We lost two firefighters in Boston, yesterday.
A 9-alarm fire on Beacon Street in Boston's Back Bay, aided by 45 to 50 mile per hour winds off the Charles River, took the lives of Lt. Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy. Walsh, 43, was married with three children; Kennedy, 33, was a Marine Corps veteran. They were trapped in the basement of the four story apartment building when a window blew out, the winds rushed in and part of the building exploded.
Deputy Chief Joseph Finn said, "In 30 years, I've never seen a fire travel that fast."
Once again, we are reminded that firefighting is a lot like combat, a lot of waiting for something to happen, and then the world falls in.
This, from today's Boston Globe, should give one a sense of the emotional trauma of the event:
After the seventh alarm sounded, all firefighters were ordered from the building through a haze of screams and sirens. But when word came that some firefighters were missing, some vowed to go back in.
"No companies should be going in anywhere; stay away from the building," firefighters were instructed in the mayday call.
"We are aware of the potential we see in front of us; we're going back inside the building," came the reply.
But the firefighters were told, "Stay out of the building."
It took five hours to recover Walsh's body. As he was carried out on a stretcher, all the firefighters formed an Honor Guard line. "Everyone saluted him, and Eddie was taken for his last ride," said Steve MacDonald, a Fire Department spokesperson. If that doesn't stir emotions inside you, then you have something other than blood coursing through your veins.
Reminiscent of the 1972 Hotel Vendome fire just a couple of blocks away that killed nine firefighters, and the 1999 Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire that took the lives of six, yesterday's inferno sledgehammers us with the understanding that firefighting is a deadly business.
Seeing the soot-covered, teary faces of the men and women who watched Lt. Walsh take his "last ride" made me think of the other end of the pole, the sometimes messy business of workers comp.
In most states, injured workers are given two-thirds of their average weekly salary (60% in Massachusetts), tax free, while they're recovering and unable to return to work. Police and firefighters, on the other hand, public sector employees, receive 100% of their average weekly salaries, also tax free. In essence, it's a promotion.
This different treatment can sometimes anger taxpayers, usually when abuse occurs. And abuse does occur, not often, but when it does it can make headlines. In Massachusetts, we vividly remember the case of Albert Arroyo, a 20-year veteran of the Fire Department, who, after being deemed "totally and permanently disabled," which allowed him to receive 100% of his salary, tax free, made the Boston Globe front page when he finished eighth in the 2008 Pro Natural American Bodybuilding Championship, with a picture to prove it.
Although Arroyo was acquitted of fraud charges in 2011 by a federal jury, the whole thing left a bit of a stink. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, Boston Mayor Tom Menino and just about everyone else in authority complained loudly and in print that justice had not been done.
We all want our tax dollars spent well, but every once in a while, like yesterday, we come up against two truths that won't go away: First, protecting the citizenry can be a tragic and deadly business; and second, with the exception of soldiers, I don't know of any other occupations where people give their lives in the line of duty to protect others. Do you?