Even heroes have a right to bleed by Daniel Nigro

As a retired 33-year FDNY veteran, this is my first attempt at writing what I hope will become a regular column in this new on-line publication. I’ll address an array of currently relevant issues seen through the eyes of a former Department Chief. I realize that it’s certainly easier to solve difficult problems and confront difficult issues now that I am not responsible for much! The fact that I was once Chief of Department should not limit me from discussing subjects relating to our beloved Department. I’ll do my best to openly and honestly put forth my thoughts, with no intention at criticism or second-guessing, only a desire to offer opinions shaped by my personal experiences.


New York, NY, September 29, 2001 — New York residents express their gratitude to the rescue workers involved in the recovery operations underway at the World Trade Center.

I have always enjoyed learning new and strange words. Schadenfreude is a favorite, but it’s tough to work it into everyday conversation without sounding like a pretentious geek. This German word, which means “taking malicious joy in the misfortune of others,” has no English equivalent, and so it has entered our language untranslated. Schadenfreude. You know the feeling: Someone who’s been having “all the luck” finally gets knocked down a peg, and you feel they had it coming. Your boss, who gives you grief when you’re late for work, gets a flat tire himself: you can’t help but grin when you get his call. Your neighbor, Mr. Perfect, who’s always dishing out advice, has an outbreak of crabgrass in his flawless lawn: you tell yourself “it’s about time.” The family across the street with the bumper stickers boasting: “My Kid is an Honor Student” finds out that one of their “little angels” is a pot head: you can’t help yourself from smirking. Schadenfreude is not a good thing, but we’ve all been guilty of it now and then.

Well, I think I’ve finally found a context for this unusual word. Following the tragic events of September 11th, New York City’s firefighters became America’s Heroes, and rightly so. Those who perished were immediately recognized for their courage, and those who survived honored the memory of their fallen brothers in the days, weeks and months following. During my year as Chief of Department, I was very proud to represent New York City’s firefighters. It was an honor and a privilege beyond words, beyond description. I will always be thankful for that opportunity. There was an unprecedented and immediate outpouring of generosity and kindness toward our firefighters from around the world. Firefighters stood for everything that was good about humanity; the image of the three firefighters raising the flag in the ruins of the Towers became an immediate icon. Those who perished (and their brave families) deserved this surge of love and admiration; their actions need no elaboration. Our firefighters carried on, protecting our City while also digging and sifting, twenty-four hours a day, for the remains of the murdered. The firefighters earned the respect of everyone; the profession was never more admired and esteemed.


New York, NY, September 26, 2001 — New York City firefighter Tony Marden gazes into the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Firefighters and other rescue workers tackle the daunting task of clearing the thousands of tons of debris around the clock.

Some may have believed that this period would never end, but of course it naturally had to. The firefighters, along with the rest of New York City, needed a return to normalcy. That need was fine and reasonable; I have no quarrel with it. The intensity of the year following that tragedy could not be expected to be sustained. So, the natural cooling and quieting of things could be regarded as a welcome time for healing and strengthening. But in turning that corner, do we really need to travel in the opposite direction? What strikes me as sad is how some Department-related stories are being reported and commented upon. Are we witnessing Schadenfreude? Is it an example of “the bigger they are the harder the fall”? There have been many days of news headlines and lead television stories shouting: “Firefighters leaving their wives for 9/11 widows.” Were there any stories of the hundreds of untrained and traumatized firefighters who had been designated as family liaisons and given the responsibility of caring for the families of the heroes? Are there any stories of their wonderful job of stepping into the vacuum and assisting families in every conceivable manner? For days and weeks we read: “Firefighter strikes Firefighter in firehouse brawl.” Of course it’s a major story–assault is a serious criminal act. But did it deserve bigger headlines than the War in Iraq? Did anyone else detect Schadenfreude in this story, or in the letters to the editor printed in many newspapers? Were some people sitting home waiting for an opportunity (provided by the Staten Island incident) to comment about the evils of firehouse “culture,” firehouse “mentality,” firefighter insensitivity, or fire officers drinking on duty and singing Kareoke (as if drinking itself weren’t bad enough). And there have been still more reports of alcohol or drug use by firefighters. Again, very serious problems, but are we ready to accept the broad brush maligning all firefighters as the underlying theme of these sad events? In no way do I direct this at the media – the media gives us what we want. We wanted feel-good stories following September 11th and we got them. Are these disparaging stories what we want now, and if so, why? We’re better and kinder than that; or were the days and months following September 11th an illusion?


New York, NY, September 29, 2001 — New York residents express their gratitude to the rescue workers involved in the recovery operations underway at the World Trade Center.

Many beautiful songs accented the funerals and memorial services of our Heroes of September 11th. Even the unexpected songs were moving. At one mass I attended, “Superman” by Five for Fighting was played. We all sat silently, touched by the words and the images brought to mind. One memorable line says: “It may sound absurd, but don’t be naïve, even heroes have the right to bleed.” Even heroes have a right to stumble; even heroes have a right to the mistakes of “normal” people. But when our heroes stumble, will we help them up and fill the pothole they stumbled in? Or will we be guilty of Schadenfreude and quietly whisper: “See, they’re not perfect, are they!”
At every service we heard “Amazing Grace,” mostly without the words, just the haunting sound of bagpipes. But the words were sung often enough for us to remember the end of verse one: ”I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Grace is a more appropriate and useful response than Schadenfreude. I hope we will be able to remember that even heroes need help and support. The Fire Department and its Counseling Unit admirably continue to offer many supporting services to our firefighters, and wish to continue these programs for as long as necessary. I hope all of us outside the Department continue to support their efforts. Firefighters may not need the level and style of support required following September 11th (or do they?), but our support they need and deserve nonetheless.


New York, NY, September 29, 2001 — New York residents express their gratitude to the rescue workers involved in the recovery operations underway at the World Trade Center.

We’re told that certain terrorist criminals are still at large, plotting against us. How can we not believe it? Despite increased preparations and vigilance, we’re still vulnerable to terrorist attacks. If and when they strike, we expect our firefighters to once again be there for us in our darkest hours. We assume that they will be there to place themselves between us and danger. Let us ensure that we do all we can to get between them and harmful and hurtful treatment. Let us make sure that we are not guilty of malicious joy at others’ misfortunes. Discipline is necessary and important, but without compassion and concern it serves no one’s interests. Even heroes have a right to bleed.