All in a Day's Work

 

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The word hero and all its derivations are sure to be used liberally when thousands gather at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Colorado Springs to honor 425 union firefighters who died in the line of duty.

Saturday, in the southwest corner of Memorial Park, in reference to the firefighters whose names will be etched onto the marble wall, the words hero and heroism will be appropriate, firefighters say.

The names of 343 New York City firefighters who died in the World Trade Center collapse make up the bulk of those being added to the memorial this year. The 82 others come from across the United States and Canada. They include people such as Linda Hernandez of Miami, who died Sept. 18, 2001, two-and-a-half years after being overcome by noxious smoke while fighting a fire on a roof.

On a day dedicated to those who have died, it's unlikely a lot of attention will be focused on the living, the men and women still on the line.

That's OK with firefighters numbed by the attention they are receiving after Sept. 11.

In the year since the terrorist attacks, the appearance of FDNY hats and T-shirts can be seen almost everywhere, even thousands of miles from the Big Apple.

Firefighters across the country, including those in Colorado Springs, have heard themselves called heroes, in the media or by the people they serve.

It's not a title they wear comfortably. It's not a description they think fits.

Firefighters are, mainly working stiffs, a down-to-earth, modest lot. Many think the words hero and heroism should be restricted to those whose names are etched on the wall in Memorial Park.

Recent interviews with a dozen firefighters reveal a common theme: Maybe it's time to hone the word hero to its core so its meaning isn't diluted, the special honor it signifies isn't diminished and popular culture doesn't render it meaningless through overuse.

Lee Ielpi Jr. says he knows who a hero is -- and who isn't. His son is a hero. He isn't.

Ielpi, a retired New York City firefighter with 26 years on the job, donned his old "turnout gear" after Sept. 11 to help search the World Trade Center debris.

For nine months, he labored in that hellish pile. He heard people who flocked to the edges of the site call him a hero, even when he posed for their family snapshots.

Ielpi said he's no hero. That honor goes to his son, Jonathan Ielpi, a FDNY firefighter who died trying to evacuate people from the towers.

Three months after the collapse, Ielpi carried a stretcher holding his son's body from the wreckage.

"I didn't want anyone to make me out to be a hero," Ielpi said recently. "All I did was go out here and find bodies. Everyone who died that day is a hero. My son and every responding firefighter saw what they were responding to. They were going in with one thought -- to save people."

Kenny Haskell knows the burden of the term hero.

His two brothers, Timmy and Tommy, FDNY firefighters, died when the towers collapsed. Kenny, also a firefighter, was off that day but rushed to the scene. He spent the next two months looking for his brothers' bodies, only one of which was recovered.

The department later sent him and others around the country to talk about that day, in an attempt to repay Americans for their support. He went to Nashville, where tears and hugs and that word, hero, greeted him. It made him squirm.

"I'm not a hero," he said. "I don't go to work to get a pat on the back. I don't feel like a hero. Most guys you talk to are uncomfortable with the term. We're just doing our jobs."

"Just doing our job" is a common refrain among firefighters, whether they're in New York City or Colorado Springs.

They say they're just working stiffs, proud of their jobs and accepting of the risks.

"In light of 9-11, there's not a person on the job who isn't proud of doing what they're doing," said Capt. Randy Royal, medical officer for the Colorado Springs Fire Department. "It's a great job, and it's nice to have the respect of the community. But in most cases, when firefighters are called heroes, they're embarrassed or don't want to hear it. They're doing it because it's their job."

Firefighters know the distinction between hero and "just doing our jobs" often is defined solely by whether they go home safe, and that thin line makes it hard to convince others they aren't something special.

Kenny Haskell said when he started with the New York City Fire Department a veteran told him, "Don't be a hero. The cemeteries are full of heroes."

The risks of the job, even in Colorado Springs, which hasn't lost a firefighter in 80 years, are many.

Firefighters, for example, respond to every medical emergency. In Colorado Springs, those make up 73 percent of all calls.

Every medical response exposes firefighters to the threat of HIV, hepatitis C, tuberculosis. Each fire poses the risk of exposure to asbestos, smoke and airborne toxins.

The 120 or so calls to scenes of methamphetamine labs so far this year have subjected members of theColorado Springs Fire Department's hazardous materials team (HAZMAT) to the threat of explosions and a witches' brew of toxic, corrosive chemicals.

Last year, 28 members of a special medical support team accompanied SWAT teams on 250 raids and arrests in El Paso County, ready to provide medical care if bullets started to fly.

"We have had the luxury of having been thought of pretty well," Royal said. "I think what 9-11 did was emphasize the fact that what we do is deal with danger. Each time we go out the door, there isn't any guarantee we're coming back."

Firefighters stress they don't confront these risks daily only to help fellow citizens.

Capt. William Ragsdale, head of the Colorado Springs hazardous materials team, and Richard Haugen, a retired firefighter and director of the IAFF Fallen Firefighters Memorial, said they got into firefighting at the urging of fathers-in-law, basically to put food on the tables for their families. Once on the job, they found the work challenging, the excitement attractive and the camaraderie with colleagues special.

But both said doing the job right requires a selflessness and a commitment to others -- and it's those characteristics that endow firefighters with the stuff of heroes.

"If you don't develop a need to help others, you won't last long," Haugen said. "It just requires too many sacrifices."

Kenny Haskell knows the public understands that, even if only intuitively, and he thinks it's one reason Americans embraced firefighters after the events of Sept. 11.

Firefighters' commitment to helping others despite risks to themselves makes it hard, even for him, to draw a fine line around the word hero. Haskell struggled to explain how his brothers' actions Sept. 11 differed from the actions of thousands of others who jump onto firetrucks every day across North America.

"I guess it's their loss (of life)," he said. "I'm sure it has something to do with courageous deeds. What those guys did was courageous. You could see it on their faces. Those guys were scared, and they still went in and did their thing."


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