There’s been a lot of news to chew on lately… stuff that’s hard to store away, and ignore. In a follow up post, I’ve written, I’d like to look at a few other things. But the death last week of 19 firefighters, in Yarnell, Arizona, however, was devastating. Unfathomable… It happened as so many of us were looking toward the 4th of July weekend— busy planning BBQs, fireworks, parades and festivities, and this powerful story seemed to get a little lost in the holiday buzz.
Think about that: 19 men who were out there trying to protect and help others— families who were afraid of losing their homes. Nineteen men who had families: who were fathers, brothers, and sons. Nineteen men who were only 23 to 38 years old—14 of them in their 20s; all of them very young, with whole lives ahead of them. When I think about the fact that so many of them were the same ages as my two eldest children (21 and 23), I shudder. They went to work and died, trapped by the the horrific flames and smoke—each of them cocooned inside individual emergency foil shelters, that are only used as a last resort. Imagine the terror they must have felt. It’s one thing to know that things like that might happen in the course of your job; it’s another to face it head on, alone and huddled in a tiny shelter. It’s not just a cliche: at 21, 23, 24, 28 years of age, it’s easy to believe that you’re strong enough, fast enough, smart and brave enough to come home unscathed. But each of those young men must have known, that was not true— in the end.
Andrew Ashcraft, one of the men who died, was 29 and a father of 4 young children. Shortly before the disaster he texted a photo to his wife, of some of the men taking their lunch break. The smoke can be seen in the distance. His message: “This is my lunch spot. Too bad my lunch is an MRE” (military: Meal Ready to Eat), is a haunting reminder that they had no idea how serious things would turn. Of course they all knew the risks; they were all trained; but, when they sat to eat that last lunch, it’s unlikely that any of them believed that they would be dead by day’s end. Shortly after this photo was taken, strong, fast winds changed direction suddenly, and the 19 men stood little chance. They were overcome before they could turn and get out.
What really strikes me hardest is that we so often take it for granted that police officers and fire fighters really do put their lives on the line, every time they go to work. We all live close to an edge, but ignore it daily. It’s common knowledge that just driving in your car (a mile from home,) is the riskiest thing we do on a regular basis. But, each time I read about the shooting of a police officer, or the death in a fire of a firefighter, I am humbled again. To do a job, that is inherently geared toward protecting others and which carries a real potential for loss of life, is an amazing thing. To do it day in and day out, over years, is brave beyond my comprehension.
Right after the news broke, I was with a group of women and one of them told us that this fire had occurred very close to where she grew up. Her mother was a fire fighter when she was growing up. “Each month, when she went off to work, we didn’t see her for up to a week— and I always knew that she might not come home. I prayed every time she went out the door, throughout my childhood.” It was such a powerful thing to hear.
When the World Trade Centers collapsed on 9/11, the deaths of nearly 2,50o people was horrifying. But for me, the image of 345 firefighters running toward the disaster, running into the buildings— to save the people trapped there, will be with me forever. Anyone who has seen the videos from that day (and who hasn’t?) can see how terrifying it was. The raging fire; the people jumping from 100 floors up; the first building crumbling— It would have been understandable if each First Responder (police, fire and medic) had run away with the thousands of others who fled. Given the scope of the disaster, fleeing must have seemed instinctual to anyone there. However, these 345+ men and women ran toward harm, in the brave and determined belief that they could save those who were hopelessly trapped in the Towers. On July 6th, twelve years after the attacks, the remains of 37 year old firefighter Jeffrey P. Walz were identified, from “remains” (dust) found at Ground Zero. Again, it humbles me. It sobers me. It still shocks.
So many of us have smiled when our young children say that they want to be fire men or women. We buy cute little outfits and applaud the dream. But how many of us think of the 19 men who died last week, or the countless men and women who have died while saving lives, when we imagine our own beloveds going out to do that job? How many of us thank those men and women when we see them in our community— for the jobs they do while we are doing other things, for that time they might save us? How often do we curse the police who ticket or reprimand us when we are breaking the law, forgetting that another motorist may shoot them for the same thing?
All week, the idea that 19 young men will never go home has tumbled around in my thoughts. But my life has gone on. I went to watch fireworks; I laid around with a cold; I watered my plants and fed my dogs. I slept soundly, with the knowledge that someone els will fight the good fights and protect me and my neighbors. But in Arizona, there are 19 families who will not sleep soundly for a very long time. I wanted to acknowledge that; I want to support those families in their grief. I want to honor the men and women who we depend on, even when we sleep.
Note: In using the term “we” throughout this piece, I am aware that not everyone is part of that we.
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