Praise for Suffolk’s firefighters

Published 9:59 pm Thursday, August 6, 2009

During 25 years of my on-and-off career as a journalist, I’ve seen plenty of fires.

There have been simple brush fires put out by solitary firefighters using a hose and a brush truck. There have been forest fires that left behind blackened, steaming landscapes that looked like the remnants of terrifying battles. There was the tire fire in Wakefield more than two decades ago, which lit the entire horizon the night it started and then burned for weeks afterward.

And there have been house fires too numerous to count, including one where I watched firefighters carry out a body bag with the remains of an elderly man who died in his bed and another where I knew firefighters were waiting for the family to leave before removing a dead child.

On Thursday morning, there was another blaze, this one in downtown Suffolk, where two buildings and at least three businesses were destroyed or seriously damaged by the fire, the smoke and the water used to put it out.

The owners of the affected businesses and their employees now face an uncertain future highlighted by insurance agents, cleanup efforts, possible unemployment and fear about what the future holds. The situation is almost always the same when the destructive — and sometimes deadly — flames touch the lives of people.

As I stood across W. Washington Street from Thursday’s blaze, however, I realized that there is something else that stays the same from one fire to the next: the presence of men and women in bulky turnout gear hurrying into the buildings in their valiant quest to save lives and property.

It’s not the first time I’ve noticed them or their contributions, of course. It’s impossible to cover such an event as a journalist and not feel admiration for firefighters. Even laying aside the courage that it must take to stride confidently into such dangerous situations (and that’s no small thing to look past), one thing becomes abundantly clear: Fighting fires is hard work.

As the first wave of firefighters that had been sent into the building to fight Thursday’s downtown fire exited the building with air-tank alarms clanging, I saw in their soot-grimed faces the exhaustion that came from doing hard physical labor in such heavy gear on a hot summer day and in the midst of what could literally be described as infernal conditions.

I am humbled that there are such men and women in our world.