The candle wax that used to add two inches to the sidewalk has long been scraped off. Inside the firehouse, the walls have been coated with a fresh layer of off-white paint, and the kitchen has been refurbished with new cabinets. Most of the lockers — walk-in spaces, really — have been emptied out and reassigned. And half of the faces are new, forming a low-key junior fraternity that is more likely to melt into the scenery than the previous crew of cut-ups and free spirits.
One year after losing 12 men in the Sept. 11 terror attack, the elite Squad 1's firehouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn, bears little physical resemblance to the devastated place that quickly became a depository for grief and memorial gifts from all over the world. Talk to anyone affiliated with the squad, and you sense that the firefighters have done their Herculean best to forge ahead emotionally, too.
But it is impossible to block those spontaneous, bittersweet moments. Not when someone barks into the microphone in a manner reminiscent of Dave Fontana's spot-on impersonations of Homer Simpson. Not when someone breaks out the ice cream and chuckles at the memories of Pete Carroll hiding all the Häagen-Dazs bars inside frozen loaves of bread. Not when someone talks Giants or Jets and jokes about how the teams could have used Brian Bilcher, a burly offensive lineman on the Fire Department's own team whose nickname was Tugboat.
Journeying from cynosure of unfathomable loss to symbol of gritty recovery, Squad 1 has offered a snapshot of an unparalleled year of crushing sadness weathered by a Fire Department that lost 343 men in less than two hours on the morning of Sept. 11.
As chronicled in a series of articles in The New York Times, Squad 1 has lived through the draining recovery efforts at ground zero, the neighborhood's unstinting desire to keep the firehouse open, one heartbreaking holiday after another and too many funerals to bear. Those chapters, in turn, have thrust several people into the limelight: the firefighter who also lived through the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in his Queens neighborhood; the widow who gained unwanted fame; the fatherless boy who struggled through a trying school year.
Small wonder, then, that as the first anniversary looms, the firefighters are exhausted. They are frayed. In fact, the new man in charge, Capt. Richard Portello, has refused all news media requests for interviews or access to the firehouse — even for this final article in the series — and ordered his firefighters to keep mum.
But in recent days, interviews with several firefighters, as well as with the firefighters' widows, have yielded enough information to provide a poignant yearbook. If one theme pervades throughout, it is that while everyone is striving to return to normal, no alterations, whether cosmetic or substantive, can make the memories of Sept. 11 any easier to swallow.
Not now, anyway. Maybe not ever.
"They're trying to make it nice, trying to change it a little, take away some of the bad memories," said Bobby West, who recently retired after 23 years with Squad 1. "But it's hard. It's really hard."
Half of the 24 men now assigned to Squad 1 are new, including 4 who joined in August and 3 of the unit's 4 officers. The new group has an average of eight years' experience, while eight are under the age of 35. The men who died had an average of 13 years on the job, and only two were under 35.
Moreover, if the prototypical Squad 1 member was a highly motivated, Type A personality, then the new breed is better epitomized by an enthusiastic but muted firefighter who can blend in with the crowd and defer to his seniors.