Cover image for Strong of heart : life and death in the Fire Department of New York
Strong of heart : life and death in the Fire Department of New York
Von Essen, Thomas.
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Publication Information:
New York : Regan Books, 2002.
Physical Description:
xv, 288 pages ; 24 cm
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HV6432 .V65 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The Site May 30, 2002 How will we ever get through this? is the question I ask on the night of September 11. How? Maybe the answer is here, all around me. Not just in the cleanup, not just in the purpose demonstrated by all who came and labored all these months. The answer is in the enduring spirits of all assembled here. That, for me, is the miracle in all of this: having looked horror in the face, we bear the pain without losing heart. --Thomas Von Essen Thomas Von Essen, New York City's Thirtieth Fire Commissioner, had seen just about everything during his thirty-one-year career in the fire department: building collapses, raging infernos, heroic rescues, and power struggles. But nothing could have prepared him, or the fire department, for the devastation that occurred on September 11, 2001. In just 102 minutes, the mighty twin towers were reduced to rubble, and the Fire Department of New York had lost 343 men. Many of them were Von Essen's friends and colleagues, men whose exemplary lives had contributed mightily to his love of the department. From his time as a young firefighter at the "Elephant House," or "La Casa del Elefante," as it was known, in the hectic South Bronx, to his embattled and controversial years as president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, to his term as fire commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Von Essen drew lessons from his courageous peers about the value of self-sacrifice in the service of others. Strong of Heart is a testament to the amazing and often unsung acts of heroism that the Bravest perform every day. Von Essen recounts the inspiring story of Chief of Department Pete Ganci, who once plunged into a raging inferno to save several trapped children; how Father Mychal Judge, an FDNY chaplain, showed his deep compassion and faith again and again as he tended to the families of fallen firefighters; and how Ray Downey, the head of special operations, raced tirelessly from one emergency scene to another, to provide his expertise in every kind of disaster. From the memories of these men and others, Von Essen drew strength and a sense of duty that helped carry him through one of the darkest periods in FDNY history. In this moving memoir, he provides an insider's look into the harrowing days after September 11, from learning about which men were missing, to working closely with mayor Giuliani and other officials in planning the countless funerals for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. He describes the daunting challenges of moving forward without some of the FDNY's most knowledgeable and beloved leaders, of trying to comfort grieving widows, and of facing criticism of the difficult decisions he and other city officials made. Strong of Heart is the haunting yet uplifting tale of one man's search to rise above tragedy, to begin the painful process of rebuilding, and to find hope in the legacy left behind by the great men of the Fire Department of New York.

Author Notes

Thomas Von Essen served as the Thirtieth Fire Commissioner of New York City from April 1996 to December 31, 2001. Before becoming fire commissioner, he spent nearly three years as president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the largest firefighters union in the nation. Von Essen joined the fire department in 1970 and was assigned to Ladder 42 in the Bronx, where he spent most of his firefighting career. Currently, Von Essen is a senior vice president at Giuliani Partners LLC, a New York consulting firm headed by former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Rita
Matt Murray is a senior special writer at the Wall Street Journal and the author of The Father and the Son: My Father's Journey into the Monastic Life. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

This autobiography by the former fire commissioner of New York City opens with a harrowing description of September 11: he conveys a visceral sense of the smoke and ash, the chaos and tumult, as well as his own shifting state of mind (confidence to doubt, confusion, pain). As Von Essen notes, people on the scene knew less of what was going on than the rest of us at home watching events on TV. He gives moving portraits of the fire department heads who died in the towers Chief Peter Ganci, chaplain Father Mychal Judge and makes clear that he only survived because he'd been called away to meet with Mayor Giuliani when the towers crashed. Equally powerful are Von Essen's descriptions of other tragic fires during his terms as fire commissioner: he demonstrates that bravery in the FDNY is an almost daily occurrence. Recollections of Von Essen's personal life his happy childhood, his on-again, off-again romance with the woman who eventually became his wife, his educational floundering are less compelling than his depiction of day-to-day life in a firehouse, with the joshing, the camaraderie, the drama and terror of fire fighting. Unfortunately, he also makes it clear that not all the particulars of firehouse life are admirable the insularity, the homophobia but Von Essen's love for his work and for his fellow firefighters shines on every page. Anyone who wants to understand the mindset of a firefighter the passion for work, the brotherly devotion and the courage will learn much from this homely account. 16-page color insert, b&w photos throughout. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Rudolph W. Giuliani
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Forewordp. xiii
Prologue: Sunday, January 6, 2002p. 1
Part 1 This is War
1 Can You Talk About the Loss?p. 11
2 Is That a Cloud?p. 15
3 These Buildings Can Collapsep. 21
4 The Whole Tower Came Downp. 27
5 From Box Cutters to All Thisp. 37
6 This Is the Taste of Deathp. 43
7 Could Anyone Really Be Alive in There?p. 51
8 Will Determination Be Enough?p. 57
Part 2 A Firefighter at Heart
9 To the Firehouse Doorp. 63
10 The Source of the Firep. 75
11 La Casa del Elefantep. 87
12 The Union Politics Were a Killerp. 99
13 A Gamble Pays Offp. 111
14 The City's Thirtieth Fire Commissionerp. 123
15 Saints and Sinnersp. 135
16 The Atlantic Avenue Firep. 145
17 Don't You Give Upp. 153
18 It's Either Outstanding or Unacceptablep. 163
19 The Father's Day Firep. 179
Part 3 Be Not Afraid
20 September 12p. 195
21 A Lift from the Presidentp. 211
22 This Isn't Your Faultp. 219
23 At All Ranks, We Are Vulnerablep. 223
24 Recovery Effortsp. 235
25 Emotions Are Very, Very Highp. 251
26 Don't Say It ... They Aren't Readyp. 261
27 You Can Always Be Calledp. 275
A Silent and Solemn Good-bye: The Site, May 30, 2002p. 287