'Just Regular Guys'

New York City firefighters Sal Princiotta, left, and Donald Casey embrace at Engine 33 fire station in New York, in this Sept. 15, 2001 file photo. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) AP

John Hemsley spent his vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., trying to hide. He dodged questions about what he did for a living and wore no paraphernalia associated with his work.

"I spent my week trying to be incognito,'' he said.

Hemsley was tired of being a hero.

As a New York Fire Department captain in an Upper East Side firehouse that lost nine men in the attacks, Hemsley was thrust into the strange limelight of the post-Sept. 11 world, in which ordinary men suddenly became icons.

He's done a high school graduation, a grammar school moving-up ceremony, multiple church groups and too many benefit dinners to count. He's signed autographs, posed for pictures and given hugs. He's polished and re-polished his speech, thanking the public and praising the American spirit.

"I felt an obligation to do it," he said. "But it was still overwhelming."

By the time summer arrived, "I was barely limping across the finish line."

In the altered cultural landscape after Sept. 11, New York firefighters and, to a lesser extent, NYPD and Port Authority police officers, have been elevated to almost mythic status. It is a mantle that some have relished, but most have worn uncomfortably.

In a profession that frowns on self-promotion, many have come to see the hero status as a burden, something they never asked for and feel they can't live up to. Others have even argued that it's dangerous.

"It's a big thing to have to shoulder," said firefighter Mike Heffernan, who lost his brother on Sept. 11. "Especially on top of the grieving you're still doing."

In the days immediately following Sept. 11, city firehouses became meccas of grief; firefighters, the objects of worship. Hundreds showed up with flowers, poems and gifts.

The flow has abated considerably, but some firehouses remain besieged.

In Lower Manhattan, when a fire company responds near ground zero, firefighters have to stop on the way back to sign autographs and work the crowd, said firefighter Tommy Narducci, a member of Engine 10.

"Anytime we're near the rig, forget it," he said. "It's photography central."

In the months that followed Sept. 11, as sales of firefighter action figures and anything FDNY skyrocketed, the department was bombarded with requests for public appearances. Gruff men, used to going to the corner bar after work, became speechmakers and black-tie dinner regulars. They popped champagne backstage with singer Bono of U2 and threw out the first pitch at playoff games. FDNY members served as pageant judges, graduation speakers and parade marshals. Countless appearances have taken them from Simsboro, La., to Paris, France.

The demand on police officers has been less, but some have been similarly flooded with invitations. Port Authority police dog handler David Lim, who was pulled from the rubble but lost his canine partner, Sirius, has rung the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, traveled to Alaska to start the Iditarod dog sled race and presided over the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco. At a recent charity auction he attended in San Diego, someone bought one of Lim's Port Authority hats for $650.

"After the anniversary," he hopes, "things will naturally calm down."

Hemsley, being a captain, shouldered much of the responsibility in his house, Engine 22, Ladder 13. His willingness, albeit reluctant, took the pressure off others, like firefighter Peter Clinton, one of just three men from the house's Sept. 11 day shift who lived.

Clinton, who found himself in demand as a "survivor," declined everything. "Even though it seems like a good thing ... eating for free, drinking for free, good looking girls," he said. "For me, it's like a burden."

The attention only reminds the men of the trauma of the day, and takes away from time with their families when they need it most.

"The Waldorf is nice, but not when you haven't seen your family in three days," Heffernan said.

The hero worship has interrupted the normal grieving process for firefighters, said Malachy Corrigan, director of the fire department's counseling services. In the past, firehouses were sanctuaries, places for healing.

With constant attention, however, "that's almost in suspension," he said.

Only in the past month or two, after the site closed, have firefighters been able to find the space to begin to reflect. One reflection: The pedestal they've been put on is unrealistic.

"We're just regular guys," Heffernan said.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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