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Books

'Firehouse' by David Halberstam

New insights into unimaginable loss

Sunday, July 14, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

 
 

Firehouse

By David Halberstam

Hyperion
$22.95

   
 

At 68, David Halberstam is still the best and the brightest reporter in the business. Nobody writes profiles with more style, care and command. Halberstam is as good as ever in his sad, riveting, first-rate account of one Manhattan firefighting crew on the worst day in New York City’s history.

Thirteen men from the unit hurried to the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Twelve died. The other was grievously injured and wracked with guilt about surviving.

Halberstam grew to like the firemen of Engine 40, Ladder 35 as he dug into their lives and, in most cases, their deaths.

Readers will like them, too. The book is rich in details about their families, their hobbies, their hopes and fears and failings.

In cynical times, the firemen were in many ways innocents.

 
 
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A number of them gave up careers on Wall Street or in higher-paying blue-collar trades for life in the firehouse. Their reasons were simple and stirring: They loved the dangerous job they did, and they were willing to die so strangers could live.

This book is the leanest of Halberstam’s 18. It runs just under 200 pages -- usually just a good warmup for him. Even so, this book has all the details a reader would want, except for an index.

Halberstam wrote it with the speed he showed 40 years ago, when he was a young newspaperman reporting on bigotry in Tennessee and war in the Congo. Yet the portrait of each firefighter captures the essence of the man.

Perhaps the most compelling character in the book is Frank Callahan, the firehouse captain. Callahan rarely spoke, yet his men followed him into infernos without flinching. They knew he would take the hardest and most hazardous jobs himself.

When somebody screwed up while fighting a fire, Callahan never screamed about it. Instead, back at the firehouse, he would take the offender aside and simply stare at him for minute after torturous minute. This technique created such shame that the firefighter promised himself he would never again displease his captain.

Halberstam’s rapport with the families was so strong that he shook loose the best anecdotes about the rest of the men, too.

The writer made his reputation in journalism by exposing the American military hierarchy in Vietnam as a contemptible pack of liars in “The Best and The Brightest.”

But this book reveals that he would much prefer to show the good side of people than the bad. The firemen all had flaws, but their talent and humanity overshadow the shortcomings.

That is the real beauty of “Firehouse.” It shows that we lost much more Sept. 11 than we realized.

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