Holding An Old Leather Helmet
By: Kaitlin O'Donnell
I never stopped believing that my father’s rough and blistered hands could hold the weight of the world. Some things stick with us forever. In the early hours of the morning he quietly got his bags—careful not to wake us—but the sound of his footsteps leaving, no matter how soft, time and again awoke me from my dreams. When I opened my eyes, there he was to give me that hug that held so much. In that hug, the strength, the courage, the love he had for us, bigger than any fire, somehow whispered that he would be home tomorrow, forever.

I never spent much time worrying that my father wouldn’t walk through our door the next morning; it’s not something we had control over. But we knew the importance of that hug goodbye—something that made us sure to say, “I love you” before he left.

On September 11, 2001, too many families had only that last hug, the last “I love you” to hang on to.

Looking at the television screen, seeing only smoke and ash, we were silent—silent until the camera held its position on the fire trucks, deserted and alone, outside of what we will forever know to be “Ground Zero”. My brother said to me “Katie, all those firefighters went in—all of them.” Everything inside of me twisted, it hurt. Though New York City is thousands of miles away from San Francisco where my dad was a firefighter, nothing ever hit as close to home as the image we saw. We used to beg my father to tell us stories about fires. Growing up, he was always our hero, and there was nothing we loved more than hearing about him and his crew running into burning buildings to save civilians. We knew he had many friends that got hurt on the job, and some tragically killed, but no one ever believes it will happen to their own loved one. We were proud to hear from his co-workers that our father was known for his courage. But at that moment I never felt so empty knowing the double-edged sword of courage. Those firefighters, like my own father does, ran into a building when everyone else was running out. After a second that felt like it went on forever, my brother and I looked at each other and we both knew that this day would stick with us, would stick with the world forever.

Never was it so apparent to the nation, as it was that day, that when a crew runs into a burning building they may never come out. The strength we saw in those firefighters was something most of society has not seen publicly, unless they were individually unlucky enough to be struck by a tragedy. Firefighters were no longer just simple blue-collar men; they became the symbol of a relentless nation that would build itself again.

There is something about the character of a firefighter that is incomparable to any other. Their camaraderie is everywhere they are. We saw this when the FDNY were at Ground Zero day after day, digging to keep their pact that they would never leave the site of a fire without their whole crew.

This camaraderie didn’t begin on September eleventh, it has been present generation after generation. What makes firefighters like family isn’t just the serious nature of the job, it’s the joking, the teasing and the laughter that comes with the love of being a brother. At the sound of an alarm they shift gears from being brothers and friends sitting around the dinner table, slapping backs and joking about politics, to firefighters ready to face whatever challenge is ahead of them—together as one. Without asking questions, they rush to their respective rigs, lights and sirens, and they’re gone.

Now especially, society knows that these firefighters are among the most courageous, they are our “heroes.” However, these men are more than heroes. They are my family. My father, Dan O’Donnell worked for the City of San Francisco, on Rescue Company No. 1, for thirty years. The names of his brothers were just as much a part of our lives as breathing. These were the men that my father went to work with, everyday for as long as I could remember—the people that took funny pictures at firehouse parties, the men that drove the fire truck on the city streets with a big fat Santa sitting on top of Truck Company No. 1, these were the men that I knew with all my heart would not walk out of a building without my father by their side.

At my father’s recent retirement dinner, one of these men said that when he went into a fire with my father, he knew that either both of them would walk out together, or neither of them would. This is the kind of trust that distinguishes firefighters from anyone else, this is what makes them larger than life, and I am honored to love them—they who would do anything to bring their crew home, home to their families.

My father told me that after September 11th they were being treated differently at work by the citizens of San Francisco than ever before. They had gotten a routine call for a resuscitation at a restaurant downtown, they walked in and the entire restaurant stood and applauded. It was no surprise to hear when he told me the applause made him a bit uncomfortable. For years they had done the same job, for years they had run into burning buildings, not expecting praise, but now they were being treated like super-heroes.

I knew I wasn’t going to be home for my fathers retirement day on January 31, 2002, so before I left to go back to college in Colorado after Christmas vacation, I went to his fire station to see him one last time in uniform. I held his dirty and twisted helmet just like I had done hundreds of times before—but what I saw never had the effect it did at that moment. I noticed the strong burnt smell that lingered on the helmet, the dirtiness of it, the fading black and red “Rescue 1—SFFD.” That is what it was all about. That helmet told more than anything or anyone ever could about the thirty years my father spent in the department. It was a reflection of how he gave all the strength he had to that job—more than a job, a way of life. It was then I realized why the days leading to his retirement were so hard for him. He didn’t want to let go. Most people count down the days until they can retire from the job they have done for thirty years—not firefighters. It’s like moving away from your family, walking away from your home—you want to turn back but you can’t, so you walk on knowing a piece of you will forever stay there.

It isn’t about the public applause or recognition, though it is appreciated, it isn’t why firefighters do what they do. Though that recognition offered the New York Fire Department support at time when it was desperately needed, it is the character of these firefighters that allows them to forge on. It is this character that marks them heroes - it is those old, burnt and faded leather helmets that tell the truth of the job. When things go wrong in the world, when things go wrong in the Department, they come back for each other because they are “brothers” and wear their helmets with pride and dignity.


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