FDNY's gift of life aces any other thrill

Roger Clemens was still abed and Funny Cide was still stabled as Lt. Bill Miccio of Ladder 23 raced through the early-morning darkness to a fire in Harlem.

The company arrived right behind Engine 80 to see smoke pouring from the first floor of 424 W. 146th St. A man was banging on the locked front door. A woman was screaming.

"My baby's in there!"

Firefighter Rob Carlo went to work on the front door so the engine company could run a hose line to the fire. Miccio strode over to the front window.

Somebody had tried to force open the window gate, and Miccio was able to push it in. He clambered into the smoke, and Firefighter James Smith followed with a fire extinguisher.

The people outside were shouting that the baby was in the back bedroom. Miccio and Smith started in that direction on their hands and knees. The heat and smoke are always least intense closest to the floor.

"Everywhere I go, I crawl," Miccio would later say. "Your knees hurt a little, but that's the way I was taught."

The fire was in the hallway just ahead, between them and the back bedroom.

"On the wall and over the ceiling," Miccio would report.

Smith brought the extinguisher to bear. The flames receded, but fire is not called the Red Devil for nothing. The very next instant could have seen the blaze flare into a ball of death.

"It's one of those moments in life," Miccio would say afterward.

This particular moment came just after 3 a.m. on a day that for Miccio had a meaning far beyond Clemens' attempt at a 300th win or Funny Cide's run for a Triple Crown. This was his 17th anniversary, and his wife, Lisa, was at home with their two young sons, ages 7 and 4.

"Taylor and James," Miccio would later note.

But there was that other mother out in the street, screaming that her baby was in the back bedroom.

"You know you got somebody there," Miccio said. "You got to make a move."

As any firefighter would, Miccio and Smith crawled in past the fire, demonstrating once again that the bravest acts are often performed on hands and knees. They were steadied by the knowledge that Engine 80 was running a hose line into the building.

Riskier undertaking

'When you know the engine company is coming in with the line, you take a little more of a risk," Miccio would say. "The engine is basically a lifeline. It's always a team effort."

Miccio's hand swept blindly ahead of him in what he would describe as a "decent smoke condition." His fingers then chanced upon a human form - not an infant, but a teenage girl sprawled unconscious on the floor.

"I tried to pick her up, pull her back out," Miccio would say. "Unfortunately, she was burned."

A badly burned person has to be moved with some delicacy, and Miccio called for help. Smith joined him along with Rob Carlo, who had forced his way through the front. Carlo had lost his brother, Michael, at the World Trade Center and yet here he was, not a heartbeat slower in dashing into danger.

The fiercely gentle Smith and Carlo carried the girl from the smoke and flames. Engine 80 stood ready with a charged line, thanks to having a full complement of five firefighters, not the four contemplated by budget cuts. Miccio remained in the apartment.

"I was still looking for a baby," Miccio would say.

Miccio's sweeping hands encountered no other human forms. The woman outside had been screaming with a mother's terror. A child in peril is a mother's baby, no matter what the age.

"That was the baby," Miccio would say.

The girl had been resuscitated in the exterior hallway by Engine 84. She was still alive when she was rushed to New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

"I'll say a couple of prayers and hopefully some other people will, too," Miccio said.

Miccio had returned to his firehouse at W. 139th St. and Amsterdam Ave. when Clemens rose to pitch his big game in Chicago and Funny Cide was walked from the stable for the big race at Belmont Park.

Out on Staten Island, off-duty firefighters were assembling at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church for the funeral of 22-year-old Michael Cammarata, the youngest comrade to die at the World Trade Center.

His remains had not been recovered, and the family decided to bury a vial of blood that he gave to a bone marrow program while still in the Fire Academy.

Mayor Bloomberg addressed the mourners and broke with the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.'s position that the Trade Center memorial make no distinctions among all those who perished.

He declared the memorial "must provide recognition to the firefighters, police officers and EMTs who, like Michael, fell saving the lives of others."

"Those who responded showed a courage, professionalism and devotion to duty the rest of us can only imagine," Bloomberg added.

Best gift of all

Back at Ladder 23 in Harlem, Miccio and others who continue to do what we can only imagine were praying that the teenager survives.

A terrified mother would then get back the teenager who would always be her baby.

"There's a smile inside of me bursting out," Miccio said. "I just hope this kid pulls through."

At the end of the tour, Miccio headed home with a dime-sized burn, but showered of soot. He hoped to tell his wife of 17 years about a triumph as big as a life on a rainy day when Clemens lost a game and Funny Cide lost a race. He could think of no better anniversary present.

"You're always trying to find the right gift," he said. "This would truly be special."

Originally published on June 8, 2003