Zero Plus 329
When The Heroes Of 9-11 Flee...Who Do
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News
GROUND ZERO, New York
City, August 7--The heroes of Nine Eleven are fleeing in vast numbers.
They've had it. No more heroism. No more risking
their lives for others. It's retirement time. It's
For nearly a year the public has hoisted
the firemen and firewomen of New York City on an Olympic pedestal, bowing
at their incredible acts of bravery as they rushed into burning buildings
to save thousands trapped inside the World Trade Center in the aftermath
of the September 11 Terrorist attack.
A total of 343 firemen lost their lives
that day, the largest single death of firemen in history. As a
result, their names and faces--of the living as well as dead--have adorned
posters, ads, and even Rescue Hero toys. They have
become "gods" to many, living legends. They even replaced Joe
Rosenthal's famous Iwo Jima photo as they raised a tattered American Flag
on Ground Zero, reminding America and the world that "bravery" and
"courage" were still the marrow of the average American "grunt."
But now it's time to cash in on the glory, at
least for far too many.
Firemen are leaving the ranks of the hollowed
halls of fame, stuffing their pockets with heaps of cash as they do.
They are retiring in unprecedented numbers, startling the city and
eviscerating its leadership body of veteran experience vital to the
continuity of the public's safety and protection.
Veterans form a legacy of Vigilance among the
new, green, untested troops. Having been nose-to-nose with the
face of death many times, they offer the novice a steadying hand, a sense
of calm in the midst of the storm that no other can provide.
They form models, living legends the new can look up to and aspire to
become. But when they leave in droves, when they
hightail it to the high ground, they shatter the nucleus of leadership,
and fray the knitting of experience that protects the public from mistakes
younger, less adroit, less mature firefighters have yet to learn.
At the senior command level of the New York
Fire Department (FDNY), those in rank of lieutenant and above, retirements
are 60 percent higher than in the previous year, according to data from
the fire department and union officials representing them. Seven of
the top fire commanders have announced they are leaving the department.
Their collective knowledge represents 250 years of experience, an average
of 35 years each. These include the chief of safety, the chief
of the department, Daniel A. Nigro, and the former chief of the Bureau of
Fire Prevention. Added to the two other senior leaders
killed during the attacks, the aforementioned retirements virtually rip the guts out of the senior
command of one of the world's largest fire-fighting units.
But that's not where it stops.
The rank and file members of the FDNY are
following suit. Of the 8,500 front-line members of the FDNY,
retirements are nearly 250 percent, according to the union.
Prior to September 11, retirement rates among the rank and file might have
averaged 40 a month, noted the spokesman, but currently the exodus
averages 40 a week.
Both the generals and sergeants are leaving
the rookies to fend for themselves.
Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, noted
that 661 firefighters of all ranks filed retirement requests between
January and July 26, compared with 274 in the same period last year, a
241 percent increase.
Reasons given for the exodus include the
trauma of the event, and the startling reality of the dangers facing a
firefighter in case of a disaster. But many argue that the
single biggest motivator is greed--money!
Retirement formulas include the highest
recent year of pay as a major factor in deciding economic benefits.
Firemen with more than 20 years on the job are entitled to a pension equal
to half of what they earned in the last 12 months of employment.
Firefighters typically earn around $65,000 a year, noted Captain Peter
Gorman, president of the 2,500-member Uniformed Fire Officers Association.
Additional overtime this year have shoved those earnings to $80,000.
Gorman notes that "emotions should not
drive retirement," and in defense of the large numbers leaving the
department, says the "enormity of the tragedy caused most members to bring
the problems home to their family. Retirement became an
emotional as well as financial decision," he said.
To battle the loss of experience, retention
programs are being hastily put together. Albany recently
passed legislation allowing firefighters who have 20 years to bank annual
payments (now at $9,500) that are usually doled out after retirement as an
incentive to stay on the job.
September 11 certainly provided an
emotional punch to the stomach of many firefighters who witnessed the
death and destruction of so many at one time--especially their comrades,
buddies, pals, friends. But the lure of money cannot be
overlooked. Over a 20-year period, the overtime retirement
benefits resulting from Nine Eleven amounts to $150,000, a 20 percent
overall increase in payouts for the average firefighter with 20 years or
It would be hard for anyone not to take
"the money and run." And that's what a vast majority are doing.
But it concerns me that collectively the
body of new firefighters in New York City are being left naked, stripped
of vital life-saving experience only a combat vet can offer.
That experience is priceless.
In Vietnam, because of my job as U.S.
Marine Combat Correspondent, I could pick and choose with whom I decided
to enter combat. I carefully studied which leader had the
least casualties, and was most experienced in overpowering the enemy, and
chose to go with him. I avoided the inexperienced as one might the
plague. I figured I'd learn the most and live to tell about it
from the best. I chose rightly.
In a similar manner, firefighter
Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association,
noted the loss of lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs--the
sergeants of the FDNY--would leave a void in the rank and file. What
he really meant to say was it would leave a Terrorist void.
The void I'm talking about is a bunch of
rookies, sparse on experienced leadership, tackling a blaze in my children's apartments. I think of my grandchildren's safety, where
split second on-the-scene decisions can mean the saving of a life, and
where a moment of indecision can cost one.
I wonder if that's worth $150,000
over the next two decades?
Retiring fire leaders vowed upon
entering the department that the public's safety came first.
Now, economic security seems to dominate.
I wonder if those who are "taking the money
and running" feel a little bit like the executives at Enron or WorldCom or
Tyco, or, if they've even compared themselves to those "kinds of people."
While it is not for me to say what drives a
person to make a decision to leave their job as a public servant, it
appears on the surface that many have chosen the money over the cause.
The "golden parachute" of $150,000 extra in income may have blinded far
too many to leave before their job is done.
Parents of Vigilance have a special
duty, one that exceeds money, power, fame, prestige. That duty
is to insure their fledglings can fly on their own before they abandon
Even though FDNY has
recruited 1,200 new people since September 11, the 13,000 years of
collective experience representing the experience of the retiring 643 fire
personnel, cannot be duplicated. It can't be bought with money.
Vigilance is all about mustering the
Courage and Conviction to take the Right Actions necessary to protect the
Children, and their Children's Children from harm. Terrorism
is about being Fearful and Intimidated and becoming Complacent, turning
one's eye blind to the future of the Children and seeing only the selfish
goal, not the selfless one.
The glitter of gold has, in my
view, blinded many firemen to the responsibility of Vigilance.
In a way, the Heroes of Nine Eleven have become the Terrorists of the
future. By stripping the department bare of experience, those
who chose money over purpose expose the public to harm, and trigger a time
bomb that will go off as a result of faulty leadership.
The real Heroes of Nine
Eleven are not those who rushed into burning buildings on September 11.
That was their job, their duty. That was normal, expected.
The real Heroes of Nine Eleven are those
firemen who could retire and have chosen not to, not because they may not
want to as their friends are doing, but because they hear the call of the
Sentinels of Vigilance, all those who died on Nine Eleven, their comrades
in duty and the other victims of the Terrorism that day.
They hear their Voices
chanting: "Duty!" "Duty!" "Duty!"
They are willing to sacrifice
the gold for the glory, but their glory is unsung, anonymous, a trust bond
they entered into two decades earlier when they raised their hand and
swore their commitment to the public.
These are the real Heroes
of Nine Eleven. These are men and women who could have
"cut and run" but didn't. We won't read about them in the
newspapers because they aren't those kind of people. We may
never know their names. They are the Quiet Heroes, the ones
who represent the highest degree of Vigilance.
They are the ones we
should kneel before.
Go Aug. 6--Terrorist
Attack Kills 400,000 Japanese
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