Three Hundred and Forty Three

The “Model City” Firefighter is pleased to announce that we are once again growing. We would like to welcome Mike Bish to the crew as a Contributing Writer. Bish previously operated the fire service blog, tenseventyfive, and due to a non-renewal of the domain, he will be joining our crew. This is the first of his articles to be posted here…

I have an old t-shirt from my department back in Texas that I still wear from time to time.  Just like every other department shirt out there, it has our logo inside a Maltese cross on the front left breast, and CITYNAME FIRE DEPARTMENT on the back in huge block letters.  And, just like a lot of other department shirts, it has 343 printed on one of the sleeves.

I was still in Junior High when it happened.  I remember pretending to be sick so I could stay home, then walking back to my room and shutting the door.  I turned on the old computer I had, and dialed up AOL.  The front-page had a picture of the first tower with a plume of smoke pouring out of it.  I ran into the living room and turned on the TV, then ran to get my mom to tell her what was happening.  We sat on the couch for most of the day watching the news, and the sickening re-run of footage of the second plane crashing into the second tower.  I understood that it was a “big deal” and that a lot of people died. In the following months and years, I would learn about the firefighters who gave their lives that day trying to save others.  And I would learn about the many, many other responders, firefighters included, who became sick after working at ground zero.  Even then, it was an event on the other side of the country – no one I knew was personally affected by it.  It was very much watching and knowing the world through a television screen – it was there, but it wasn’t.  It’s hard to have the ability to understand a tragedy of that scale unless you are somehow directly involved, I believe.

After joining the fire service, I began to understand.  The memorials, the plaques, the pictures, the events.  I get it now.  The brotherhood isn’t restricted by time or distance, or race, religion, or anything else.  It’s heartbreaking when anything happens to a brother or sister in the fire service – I feel it much more strongly than I ever would have had I not experienced what it means first hand to be part of it.  We have this number to help us remember and honor those who sacrificed everything.  We “get” it.  When the fire service says “We will not forget,” it’s not just words put together to form a sentence – it’s a promise to our brothers in the past, and to those who haven’t joined the ranks yet. 

So back to the t-shirt.  “343”.  Right there on the sleeve.  Every time I see it, I think about the impact of that day.  And I think about the stair climbs, funds, charities, and everything else that we’ve done to ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain.  

The other day, I was wearing my shirt around the house when a friend came over.  I had just sat down a box of bottled water when she said “Three-forty-three? What’s that?”  How do you even being to answer that question?  All I could say was “9/11.  We lost 343 brothers that day.”  It was met with a low “Oh… sorry.”  Part of me was almost angry with her for not knowing.  How could you not?  The other part of me was angry with myself for not having talked about it before – but then again, that’s a weird topic to bring up in discussion.  

Like so many things in the fire service, the “civilian” population just doesn’t have a clue – and rightfully so.  I wouldn’t expect Joe from the bakery down the road to show me a halligan or to use the JAWS.  I sure as hell wouldn’t expect him to be able to describe to me what crawling around a building that’s on fire feels like.  But this.  This number.  How do you begin to explain to someone who doesn’t know, exactly what it means?  It’s more than a number or a statistic, or a stair climb, or a fundraiser, or statue, or anything else.  It’s so much bigger than that.  We lost three hundred and forty three of our own, all on the same day, and many more after that due to ground-zero related illnesses.  It’s about remembering that sacrifice, and carrying it with us always.  It’s about the understanding that we don’t do the job for a paycheck or a cool uniform – this “job” is so much bigger than all of us.  It’s about humanity, and brotherhood, and love.  Somewhere in a book, it’s written “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”  And that’s what 343 is about.  It’s about men that had love that was bigger than two skyscrapers, and airplanes, and smoke, and fire, and destruction, sacrificing themselves to help those in need.  

Today, I won’t be lighting a candle, or going to a ceremony, or a memorial, or anything like that.  I’m going to spend my day telling others about those 343, and what they represent not only to the fire service, but to the United States, and to the world.  

“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.” – Kurt Vonnegut