might encounter Paddy Brown in the afterlife, Ladder 3 is not one of the houses slated to close today. Six other houses are, and this has to come as a blow, even to those firefighters who are not directly affected.

Compounding the pain

This follows the earlier blow of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.'s decision not to erect a separate memorial for the rescue workers who died at the Trade Center. The LMDC has to know this pains already heartbroken families of fallen rescue workers. There surely is a way to accord proper recognition to their loved ones without slighting the courage Port Authority workers and numerous other civilians demonstrated.

Twenty months after that terrible day, we arrive at a rainy Memorial Day weekend when members of the military are rightly treated as heroes, but a broke city is closing firehouses and Al Qaeda is threatening to attack again.

Meanwhile, you could always get two cups of coffee from the mom-and-pop shop and go down to Capt. Patrick J. Brown Walk, where the river keeps flowing rain or shine, just as firefighters keep dashing into danger like the heroes they are.

Originally published on May 25, 2003