Main

24 Hours, 12 Heroes
The Secret City on latimes.com

Features column: At Fire Station 21, heroism among local firefighters and paramedics is abundant, even when headlines are not.

Glendale Fire Department Battalion Chief Donald Wright was driving to work on Sept. 11 when he learned that airplanes were crashing into the World Trade Center.

When Wright arrived at his post, Fire Station 21, just behind the Glendale Galleria, he and a few colleagues watched the television coverage of the attacks. Soon enough, he would have the time to react the same way so many of us did, filled with shock and horror, anger and sorrow. But right then, with the twin towers still standing, Wright pictured himself at ground zero.

He noted where the fire and rescue staging area was set up. He counted the number of emergency vehicles on the scene. He estimated how many personnel were being sent inside and how many people were wounded or trapped. This, Wright observed, was a textbook example of a fire-and-rescue operation.

And then the first tower collapsed.

"We all just sat there and looked at that, and looked at each other," Wright says, 11 days after the hijackings. He's taking a short break from flipping pancakes at a department-organized community breakfast fundraiser for New York Fire Department orphans and widows that would raise $62,000.

"And we didn't say it, but we realized that every guy that we had hypothetically--and that they had actually--put in that building, just disappeared. All those people had been wiped off the face of the earth," Wright says.

"We thought about it and thought about it and said, 'We would have done exactly the same thing.' And we would probably do exactly the same thing tomorrow, depending on the circumstances. It's what we do."

* * *
Glendale's Fire Station 21 is a large, clean and new facility. It has a brick fa├žade, cloudy-glass ornamentation and even a small museum. Seven bay doors house a small fleet of distinctly pear-colored rescue ambulances and firefighting vehicles. There are nine stations in this city of more than 200,000; this one is the flagship.

Teams of 12 men--Glendale has one woman firefighter, but she's based at a different station--work three 24-hour shifts per week. Today is Monday, two days after the pancake breakfast. The "C Platoon" that Wright oversees arrives for a briefing at 7:30 a.m. These men won't be relieved until 7:30 the next day. And they repeat that schedule Wednesday and Saturday.

The men say they work as firefighters and paramedics because they like the action. They say they do it because they like to help people. They say they do it because that's what they are paid to do.

And when they work the extra shifts they invariably seem to do, the extra money comes in handy on a municipal salary.

During any given shift, calls can come at any time. Three tones and flashing white lights provide the "go" signal, followed by the crackling voice of dispatch from the intercoms on the ceilings.

The day's first call, at 8 a.m., is for a gas smell at an apartment house. It turns out to be nothing major.

"You've got to treat each one like it's the big one," Captain Dan Nichols says. He's the commander of Truck 21--the big rig with the 100-foot ladder. He's 33 years old, and Sept. 11 was his first-ever shift as a captain.

"I'll always remember the day," he says, "for the wrong reason."

Engineer Zach Story is second-in-command on the truck. He drives and is in charge of the ladder. If this were a roaring fire, he'd go to the top of the building, stand directly over the hottest spot of the blaze and cut a hole in the roof, a dangerous yet standard procedure called ventilating.

Brian Dewhirst and Dwayne Carlton are the other members of the crew. Like Nichols, Dewhirst wears a mustache. He sits in the far back and handles the second steering wheel. The baby-faced Carlton sits in the cabin, an ax at his side.

Carlton's in his first year in Glendale and his first as a firefighter, so the others tag him "rookie" even though he's been a paramedic elsewhere for 11 years. There's not a single conflagration the entire shift. That means no brush fires for which special trucks, training and equipment are required. No indoor fires for which the crew members don their hoods and oxygen tanks amidst thick, black smoke and the orange glow of crackling flames.

If it had gotten hot like that today, the hoses and pumps of Engine 21 would have been required. The Engine is the smaller vehicle, the one with the 500-gallon H2O tank in back and the valves that connect to hydrants on the side. Its crew members extinguish fires, while the Engine crew does search and rescue.

Captain Jack Morrison is in charge of the Engine this shift. His engineer is Mark Callejo, subbing in from another station. The two swap mock jests up front. In back, square-jawed firefighter John Kearns wears a light blue headset and wraparound sunglasses. Later, he'll help train cadets in ladder techniques. Scott McMahon is the fourth member. Fifteen hours from now, he'll still have enough stamina and brainpower to effectively play a video football strategy game on the big-screen television that the men chipped in to purchase.

When the mood strikes and time permits, the firefighters and paramedics sit on the rows of recliners housed in their lounge. That's where the video game and television are, as well as trophies and other memorabilia. There's no point in getting too comfortable, though. When a call comes, they go, whether they are in the lounge, the shower or as has happened, seated around the table in the industrial-sized kitchen, having Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with their families.

The modern-day minutemen of Fire Station 21 are so conditioned to leave immediately that they keep their boots in the garage, right next to the doors of their respective rides. Trousers, those familiar yellow, flame-retardant ones, are drooped over the boots.

Firefighters and paramedics are not like the rest of us. They put their pants on two legs at a time.
* * *
Terry Williamson is 48 years old and was a firefighter for nearly two decades before making the switch to paramedic in 1999. Williamson is mostly bald with outcrops of hair that look like rocks on a smooth night sea; Robert Duvall would play him in a biopic. His partner, Ed Marquez, is everybody's all-American, 30 years old with large muscles and a short, spiky coif.

Today, Williamson is the designated driver and radio operator; Marquez rides in back with the patients. Williamson is working his third straight day. He's 54 hours into a 72-hour stretch during which he'll get a total of eight hours sleep.

Marquez is en route to 120 hours of consecutive work. Impossibly, he doesn't appear tired. Throughout his shift, he displays enough charm to tease king cobras from wicker baskets.

On one run, a call about breathing difficulties, the caregivers of an elderly woman tell the paramedics that the woman doesn't speak. Marquez has her talking within minutes.

During another run, Marquez soothes a teenage girl with cuts on her face from a minor traffic accident by chattering with her about school, cheerleading, skateboarding and career choices. The girl's little sister rides along in a seat at the head of the gurney. Marquez makes sure she's calm, too.

The shift's most haunting calls occur after dark. A woman with a physically debilitating terminal illness is feeling unwell. Williamson and a colleague attempt to determine if she has a do-not-resuscitate order. Her family doesn't seem to understand the question. Or perhaps they don't want to understand.

The next call scrambles the entire platoon. A car collision has left a young woman's driver's-side door mangled, with her stuck inside.

Paramedics and firefighters swarm the car, climbing in through the passenger's-side door, sunroof, broken window--seemingly everywhere but the tailpipe. Truck 21 shows up and the firefighters break out a "jaws-of-life" cutting tool.

Meanwhile, a crowd of 100 has gathered to watch. One young man sits on a short wall and eats ice cream from a plastic cup.

The young woman's mother comes forward. Her daughter is in much better condition than the scene would make it appear. The mother doesn't know that. She is hysterical. "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?" she screams, over and over again.

Eventually, firefighters and others in the crowd calm her down. The woman is extricated from the car and taken to LAC/USC Medical Center. That's the fifth hospital to which Marquez and Williamson have delivered patients. It's also their 16th call today; two more were yet to come. Marquez says his personal record is 19 or 20 in a single shift. Williamson has had 21.

"It's still early," Marquez says shortly before midnight, after the 17th call. Or as Williamson had put it earlier, activating his siren during a string of calls that sent the paramedics pinballing around the city: "Welcome to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride."
* * *
As luck, or the "Call Gods" that Williamson laughs about, or just plain chance would have it, the final assignment of the shift arrives extremely early, at about 1:30 a.m. Minutes later, the paramedics arrive at an apartment building, the scene of an alleged assault. The engine crew from nearby Fire Station 22 has arrived already. One of them waves Marquez away before he can make it to the door.

Without breaking stride, Marquez and Williamson continue on. They go down the back stairs, back into their ride, and back to their dorm rooms, the seminary student-style sleepers, upstairs near the fire pole, often adorned with "A Fireman's Prayer" hanging on the walls. Williamson will emerge Tuesday, at 6 a.m.; Marquez will follow a short time later. Both will have a much-deserved day off.

But back to that final call. On the apartment balcony, a worried woman wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt, smoking a cigarette, had heard the commotion and opened her door. "Tell me," she said, "Is everything all right?"

In this case, at least, the answer was yes.