Brothers On the Pile

by James Washington
New York, USA

My name is Jimmy; I’m a professional firefighter in New York. In my many years of service I have worked at only three firehouses, and we treat each other like family. When we hear 5-5-5-5 ring out, we know that a brother or sister firefighter has died in the line of duty.

Brothers on the PileOn the morning of September 11, 2001, things were OK around here. Some guys were in the kitchen drinking coffee, some were upstairs. I was in front of the truck watching people go by. Like always, people were in a rush and did not even look up. Then it hit. You know about that. But what you don’t know is about some of the guys who came to help.

One guy named Phil helped out. He acted like one of us, worked as hard as any of us. His turnout gear was even black. I did not even know that this guy was not FDNY for several days. He never wore the jacket, or I would have seen it did not say FDNY on it.

Phil is a mountain-man type who rides horses, climbs rock cliffs and stuff. I know that now. But then, he was just another brother working on the pile. I do not remember him showing up; it was like he was always there. He worked all the time. I would go home and rest and see my wife and so on, then be back 6-7 hours later. I worked my rotation, but mostly I was on the pile the first few days. We all were.

I would see Phil digging, on the line, even crawling out of a hole. He was always around and always working like hell. He never spoke. The guys were not chatterboxes on the pile, but he didn’t say anything. If he had said “pass me the line” or anything, I would have known he was not from the Bronx.

He pushed himself so hard, I had to ask if he had eaten anything or had any water. Then I heard his accent and I was blown away. Who was this guy? What was he doing here? I didn’t ask then. I kept seeing him for days, looking for him because I wondered how long he’d keep it up. Most guys that come to help last a few hours and they’re gone. This guy is there night and day, all the time, working like he has a brother lost in the pile.

Turns out he is a brother, just not FDNY. He is from a small town in North Carolina, and works most of the time on the bus (ambulance). He didn’t know anybody who was lost that day, but he heard the news and took time off the job to help for a couple weeks. He told me that as far as he could tell, we were all family and he was there to do his part.

Take it from a brother: Phil is the man.

Originally published as HeroicStories #501 on April 1, 2004

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