In the Fire of Ground Zero

“Our strength lies in doing things together.”
These were the words of Thomas Cashin, Deputy Chief of the Lafayette Street fire station in Manhattan, accepting the Charles Péguy Award given by the Human Adventure Corporation, through an initiative of CL in New York


Their secret is not their training, much less is it hidden behind strategies worked out at a desk by some expert in “Group Motivation,” as happens in so many offices throughout the world. “Our strength lies in doing things together. Not only at work, but also in everyday life, with our families or on weekends. And when we are out on a call, each one knows he can count on the other; each of us is there for the other.” It is hard to find another workplace where one of the bosses–in this case New York fire fighters’ Deputy Chief Thomas Cashin–explains with such disarming simplicity what maintains the unity of men who put on a uniform every morning, knowing that they are going to face a day filled with peril.

The words of the Deputy Chief and his colleagues at the Lafayette Street fire station in Soho (near Ground Zero) are far from rhetorical. All you have to do is glance past Cashin’s desk to grasp this. Hanging on a wall is a folder entitled “Funerals update”–it is the current list of the funerals for his fellow fire fighters who died on September 11th. The firehouse where Cashin has his office houses two squads of fire fighters, Ladder Company 20 and Squad 18; the first lost six men under the Twin Towers, the second, eight. The entire division headed by the Deputy Chief–who is responsible for the entire area south of 34th Street in Manhattan–left 95 fire fighters under the rubble of the World Trade Center. And overall, the corps counted 343 dead.

The Human Adventure Corporation, the operational arm of the CL Movement in New York, every year assigns an award named after Charles Péguy, destined to someone who has devoted himself to promoting in his own life what is most profoundly human in society. This year the prize could only go to the New York Fire Department, for their sacrifice in America’s darkest hour. Deputy Chief Cashin accepted the award on behalf of the department, at a gala evening in a splendid dining room at Union Theological Seminary in upper Manhattan. This was the occasion for discovering many points in common and a mutual admiration.

In recent months, the New York fire fighters have received hundreds of prizes and expressions of esteem. But the “passion for the human” which underlies the experience out of which the Charles Péguy Award was born, whose roots in the education given by Fr Giussani were recalled by Chris Bacich, perhaps enabled a deeper understanding of the sacrifice made on September 11th. Cashin himself underlined this. After participating in dozens of ceremonies of every type during this period, he recounted that this time he had found “something different and more intriguing.” So many things amazed him, he explained at the end of the evening: the choir, the pieces played on the piano, the talks, the joyous finale offered by the Bay Ridge Band, and, above all, the relationships that began and have grown with some persons in the Movement, before and after September 11th. Cashin struck everyone when he said from the speaker’s platform that the New York fire fighters “are honored to receive an award dedicated to Péguy, who gave his life in war to serve his country.”

There were sufficient elements to want to understand more about the type of experience behind the façade of this small army of men in uniform, who have become the symbol of rebirth and hope for a country struck for the first time at the heart in its most important city. Two days after the awards ceremony, Traces thus met with Deputy Chief Cashin again, this time on a workday morning in his office in Soho. Outside, at the entrance to the firehouse, there are still the photos and flowers left by passersby in honor of the dead, and tourists stop constantly to ask to take a picture with the “heroes” next to their red fire engines. Inside, in the command headquarters, Cashin and three colleagues were watching on a TV set the raw, terrible images of a video made on September 11th inside the Twin Towers by a crew that was with the fire fighters on the streets of Manhattan that morning. The long film recounted the tragedy as only a few saw it, through the close-ups and the work of dozens of fire fighters who are no longer here today. No TV network will ever be able to show these images, because it has been forbidden to broadcast them and now they are destined only for internal use by the Fire Department.

Watching that video helps also to keep the tension high, because everyone is afraid of the moment when the activity of the fire fighters will no longer be as frenetic as in these months and there will be an inevitable letdown. “For us, the hardest part starts now,” Cashin explained. “Our boys will no longer be absorbed solely by their work; there will be more time to think. And no one knows what will happen, because it is the first time that something like this has happened, and not even the experts know what sort of emotions have accumulated in this period.”

It is here that the spirit that animates the activity of the fire fighters becomes crucial once again. The union that exists among them, their sense of community could be for many the only salvation from their nightmares. “I have been a fireman since 1963,” Cashin said, “and I have never had a day of regret. I work with great people and it is a fantastic experience. My son Thomas, who is 25, after September 11th started thinking about becoming a fire fighter too. He had never thought about it before. I’m a little worried about it, I won’t deny it, but I want him to be happy. He will decide if this is what will make him happy, as it always has for me.”

Before the World Trade Center, the worst crisis Cashin remembers was in 1977, when race riots tore apart the Bronx and other parts of the city for weeks. But this pales in comparison with September 11th. That morning, the Deputy Chief was at home in Brooklyn, and when he heard the news he dressed quickly, commandeered a city bus, and made the driver go around to the firehouses in the area to pick up all the men who had not gone out with the fire engines. He arrived in Manhattan with about forty fire fighters on the bus, and right then started organizing the complex machine of the work at Ground Zero and surrounding areas, a task that lasted for days and days.

For weeks, the only pause in the work was for funerals, deeply felt in a corps that is among the most profoundly religious (and Catholic, in particular) groups in America. Now that there is more time for reflection, there are those who, like Lieutenant Timmy O’Neill, a friend and co-worker of Cashin, is thinking worriedly of the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City a few years ago: “Ten or eleven months after the massacre, the deepest signs left on people’s psyches began to emerge. The divorce rate went up, there were suicides, emotions became harder to control.”

But the fire fighters’ strength, Cashin repeated, “is that we are together and we do things together,” and when people are united, O’Neill added, everything is easier. “When I started this job, I didn’t know anything. At my first fire, I slipped on the stairs and came down all the steps on my backside… Then I started watching the others. That’s the only way to learn: watching and following another.”