Ringing of the Bell
© Copyright 2022 by Marc Revere
|Photo by the author.|
There is a numbness that occurs from decades of tension. Like a tightly wound spring, the body is compressed when hardened and will eventually push back to its original form when released. But if held down or heated too long and loses elasticity, it will never return to its relaxed state.
My hard-fought denial fell by the wayside. My carefully crafted facade had vanished, forcing me to cross that vast chasm from denial to acceptance. Both are a by-product of a brutal intoxicating profession spanning five decades where the only waypoints to navigate were experience, miscalculations, and past failures: mine and others.
It was a career acted out in a life and death arena, performed under extraordinary, unforgiving conditions: fires, accidents, floods, earthquakes, shootings, and massive wildland fires while leading firefighters into harm’s way. An arena where ‘the known, known’ and the ‘known unknowns’ were part of every critical incident size-up and where the ‘unknown unknowns’ will kill you.
It was an arena where I operated in the maelstrom of chaos and excelled at it, where sense-making was challenged. An arena ideally suited for a type A adrenaline junkie responding Code 3, crisis to crises. Where miracles are performed, bringing someone back to life, or watching a newborn take their first breath juxtaposed to thousands taking their last. A highly esteemed profession. One that conjures up images of firefighters in smoke-filled hallways, fire overhead, or on a roof with flames dancing out windows. But like all other careers, you live beyond your usefulness, regardless of the profession. And now, after thousands of alarms, I’m left to navigate in a self-imposed exile. Retirement.
I made it. But unlike the delight of many of my friends and coworkers, retirement has left me with an emotional emptiness. A visceral sensation assaulting the entire body while simultaneously casting a shadow on a successful passage. And worse is the foreboding realization that there will be an inescapable resumption to a predictable and purposeless reality—one I’ve avoided for decades.
No complaints. I heeded Joseph Campbell’s advice. I followed my bliss. I am living proof that persistency and tenacity are the keys to success. Deep selected twice in promotional processes, driven by ambition and achievement, moving up the food chain faster than most, reaching the pinnacle at 42. A Fire Chief a decade before many of my colleagues. However, reaching the peak is a recipe for hypertension, heart failure, and stroke. The trifecta and reward for a fire service career, regardless of rank.
Remarkably, I have no physical ailments, a statistical anomaly for a high-risk alpha male in my profession. So far, I’ve been spared. But retirement has left me floating in an abyss of detachment, feinting off unsolicited thoughts and one troubling question: why am I alive and healthy while so many of my peers are not?
It’s a long list of lives taken by fires, cancer, stroke, accidents, heart failures, and suicides. Captain Wayne Huston, Costa Mesa Fire. Chief Alex Wolanchuk, Carlsbad Fire. Randy Scheerer, Newport Fire Division Chief, a fellow training officer, or John Vosper, Torrance Fire. We met at Harbor College in the early 70s. Steve Age, San Marino Fire. My Fire Marshal in Mountain View, Gary Leinweber. Like many cancer patients, Gary lost his hair when he started chemotherapy. I was the first in the barber chair as other firefighters lined up. Gary beat it, temporarily. Then, after a couple of years, died.
But the most significant impact was Dean Harold, Carlsbad Fire. Dino was my captain. The last time I saw him was at Tri-City Hospital. He had brain cancer. Forty-two years old, with a wife, two sons, and a daughter. I visited him just moments after he got the word from his doctor that he would not live. Dino personified uncommon courage in a hospital gown with alabaster legs hanging over the bed and bald from chemo. I witnessed a resolute determination in how he would finish out his life. He showed he was still in control of it. They suggested experimental drugs that would not save him but could help prolong his life for a week or two. I had often faced death, sometimes changed the outcome, but never looked into the eyes of someone I knew who knew he would die. I stood quietly. An uncomfortable silence until I meekly asked, “what did you tell them?” Dino didn’t say a thing, just lifted his hand, middle finger extended. I couldn’t talk. Mercifully, someone came into the room, and I took the coward’s way out; I left. Outside, I couldn’t catch my breath. It was the last time I saw him.
Randy Depompa was resolute as well. He committed suicide. No explanation. No note. No one believed it. But why? It doesn’t matter, though it still haunts many. And as with every other suicide, his was a permanent solution to a temporary situation. But there were others. A long list, where I felt a sense of peace and understanding knowing the demons they faced were now gone as their mental illness, supplanting any hope for mental health, a more powerful force, took over.
James O. Page. He was swimming laps at the Olympic Resort one early morning in September 2004 when his heart gave out. The creator of the EMS system, whose television Emergency character Johnny Gage was named to honor Page by the producer Jack Webb, nurtured and shaped its growth, was found floating in a lap pool. J.O. could not reap the very benefits of the system he designed. Dead! No more coffee chats. No mentoring. No more “Ego eats brains” lessons.
St. Mary’s Cathedral, on Gough, is a block south of Geary in the City. This is where San Francisco had a somber memorial tribute to Lt. Vincent Perez and firefighter-paramedic Anthony “Tony” Valerio. They died in the Diamond Heights Fire. I attended with one of my Engine Companies. The church service was beautiful, dignified, and moving. It was also heart-wrenching: a sea of blue stood at attention as two flag-draped caskets were carried out of the cathedral.
And with every funeral, I asked myself, was it their bad luck and my good? They’ve added up over time, including the funerals and memorials of those I never knew. Their deaths sporadically haunt me; not all, just one at a time, but with so many, it is all the time—two or three a year for nearly 40 years. And there is one beyond belief.
Ground Zero an emotional experience. Over 2,606 dead in the bowels of Manhattan at the World Trade Center, including 403 first responders, 343 firefighters, 55 more at the Pentagon, and those on the four planes, the numbers dead, were incomprehensible.
I attended a memorial at the MCI Center in Washington, DC, a year later, followed by a service at the National Cathedral. My day began by standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other firefighters lining the route to the MCI Center as family members of the fallen drove past with a hand salute to each: 343 times!
The ceremony was moving, ending with Bill Manning, Editor of Fire Engineering, reading his 537-word poem ‘Sea of Blue.’ It was cathartic, climaxing in an emotional crescendo with these last two lines.
“May you live on, fallen heroes
the enduring sea of blue.”
Hours later, my wife and I were waiting for our turn to enter the National Cathedral. The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, where the foundation stone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt, and the final finial was placed 83 years later in the presence of President George H. W. Bush. Inside, there were more people than seats. An announcement was made at the steps of the chapel, within arm’s length of the massive twin doors, with hundreds of firefighters behind us. There were no more seats, no more room.
A firefighter assigned as an usher recognized my rank, pulled us aside, and said there were just two spots where we could stand in the back of the church. He was apologetic. I was appreciative. We had come 2,600 miles to pay our respects. Inside or out didn’t matter. We came to honor those who ‘gave all,’ needing to see it with our own eyes, reflecting and ensuring we would never forget. We stood in awe and respect for the two-hour service with our backs against a hundred-year-old masonry wall, well beyond the back of the last pew. The latest in a long row of individuals, family members, and fire personnel attending the service for the 343.
Then there was that hot October day; as President of the California Fire Chief’s Association, I presided before the families of the fallen from my state the previous year. Standing before a Sea of Blue on the grounds of the state capital, I was alone on stage, the only person to look back into the faces of the families. I was slowly reading each name, pausing for the ringing of the bell, the finality. Stoically watching the formal presentation of the flag, a hand salute, the tears, the hugs, dignified, reading the presenter’s lips, ‘we will never forget,’ one at a time, more than a dozen times.
They had first names. They were fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands, with families, loved ones, and friends. They all expected to come home at the end of their shift. They didn’t. Some because of fate, others simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, others by the unknown unknown, and some through misjudgment regarding risk versus gain. All had the same aggressive nature, an adrenaline-fueled character, and all with a common purpose. They all were anything but risk-averse, especially in saving lives.
“Where’s Danny?” It’s another recurring nightmare. It’s my wife’s voice coming out of the darkness. No visual clues, just an urgent question repeated over and over. “Do you know where Danny is?” she asked after I answered her call 500 miles away. Our son, a firefighter, was on duty in Escondido, California. His uncle, a Division Chief, was on duty in Fallbrook. Both had been deployed to separate divisions of the Cedar Fire. A fire exasperated by a well-developed Santa Ana wind eventually took the lives of 15 people. Both were out on the fire line and out of communication. She had heard a firefighter had just been killed, and bad news always travels faster than good. The “you heard it here first” newsmongers quickly found out and started their probing and reporting. A Novato Type-3 Brush Engine was working structure protection in Julian when Engineer Steve Rucker was killed. Afterward, my union President and I drove together to Rucker’s Memorial.
Memorials and funerals help the living. For the faithful, funerals are thought to help the deceased’s soul reach the afterlife. There have been so many. And there will be more, many more. Now they are out there, interned, in the ground, on a mantel, out at sea, or a speck of DNA cast upon the wind. But secretly, I wondered if attending a memorial is an honor, a responsibility, or an unconscious form of survivor’s guilt?
Guilt! Defined as a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation. And I did neither. However, I don’t think I could ever adopt the approach that guilt is a useless emotion; turn the page, get over it, and don’t participate. But how do you justify a sense of relief that our son was alive, knowing that another had given theirs? Self-imposed guilt.
It wasn’t soon after that my wife and I attended a memorial service for Captain Mark McCormick, Santa Clara County Fire, at the San Jose Arena. He was electrocuted at a fire. But the unthinkable didn’t stop there. Soon I was attending the memorial for five fallen firefighters, with several of my firefighters, the Esperanza Five, at the San Manuel Amphitheater in Devore, CA. The press wanted to interview me. I had nothing to say. But professionally, I represented the California Fire Service. They tossed up softball questions.
I tried to explain the loss from a family and personal perspective, focusing on their service and sacrifice. Then they wanted to know ‘how’ they died and who was to blame. A strategic segue orchestrated by ‘you heard it here first’ communications, not journalism majors who are not concerned with survivor’s feelings, but in finding blame, then sensationalizing it. I differed. The sound bites needed to be solely on the firefighters and families. I endeavored to shape that message while not explaining the unexplainable. That could come later and by someone else. However, the likely answer was area ignition, but it could never be explained? It’s a phenomenon that is so rare that not much is written about it. It wasn’t until four Nipomo firefighters were killed at the Spanish Ranch Fire. It was first documented over forty years ago.
However, there is one straightforward answer that eclipses all others, one that the faultfinding press would never print, never share on air. On that day, as the crew of Engine 57 prepared to stand their ground at the Octagon House, they witnessed a perversion of nature as everything around them caught fire instantaneously. Mother Nature again shows that she will abuse her domain when provoked. The more straightforward and sad answer is that they fought Mother Nature, and she won.
Their deaths surfaced a haunting question that every fire chief agonizes over. How long will we continue to place our bravest in the same position and expect different results? The site where The Esperanza Five perished is near where Forest Service Firefighter Robert Miller was fatally burned in 1971. Four years earlier, in 1967, another Forest Service Firefighter was killed battling the Bailiff Fire in the same area. Einstein may be right; “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.”
For the living, there is always the need to tease out the lessons learned from the deaths of fallen brothers and sisters. “Staff ride” is a fire service term for a visual case study. You walk the terrain where the fallen did and under the same conditions, time of day and time of year.
Mann Gulch, along the upper Missouri River in the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness, Montana, had many lessons. Two have a significant effect on firefighter survival. The “Ten Standing Firefighting Orders” and “The Eighteen Situations That Shout Watch Out.” I walked the canyon that killed 13 with my son Dan, Division Chief Forrest Craig, and his son Alex, a firefighter. This is where Foreman Wag Dodge and two other smoke jumpers were the only survivors. In the aftermath, all that was left behind to honor the dead, 60 years later, were 12 crosses and one Star of David. In an area only accessible by boat, we hiked in and touched all thirteen. We followed the route where Dodge lit the first known escape fire. We climbed the 76-degree north slope that Robert Sallee, Walter Rumsey, and Eldon Diettert ran up as fire chased them. Unfortunately, Diettert lost his race.
Those two-landmark safety methodologies, paid by 13 firefighters, while likely saving many firefighters over the years, proved inadequate at the 1990 Dude Fire in Arizona, where six firefighters were killed. And four years later, the South Canyon Fire in Colorado, in which 14 firefighters died. This led to developing and adopting new lessons focused on LCES, an acronym for a four-point safety procedure. The points include posting lookouts, providing all firefighters with radio communication, identifying escape routes, and designating valid safety zones.
A year later, Forrest and I hiked Storm King in Colorado, accompanied by my old mentor and friend, Chief Ron Coleman. The Storm King Mountain Memorial is where 14 firefighters, nine Prineville Hotshots from Oregon, three smoke jumpers, and two heli-tack firefighters died battling the South Canyon Fire.
Looking closely, South Canyon’s terrain is eerily similar to Mann Gulch. So much so, that you can place topographical maps on top of one another, and the contour lines closely line up. Both fires had similar outcomes. Einstein was right.
I was accompanied by Martin Aguilera, a former Carlsbad Fire Inspector, for another staff ride/hike west of Julian, CA, in the Cleveland National Forest, where 11 more firefighters were killed in a canyon in the Inaja Fire in San Diego. It was a smaller but a perfect version of Mann Gulch.
And once again, it didn’t take long before history was repeated, and LCES proved ineffective. As I waited for a flight in LAX, my pager began vibrating. It read, “nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died in a burn over.” No! It was a typo! Nineteen? It had to be! I wasn’t in denial. I just didn’t believe it.
A few years later, before they built the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park in Yarnell, Arizona, my wife and I drove through. I had to see the terrain. I had to visualize what they encountered.
Death and failure are brutally unforgiving teachers, and we learn more from them than our successes. Not to mention, there is always a need to understand and pass it on to other firefighters. And as a father of a firefighter whose uncle and grandfather were firefighters, saving lives is what we train for, and losing them is the morbid part of our profession. And learning from tragic events is the only way for ignorance and wisdom to grow together.
But what if the lessons are forgotten, and the collective wisdom is not used?
A few years after the Cedar Fire, I traveled to the area where Engineer Steve Rucker died. The owners had rebuilt on the same foundation using the same floor plan. I had read the after-action report, and the topography told the entire story. There were still scars on the landscape with limited vegetation, and I wondered about the scars of those who survived. Then, a decade later, I stopped by again. The flashy fuels and heavy brush had a rebirth. So much so that I calculated that there was enough fuel load to once again develop 50 to 70-foot flame lengths. But lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice. Or does it? Creating or maintaining any type of defensible space had been ignored. The annual and perennial grasses, chaise, mixed chaparral, manzanita, and pyrophytes were rustling in the breeze on a south-facing slope, just waiting.
Specific dates become reminders. Not long after 9/11, many cities would host the Firefighter’s 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, where local firefighters climbed 110 floors in a high-rise to honor the 343! The location for my climb was the Transamerica Building in San Francisco.
Built-in 1972, at 853 feet, it was the eighth tallest building in the world. It has a 212-foot spire that, during Christmas, Independence Day, and the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, a brightly twinkling beacon called the “Crown Jewel” is lit at the top of the pyramid.
Owen Valuch, one of my firefighters, took part in stair climbs and helped organize this event. Before the climb, he had convinced a hand full of our firefighters to participate and asked me. I said yes without hesitation. How could I say no and not support the cause?
To prepare for the 110-story climb, I started running our fire tower after work. In reality, I was not prepared. I was merely trying to find out how badly it would hurt. For some, it is a race running up the stairs for time. For others, like me, it is a slow climb twice the age of most participants. At 59, I would easily be 20, 30, or more years older than those I would climb with. I had one concern; not finishing because of a muscle pull or heat exhaustion. Passing out, blowing chunks, or having the big one was acceptable. No shame.
After stating the name of the fallen NYFD firefighter I was representing, I rang the bell before entering the stairwell on the ground floor. A touchstone to the past for those heroes’ who gave all. After the climb, my firefighters and I ascended the unfinished interiors of the top five stories and into the iconic capstone glass dome, where they had a guest book for signing in. We looked around, took pictures, high-fived, and signed the book.
There is one place that is a touchstone for the families of the fallen. North of Gettysburg, just across the Maryland state line, is the town of Emmitsburg. There, next to the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, is the National Fire Academy.
On my last visit, I found my usual bench between the 9/11 Memorial and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial on the grass. It was evening, and the air was heavy and humid, with lightning flashing over Catoctin Mountain, highlighting the black skies but too far to hear thunder. Fireflies much closer created their light show.
Earlier that morning, I had given a keynote address, knowing I’d probably never return. As a subject expert, the law of recency and currency worked against me. It was a haunting reminder that there is no replacement for youth and no substitute for power. I’ve lost both.
As I have often done that evening over the years, I reconnected with some old friends, reflecting in silence near the stone monument encircling the eternal flame. As lightning flashed and fireflies danced, the flames gently illuminated the plaques listing the names of firefighters who have died in the line of duty over the years.
Every October, the Academy hosts a memorial inviting the family and loved ones of those firefighters who lost their lives the previous year. President George W. Bush attended in 2002. Alone, I watched the memorial on TV and cried. I obtained a copy of his speech. In his penultimate paragraph, he wrote, “This firefighter’s monument belongs to the nation and represents a national loss. The firefighters belong to you. And I know that loss can never be recovered.”
He was right. Some belonged to me.
Gordon King, the fire boss for the Loop Fire, a canyon near the Angeles National Forest in California where 12 El Cariso Hotshots lost their lives, succinctly summed it up years ago, “What doesn’t kill you, will haunt you.” He, too, like the President, was right.
I wonder who’s haunting me now. They exist in the dark, the spirits of the dead, leaving messages, skewed thoughts with troubling interpretations, stirring restlessly, taking me into unwanted but well-charted waters, always revealing unpleasant truths and lost friends. They expertly navigate around my carefully crafted personal façade. And when they visit, they always take me on a painful passage that leaves me in an abyss of emotional emptiness.
There is a grim side to reflecting. Especially the memories of the fallen are interwoven with universal values sacred to the fire service. Faith, Family, Friends, and the Fire Service; Everyone Comes Home. Duty. Honor. Community. But there is one I have trouble articulating and rarely do. “We will never forget.” It is always a heartfelt sentiment, but a verbal ruse is just the same. The unspoken truth; most will forget. There are simply too many, and it’s too painful, too draining, not too.
And there are still firefighters among the living, but physically and sometimes mentally, they are not the same. Broken firefighters with bad knees, backs, shoulders, burns, smoke inhalation, lung damage, heart disease, cancer Hepatitis C or D, or whatever new strain is out there. Once upon a time, they were bulletproof heroes without weaknesses: the personification of courage and selflessness. Their careers were cut short. Lives are cut short. Quality of life dubious. Some suffer disproportionately more than others. Some live in a physical and often in a mental health purgatory, with suicide rates exceeding those lost in the line of duty. And where depression and PTSD are five times higher than the general population.
Still, I ask what separates me, alive and well, compared to those who are not? Bad genes? Bad DNA? Rotten luck?
Regardless, I’ve made it. I’ve crossed a finish line of sorts. A milestone. Retirement. It’s what many dream of. But for me, with the lack of meaningful purpose, it’s a death sentence without an executioner. Just existing in a perpetual limbo where old baggage floats to the surface, some subconscious postmortem. And when they surface, they trigger a kaleidoscope of images of fires and caskets, the sounds of sirens, and the ringing of the bell with bagpipes playing Amazing Grace.
After decades of fire combat and leadership demands, I’m left adrift in the doldrums. In retirement, every day is a Saturday. It’s like being on a perpetual vacation. No struggles. No conflicts. I preferred the struggles. I preferred the conflicts. The fire service provided an arena where I had a purpose, felt useful and developed mastery in a unique profession, and I was in command. I preferred the front-row seat to life and death scenarios. I preferred being in front of a city council or fire board or even in front of the Governor advocating for the fire service. I preferred standing in the middle of some street at 2 a.m. with the smell of smoke, sweat, and diesel fumes wafting about. I preferred commanding fire operations. And I preferred sharing coffee, donuts, and stories with my firefighters. Listening. Encouraging. I loved it! I miss it! There is no place like it! I simply preferred making a difference! But as an old mentor of mine often said, “I used up that job.” Possibly. Or maybe, just maybe, the job used me up?
Through Kubler-Ross’s grief stages, my path has become a rut. Nothing seems to shock me anymore, nor do I bother stopping at denial, anger, or bargaining when a death occurs. Pointless. But I have learned there is one caveat when acquiescing to acceptances without working one’s way through depression. There is always the chance of free-falling back into misery, despair, and hopelessness. And I wonder, can there be growth from painful, reoccurring events? Can there be post-traumatic growth? Is it the logical next progression beyond PTSD?
Before the telephone, the fire bell would sound the alarms through a unique, striking sequence, messaging crews at their fire stations. This arcane form of acoustic shorthand has long since been forgotten, like hieroglyphics from an ancient society. But there is one exception, the 200-year-old tradition of “Ringing of the Bell,” a time-honored ritual performed at a firefighter’s funeral. 3-3-3. The bell, rung in a sequence of three, announces a brother or sister firefighter has come home, returning to quarters for the last time. It is rung three times; then, with the third ring, two white-gloved fingers gently pinch the side of the bell, silencing it. Then it’s rung three more times and again silenced. And again, three more times. But then, following the final toll of the third pull, the bell is untouched, left to ring out. Ringing until the amplitude, intensity, and pitch is no longer received by the ears and the brain, thus signaling the heart, the finality, and the haunting question: why?
And like an overfilled cemetery, I’ve found I no longer have the capacity to add one more coffin. Even more troubling, the dead’s collective memories that once glowed and radiated from every compass point are growing dim. I can no longer hear the last strike of the bell, the tintinnabulation, and its high clear sound.
what disturbs me most are my words, a solemn oath I took. “We
will never forget” no longer rings true. I cannot keep my
promise. I simply can’t remember them all.