“An Imperfect Firefighter” – Deven Nahata ’24

“This is you,” he said, handing me a pair of gold keys, one for my new apartment and one for a storage locker in the basement. I was ecstatic. It was the first time I had lived by myself. I thanked the landlord and walked into my new apartment. It was tiny but perfect for me. As I walked on the orange, thin-tiled floor, I marveled at the exposed brick on my new walls. I laid down on my new couch and sighed. It was comfortable. I had finally made it.

Bye, Bradley! Love you!” I heard from the garage as my dad left for work.“Bye, Dad,” I replied. I finished my breakfast and went to school just like any other day. It was my senior year, so I was slacking off a bit. Still, I was excited to see my friends. I walked to school that crisp fall morning, happy as a clam. First-period math went by, then second-period chemistry. During third period, I heard on the loudspeaker, “Bradley Wright, please come to the office. Your mom is here to pick you up.” The class erupted into a chorus of ‘OOOOHHH,’ something I had become accustomed to. I was confused, as my mom didn’t tell me she would pick me up, and she never picked me up early. Not thinking anything of it, I casually walked over to the principal’s office.

Hey Brad, we need to talk,” my mom said somberly. She looked the worst I had ever seen her, like she was crying uncontrollably. “There was a fire this morning across the street from that taco shop we go to. Your dad went to help out, and…” she paused. I knew this wasn’t good. “He passed away,” she finished, continuing to cry. Tears welled up as I thought about him. It didn’t feel real. My dad was my hero. I had just seen him a few hours ago.

Every time I think about that morning, I shed a tear. I decided to walk in my new city to clear my mind. As I walked the sidewalk of New York for the first time, I knew this was different from anything I had ever experienced. Coming from a small town in Iowa, my idea of a city was the equivalent of a strip mall. I was taken aback by the number of people I had seen as I walked the streets of Midtown. The number of shops, restaurants, and buildings seemed endless. The air smelled of smoke and the occasional poultry, depending on which shop I had just passed. The sidewalks were dirty, and the excessive honking I had heard from numerous yellow taxis began irritating me. I continued to walk, noticing countless rats scurrying across the path. At almost every corner, people were smoking, a shocking difference from Iowa. I strolled through Central Park, noticing the number of billboards nearby. I noticed how impersonal this city seemed. Everyone I saw on my walk seemed to be in their world, with nobody acknowledging one another. Many had portable MP3 players with headphone wires dangling as they listened to various pop stars. I figured this was just the culture of the city. On my way home, I stopped at a pizzeria to get my first New York slice. It was just as good as advertised. I walked home and called my mom. “Hey Brad, how’s it going?” she asked.

“It’s been good. I’m in my apartment now. It’s exciting. How is the auto shop? How’s Bobby?” I had worked at the auto shop before moving to New York.

“Everything is going well here,” she replied. “Bobby misses your ability to fix bad engines, but he’ll figure it out.” It felt good to hear her voice. I loved Iowa, but I felt a calling toward this job.

“That’s good. Tell him to give me a call if he needs anything. I miss all of you. It’s gonna be weird not seeing you guys every day,” I said, reminiscing about all the good times we had back home.

“I know. It’ll be okay, baby. I love you,” she replied.

“Love you too, mom. I’ll talk to you soon.” I hung up the phone and went to bed.

The next morning, I slammed the alarm clock on my bedside and crawled out of bed. I threw on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and brushed my teeth. I left my new apartment again, stopped to get a bagel, and went to the subway station. I thought about Bart’s Bagel’s back in Iowa. As a child, my mother used to buy me an everything bagel whenever I came home from school. This New York bagel was good but not as good as Iowa. I got on the B train and headed for Penn Station. From there, I walked a block to my new job. My sergeant greeted me and welcomed me to the station. “Here’s your uniform. When the siren goes off, we get in the trucks as a team and respond to the situation. It’s been pretty quiet this morning, but something could happen at any minute.” The reality of being a firefighter had finally sunk in. I felt nervous, but brushed it off as jitters on my first day. At around 8:30, I sat down and began to make small talk with my fellow firefighters.

“Where’d you get that bagel?” one of them asked.

“Just this place near my apartment,” I replied.

“You have to try Liberty Bagels. It’s a block away from this station. The sergeant gets us bagels from there every week. I’m John, by the way. John Lee.”

“I’m Bradley, but everyone calls me Brad. Nice to finally meet you,” I replied. I noticed the pictures of his wife and daughters on the wall of the precinct.

I sat down next to him, and my mind began to wander.

“Dad, where are you going?” I asked. “There’s a fire at St. Joseph’s. Do you want to come with me?” It was the first time he had invited me to accompany him to a fire. ‘YES!’ I exclaimed, not fully comprehending the gravity of the situation. We got into my dad’s old pickup truck and drove to the fire station. As we approached the church in the truck, I looked around at my dad’s colleagues, and they were unfazed. It was just another day of work for them. I always admired that about firefighters.

While I was daydreaming about my childhood, we heard the loud, unpleasant siren go off, and we all grabbed our gear and headed to the trucks. Our sergeant was aggressively yelling at us to get in the truck, and once we were all in, he told us the situation. “A plane has hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Initial estimates are around 30,000 people inside the towers.”

I had been around firefighters my entire life, yet for the first time, I watched every firefighter in the truck stare blankly into the abyss, visibly shaken by what they had just heard. The opposite of what I saw in my dad’s colleagues on the way to that church. I looked at John as we processed the events in pure shock. Neither of us said a word. When we got to the World Trade Center, it was unlike anything I had ever seen, even on TV. I put my mask on as I watched innocent civilians flee the streets, pure chaos all around me in one of the busiest areas in the world. Police officers tried to calm horrified civilians, most of whom were sobbing uncontrollably. Others were screaming and running away from the towers, trying to look away from the terrifying sight. Large, black clouds of smoke emanated from the top of the tower, and it only got worse. I looked over at the side of the building, and what I saw shocked me. I saw someone wearing a suit and holding a briefcase fall to their death from the height of the towers. It was horrifying. Still, I had to maintain face. I looked over at John as he gave me a quick nod, and we went into the towers together.

We walked into the towers together. On the way up the stairs, he said, “Our goal right now is to get as many people down from the tower’s heights as possible.” We all understood the assignment. We continued the trek, trying to conserve as much energy as possible, when we heard another loud “CRASH.” We had no idea what it was, but we all instantly knew that something else terrible had happened. However, we had to keep going if these people could survive. We continued to walk until we got to the 65th floor, where John and I went in to rescue people from the elevators.

“Brad, you evacuate the 65th floor. I’ll start trying to rescue people from the elevators. Let’s meet back where the truck is parked afterward.” I nodded and followed his orders. I walked onto the floor, and it was a chaotic scene. Papers were flying everywhere in an otherwise highly professional office space. People ran all over the place, trying to gather their insignificant belongings as they rushed to the elevators, only to realize they were out of service. I yelled as loud as I could, “Everyone, if I could have your attention, please. All of you need to head to the stairs in an orderly fashion. Do so quickly.” Most people abided and did so reasonably easily. However, I noticed a short old lady trying to climb the stairs, but she was slow. I wanted to help her along, but it was clear that neither of us would make it if we continued like this. I decided to pick her up and carry her down the 65 flights of stairs. As I walked the first five flights down, I realized how difficult this would be, but I persevered. “What’s your name?” I asked, trying to calm both of us down. “Marie”, she replied. “I don’t even work here. I came to drop off lunch for my daughter.” She cried, panicked. I didn’t know what to say. “We’ll get down safely. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure of it.” I replied. I continued down what seemed to be the longest walk of my life and the most grueling workout I have ever done. Floor by floor, we continued on our journey, not saying much but forming a bond with one another. Eventually, we made it. Everyone on the 65th floor seemed to have been out of the building. Returning to the truck for further instructions from my sergeant, I found it empty.

The time was 9:43 a.m. As I returned, I noticed another cloud of smoke coming from behind the tower. I walked to my left to get a better look and realized it was coming from the South Tower. I realized that the South Tower had also been hit. At this moment, I realized this was not an accident.

“A few minutes later, and I heard, “Officer Wright. Officer Wright!” I turned around to see an unfamiliar man who seemed to be another high-ranking officer. “This woman is choking!” I looked to my left, and there she was. It was Marie, kneeling on the dirty New York streets, coughing uncontrollably. I panicked; my hands began to shake. I walked over to her and tried to give her the Heimlich maneuver, but it was not working. I didn’t know what to do, so I yelled, “I NEED AN AMBULANCE.” Nobody came to her rescue. There were too many people in need of help. “AMBULANCE PLEASE. OVER HERE!” I shouted again. I tried to listen for her breath but couldn’t hear anything. She was flickering in and out of consciousness at every moment. I tried to keep her awake for as long as possible, but I quickly realized there was only so much I could do. “PLEASE!” I yelled again, defeated. Finally, someone finally came over, but it was too late. By this point, she was unconscious and not breathing. I watched as the medics put the woman on a stretcher, slowly coming to the realization that my efforts were not enough.

“Officer Wright, in here!” I heard one of my dad’s colleagues call from a room. I began to panic and began pacing around the outside of the church. I waited, becoming more worried as the time passed. I checked the Star Wars watch my dad gave me for Christmas. 8:32 pm. I watched as the minute hand continued to tick. At last, I saw my dad running out of the house with a small child on his shoulders. The child looked terrible. He was burned and cut all over his face and arms, sobbing as my dad carried him out. It looked like something out of a movie. My dad was a hero.

I thought about my dad, the heroic firefighter that everyone loved. And here I was, just trying to make a difference, unable to be like him. As I stared into the abyss, I heard another BOOM. I looked over and saw the unthinkable. I watched a building so unmistakable in New York crumble to the ground, with more smoke emanating from the region. Panels of glass seemed to fall from the sky, and I thought the building would crush me. Through the crushing sound of the building, you could hear the screams of those still inside. I thought about my new colleagues. So many brave firefighters were in the South Tower trying to rescue innocent civilians, but I knew that very few of them survived.

Suddenly, I felt myself becoming short of breath. My first instinct was to leave. So I did. I took off my uniform and started walking aimlessly. I checked my watch. 10:09 a.m. It occurred to me that everything that I had just seen had occurred within just 90 minutes of my morning, yet it felt like an entire lifetime full of traumatic events. I watched as more firetrucks raced down the streets of New York to assist at the towers, blaring their sirens throughout the streets of Manhattan. Ridden with guilt, I continued on my long journey home.

I got to my apartment feeling the opposite of what I did the day before. I felt hopeless.

On the way home that night, I asked my dad, “Why did you become a firefighter?”. He replied almost instantly. “Because I wanted to save people. There was a house fire when I was seven years old. A firefighter carried me out of the house like I did to that kid today. I looked up to firefighters for the rest of my childhood and always wanted to pay it forward.

I thought back to the day after graduating high school.

I sat in my bed, thinking about my future. Ever since my dad passed, I knew I wanted to be a firefighter. I thought that following in his footsteps would be really cool. However, I just couldn’t stay in this town. I had talked to my dad’s old coworkers about joining after graduation, but there was no way I keep my sanity working with the people my dad had worked with all those years. I thought about doing something else, but at the moment, becoming a firefighter elsewhere felt like my calling.

After staying on my couch for hours, too guilt-ridden and weak to move, I finally mustered the courage to get up. I returned to the towers to redeem myself for what I had done earlier. When I got there, I watched as firefighters were still trying to rescue people from the rubble several hours later. I watched as medics carried out hundreds of dead bodies from the towers. But most shocking, I watched John, the fearless firefighter I had met just a few hours prior, drop to his knees and cry. Every aspect of my fantasy of a new life in New York City was crumbling before my very eyes.

This was the first moment I had truly wondered if I had made the wrong decision, but I tried to persevere and help as best I could with the site’s cleanup. I kept seeing other firefighters with their faces covered in charcoal and cuts all around, still doing their jobs to the best of their ability. I thought about how weak I was to leave out of fear. As I walked home a few hours later, I saw hundreds of people gathered in the streets, praying for the families of the lost victims. Local shops were open, giving people things for free to stay comfortable. Everyone in this initially seemingly introverted city was now coming together to help everyone they could. It was surreal.

When I returned to my apartment, I looked around at the boxes of things I had begun unpacking the night before. Instinctively, I began refilling these boxes. I knew I had made the wrong decision. My dad and I are not the same. It was time to return home.