Sunday, October 07, 2001


Heroism is in fire chief's job description

        Everyman is an American hero now, straight and true, leaving for work as he has each day for 28 years, his wife squeezing him, smiling, remembering his face, because, well, you never know. “Be careful,” she says.

        He has never given much thought to what he does. It's just a job, everybody has one. Only it's a little different now.

        He wears a small sash of black elastic across his fire chief badge, and random strangers hug him at lunch. “I just wanted you to know how much we appreciate you,” they say, and it makes his day.

        “Now, the nation has a better vision of what we do,” he says.

        It's a teary, bleary vision, but grateful and heartfelt. Some of us never knew real bravery until we saw the firefighters in New York.

        Tom Driggers, chief of the Fairfax/Madison Place Joint Fire and Rescue Department, doesn't want too much made of who he is, or what he has done for 28 years. He didn't need Sept. 11 to show him the face of bravery and its twin, tragedy. For him, the pride has always been there.

        “I'm no prouder of being a fireman today than I was 28 years ago,” Chief Driggers says. “We die in the line of duty trying to help someone. That's just what we do.”

        For firefighters, courage is a reflex. Heroism is instinctive.

        A building is on fire. I fight fires. People are inside. I need to save them.

        “Situations make heros,” Chief Driggers says. “No one is born a hero. No one can create one. A hero can be the guy next door who pulls his neighbor out of a burning building before the fire department gets there.”

        Sometimes, heroism is nothing so much as doing what you're expected to do, when you're expected to do it. That's the working definition of a fireman. Heroism is his job.

        We all wanted to be firemen, all us 7-year-old boys, gathered around the truck at the station, ringing the bell, rubbing the impossibly red paint, staring at the ladder that touched the blue of the sky.

        Then we moved on and maybe we forgot about service to others. We neglected causes greater than ourselves. We made money, we had families, we protected what was ours. Firemen became like cops: Invisible until we needed them.

        That's changed now. A sobered nation has looked away from its own, selfish wants. It has begun to revisit courage and appreciate sacrifice. It has rediscovered an essence of itself: Giving.

        Blood, money, time. Respect.

        “People have always appreciated what we do. But they take you for granted. We as firefighters take it for granted, until we lose one of our own,” Chief Driggers says.

        The count of dead and missing firefighters in New York is nearly 400 now. “A little bit of us dies when one of us goes” is the way Chief Driggers puts it. “Even though they were 500 miles away, it had the same effect as if they were next door.”

        He'll wear the black elastic sash for 30 days, until Oct. 11. All firefighters will. He'll keep the station's flag at half mast until then. Probably, he'll keep getting surprise hugs and nice notes from a newly grateful public.

        Once in the mid-70s, Chief Driggers fell through the floor of a burning building and didn't know if he'd get out.

        A few years later, he saved the life of a man electrocuted in an industrial accident. “The guy was dead,” Chief Driggers recalls. He administered oxygen and CPR. A few years later, Chief Driggers met the man. “He thanked me,” Chief Driggers says. “He didn't need to. I got the satisfaction of knowing I saved someone's life. That was enough.”

        Contact Paul Daugherty by phone: 768-8454; fax: 768-8330; e-mail:


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