A Voice from the Rubble
By TOM DOWNEY
c.2001 Tom Downey
From The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 23, 2001
Lincoln Quappe, a firefighter who worked for three years for Rescue Two in
Brooklyn, is among the missing. He spoke with Tom Downey in March. These are
"The rescue companies are the eyes and ears for everyone. If you get a report
of people trapped, then we'll spearhead our attack up to that particular area.
And maybe be able to control the fire enough to warn the guys upstairs that
it's really getting bad here, and maybe it's time for them to get out. At
Rescue Two, our main duty is looking out for the safety of all the firemen.
Really that's what we're there for. And we've shown time and time again that
when there's a fireman hurt, we'll drop everything and get him.
"Being a fireman's fireman comes with experience. I still have so much to
learn. I only have 16 years on the job. At Rescue Two, I felt like a probie
all over again. I found that some of the most unassuming guys are the most
fantastic firemen. They're always there at the right time, they're always
in position, and in the heat of battle, they never shy away. It comes from
years on the job. Part of it is instinct. All the guys here at Rescue Two
are firemen's firemen. It's something you feel when you work with them.
"When you're in a fire, things are running through your brain a million
times a minute, and you're just trying to do your job. In those situations
you look back at your experience. You think, I got burnt the last time I stayed
around in this situation. I won't let that happen to me again. You go by all
the telltale signs and from what other firemen have told you. Guys say, Listen,
we saw this happen. We talk about fires all the time. We're constantly learning,
learning every day, and even in a mundane fire you learn something, and you're
like, Oh, man, I didn't know that. Or I forgot about that, but now it's reinforced
in my mind. I've been burnt before so I have an idea of how much heat I can
take. But you still get burnt, because you still have to continue to do what
you have to do. The heat comes onto you. It's tremendous up there on the fire
floor. You feel it around the side of your mask. You pull off your glove a
little bit, and you can feel it.
"Every fire is scary. That's the way it is. You're a damned liar if you say
you're not scared. It's hard to say which fires are most dangerous. Each is
completely different. Some fires that seem small can be the most horrific
with firemen dying. Even a silly little fire can get a guy killed. It all
comes down to fate. But there are signs that you can pick up on at a fire
when it's getting bad. I don't have all the answers, but I have an idea when
it's time to go. I use other guys in my company as barometers. Ill be in contact
with my guys. I know what they look like as far as body features. I hear them
on the radio. If Bobby says it's time to get out, I'm going. I use him as
my guardian angel, because I know he's seen a lot of things in the past. The
captain too. If the captain says, We're getting out of here, I'm going. I
don't want to die here."
(Tom Downey is a filmmaker who is producing a television documentary about
rescue firefighters in New York. Their chief, Raymond Downey, the writer's
uncle, is presumed lost.)