Van Buren Street runs three blocks through New Brighton, a few hundred yards from Staten Island's northern shoreline. It is a narrow, leafy street of mixed fortune, with well-tended gardens and rambling wood-framed houses sprinkled among bruised A-frames and yards of weedy neglect. The yellow two-story house at 39 Van Buren Street is the smallest and neatest on its block. A spotless patio and hip-high iron fence separate the sidewalk from a compact front garden of ferns and shrubs under a bay window. A slim cement path runs around the back to a tiny fenced-in backyard. Cheery and quiet, it does not look like the kind of building that would kill a New York City firefighter. It does not seem like the kind of place someone would die to save. But it is.
This month, New York City and the world will mark the grim anniversary of an event in which the New York City Fire Department, the largest fire service in the U.S., played a heroic and tragic role. The FDNY's 343 deaths on Sept. 11 represent the largest loss of life by any public safety agency in American history. And while just under 3,000 innocents were murdered on 9/11, including many other first responders, nothing captured the moral imprint of the day quite like the image of hundreds of firefighters making their way up the stairs while everyone else fled. Some firefighters stopped to make a last confession before they began their ascent. Some stayed with injured civilians even when death was certain. That day's scenes will never leave us.
Nor should its lessons. Sept. 11 was many things—a political earthquake, an intelligence debacle—but at its core, it was a fire. And so it had lessons to teach about how New York City might fight fires like that in the future.
Time, however, did not stop on 9/11. The city soon went back to living and working and burning. The FDNY has battled a quarter of a million structural fires since the twin towers fell. And it has lost 11 men doing so. One, Thomas Brick, got lost and died in a furniture warehouse. Another, Richard Sclafani, met his end in a cellar. John Martinson died in an apartment fire. The others fell off roofs or leapt from windows, or died in floor collapses or high-rise disasters.
Few will remember the anniversaries of these deaths. But in a way, they are just as important as the deaths on Sept. 11, not just to the families who lost husbands or sons but also to the firefighters who, as you read this, are probably pulling up in front of a building somewhere in New York City.
Ten years after Sept. 11 is a good time to revisit what that day's very costly lessons were and whether the New York City Fire Department has learned them. But the prospect of another Sept. 11 is as unlikely as it is terrifying. Fires in basements and factories and two-story homes, however, will happen all the time. So it's important to also learn the lessons that people like Brick, Sclafani and Martinson paid for with their lives.
Since 2006, City Limits has been using the Freedom of Information Law to gather official FDNY reports on line-of-duty deaths from 1991 to the present. These documents and others, along with interviews with current and former FDNY personnel, fire experts and kin of the deceased, point to a set of factors that contributed to those deaths, and the many reports on Sept. 11 detail the lessons that disaster had to teach. FDNY reports and interviews with experts indicate whether the lessons from these many fatalities have led to meaningful change in New York City. Our investigation found:
A context for danger
In addition to the 11 New York City firefighters who died fighting fires since September 11, three firefighters died of acute medical problems and two FDNY emergency medical services workers also died on the job.
Firefighting is, however, far from the most dangerous job in America. Of all 4,551 people who died while working nationwide in 2009, only 41 were professional firefighters. In New York City alone, 81 construction workers died from 2006 through 2010, compared with nine FDNY members.
Map of firefighter fatalities, 1991-2011
But firefighting is one of the few jobs in which people die trying to save other people. And while firefighter deaths are fairly rare, they are more common than one might expect, given the sharp decline in fires over the past four decades. The rate of fires per 1,000 people in the U.S. decreased from 14.9 in 1977 to 4.4 in 2009. The number of firefighter deaths (including volunteers) fell from 157 to 90 per year in that time—an impressive change, for sure, but not in line with the fall in fires.
In the entire U.K. in 2008—the last year for which statistics are available—not a single fire-fighter died. The year before, six did. More than 236 American firefighters died over that span of time.
Across the country, efforts are under way to reduce firefighter deaths. The Department of Homeland Security is funding a program called the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System, in which firefighters share near-deadly experiences in the hope of allowing others to avoid close calls. Meanwhile, the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation is mounting an effort called Everybody Goes Home that intends to change policies and practices that contribute to death at fire scenes.