FLATBUSH, Brooklyn - It's long past midnight in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and firefighter Mark Merrell of Engine 255 is explaining to me why medals aren't important and being called a hero doesn't matter all that much.
"What you try to achieve is for somebody to say, 'you're a good fireman.' That's probably the biggest compliment you can get," he says. "And that don't come easy."
The firehouse kitchen erupts in laughter. Mark smiles, because it's a tough crowd and he knows I know that. But I'm spending twenty-four hours with the firefighters of Engine Company 255 and Ladder Company 157 -- one of the busiest firehouses in New York - and I'm ready for pretty much anything.
The FDNY granted us total access and even provided a chase car with lights, siren and a driver.
Eyewitness News photographer Josh Hartmann and I followed them on virtually every run. There was just one restriction: Don't show the cooking. Why? "It's corny," they told me. (But the chicken marsala was excellent, I have to say.)
No, we didn't sleep at all. It's hard to do that when the alarms go off all night. And we learned pretty quickly that if you're not out the door in 52 seconds, tower ladder chauffeur Dean Montesani will leave you in the dust.
I don't think we ever had more than two hours between runs, and it was often much less than that. I've covered just about every major fire in New York City since Happy Land, and I was amazed at how much I had yet to learn.
Did you know the turnout gear can weigh as much as 100 pounds? (Which amounts to about two-thirds of my body weight.) And it's not like in the movies--when you're running into a fire you often can't see anything. You're groping your way through the smoke to find the fire and any victims who may have been unconscious or trapped.
These firefighters were among the first on the scene in Midwood in March of 2015, when seven children died in a raging house fire.
Pat Rooney of Ladder 157 stood at the scene with me, and tried to put it into words.
"The whole first floor was on fire," he told me. "To be honest, you get reports of people trapped all the time, and they're not there. One neighbor is like, 'There's seven kids in there.' And no way there's seven kids there. I put my ladder up to the bedroom window and went in and there's a kid laying on the floor. You don't think there's gonna be anybody, so when you find one it's a surprise. And when you find out there were seven, it's brutal. I thought about this fire for over a year. Every day, every single day."
"When it's successful," Mark Merrell told me, "there's nothing better. When it's tragedy, you have to deal with it and move on."
That's hard, of course, and they don't really like to talk about it.
Sitting around the kitchen, camera rolling, I ask a serious question. "What's the hardest part of this job?" The answer, almost in unison, "When a reporter wants to hang out in the firehouse." More laughter. Yes, it's a tough crowd.
But you won't find a more upbeat, dedicated group of firefighters anywhere in America. I hope they'll invite me back for dinner some night soon.
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