2004-12-16 / View From the Middle

Saturday’s Sad Tribute Will Honor Three Heroes

View From The Middle
By Charles Rogers

The time goes so fast. It was a year ago that the firefighters from Canarsie’s own Engine 257, Ladder 170 and Battalion 58 invited me to share a quiet memorial service for their fallen brothers. It was the 5th anniversary of the deaths of Lieutenant Joe Cavaliere and Firefighters Chris Bopp and James Bohan, who passed away heroically on December 18 while they were trying to save an elderly woman in a Vandalia Houses apartment near Starrett City.

The other day I was covering a story where I came upon my friends from the firehouse on Rockaway Parkway near Farragut Road, their home away from home. While they were busy putting out a fire and coming to the aid of a crash victim, they told me there would be a memorial service commemorating the sixth anniversary of this Canarsie tragedy this coming Saturday, December 18, at 10 a.m. at the Shrine of St. Jude.

Six years. You don’t think about it in terms of years anymore, not when it was so devastating, so electrically devastating. The shock was so deep at the time that it lingers, even through these years. There are still many of the friends and comrades of Cavaliere and Bopp and Bohan working at the same station. They remember so clearly the cold day, as I do...

The trio of heroes had gone to the tenth floor of that grey building bordering Louisiana Avenue, adjacent to the large Pathmark store on a rescue mission. The smoke was thick, according to their colleagues, and they had to climb the east stairway, waving their hands to shoosh away the smoke so they could at least see, perhaps, inches ahead. Their masks covered the lower parts of their faces, but they called out, hoping to hear the voice of the trapped woman. The hallway grew darker and, according to reports issued after the tragedy, the fire became so intense in one of the apartments just a few feet ahead of the trio that it blew out the windows and, because a door was open, a fierce wind blew a devastating, tornado-like backdraft into the hall, throwing the firefighters to the floor. One was able to render a “mayday” distress call, but a split second later the intensity of the heat literally melted the oxygen masks on their faces and they were asphyxiated. It was probably merciful, because the heat burned them beyond comprehension.

The cause of the fire was later determined to have been that the woman carelessly threw away a cigarette butt, thinking it had been extinguished. She tried to put out the fire herself, not wanting to call for emergency help because she was embarrassed. She eventually went to a neighbor’s apartment and called 911.

I arrived at the scene literally minutes after the tragedy was discovered to find that the fire was under control but to also find my firefighter friends in shock. They were going through the motions of re-organizing their rigs and recoiling the hoses, preparatory to them being used to make the next rescue, but their hearts and minds were with their comrades.

Saturday, while commemorating this anniversary, please remember that it happened in 1998, three years before the horrible World Trade Center tragedy,of which we speak in whispers and with heads bowed. Our heads are also bowed with thoughts of Cavaliere and Bohan and Bopp and their brotherhood and the others who have gone before and after in giving their own lives. This is what they do.

You can look upon the members of these brigades as heroes if you want. When you see them and know them, you realize they accept the tribute modestly, as if even the tributes are part of the job. They knowingly smile when they see a child look up to them with awe (or, ahem, an adult!) and this is good. The ribbons they wear are insignias identifying them to others; the real tribute comes when they look at each other and in the mirror...or when they attend a church memorial service, as they will Saturday, honoring their fallen colleagues.

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