Sunday, March 23, 2003

Firefighter's death

When the war zone is at home


I was in a TV studio, waiting to tape a show that would be broadcast later. A monitor in front of me reviewed live news footage that would never be broadcast. It was much too graphic. Too violent.

These were not pictures of the war in a foreign desert. It was a fight right here in the city, waged by heroes we treat with a certain nonchalance. Well, maybe we don't take firefighters so much for granted anymore. Not since Sept. 11. Not since we heard the stories of them running - running - into the inferno.

And before that, the country saw the firefighters of Oklahoma City. For 16 days, they dragged themselves through the treachery of debris, looking for survivors, then for bodies.

The calls to the Murrah Federal Building and the World Trade Center were enormously magnified. But they were fire runs. Firefighters were front-line defenders of our homeland security long before it got its own bureaucracy, living together in familiar neighborhood barracks. Maybe that's why they are so close to each other, why they see themselves as a family.

The extended family

In 1995, Joe Newcomb Sr., then a firefighter at the station in Northside, faced a crisis. His teenage son had been paralyzed in a freak accident.

"I've never done this before," Joe said to Gus Nare, a lieutenant at his station, "but I think I might need some help." Nare replied, "You're too late."

The men in Engine Company 20, Truck 5, had already started to convert half the Newcombs' two-car garage to a wheel-chair accessible suite. Which they did in record time and with their usual no-big-deal attitude.

It's not a men-only club.

In 1984, Paula Duncan Anderson was one of three women hired by the Cincinnati Fire Division. "There were 61 of us in the class," a male classmate remembered. "But at the academy, Paula faced day-to-day challenges unlike the rest of us. You know, can she cut it? Carry the dummy? Can she climb the ladder?"

She could. Then nearly 10 years later, another challenge. Breast cancer. Worse, it had spread to her lymph nodes. She fought like crazy to live, undergoing the most punishing treatments available. Her fellow firefighters fought right next to her, raising money for a bone marrow transplant not covered by insurance. Making chili, making jokes, making sure she knew she was "family."

Two years later, hundreds of firefighters came to stand next to her casket.

On Friday, Oscar Armstrong III died battling a house fire in Bond Hill. A Channel 9 cameraman shot footage of the firefighter as his fellow firefighters struggled to save him. It was a terrible scene, too grim to make it into our living rooms, too graphic for the rest of us to see. But the firefighters, as usual, were spared nothing.

Surely, this is mental footage that will run and re-run in their heads. They know every time they answer the bell, it could be a World Trade Center or a Murrah Center or a deadly house fire in Bond Hill.

And yet they always answer the bell.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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