From Suzanne Chazin:
It was a cold morning in March 1997 when the 10-75 first came over the teletype at Rescue Three. 10-75: the code for fire.
I’d spent the last nine hours at the FDNY’s Rescue Three for a magazine article I was writing about the company. But I’m also the wife of a New York City firefighter, so my interest was as much personal as professional. I’d eaten with the men, slept in their firehouse and gone on emergency calls. And now, I was standing in the truck, trying desperately to keep my balance and stay out of the way as the rig barreled over potholes and the men strapped on their air tanks and checked their equipment.
The fire was in a six-story tenement in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Flames poured out of the upper windows. Smoke billowed so black, you could see it a mile away. One of the firefighters talked me through a line of chiefs and I made my way up six flights of stairs in the adjoining building. It was cold enough outside to see my breath, but even without fifty pounds of gear on my back, I was sweating heavily.
On the roof of the adjoining building, I looked across. Firefighters were leaning out of smashed windows, spitting black bile and gulping for breath. Three firefighters had used a saw to cut a huge hole in the roof. Smoke and flames shot out like a geyser. I stared at the sooty, exhausted men, at the red demon they were battling. My own heart pounded with adrenaline and fear. I was twelve feet from the blaze. So this is what fighting a fire is like, I thought.
My husband Tom has been a firefighter with the New York City Fire Department-the largest fire department in the world-for 19 years. He is a deputy chief, and when he is on duty, he’s responsible for every fire, explosion and building collapse from midtown Manhattan to Harlem. He is a second-generation firefighter; his father was a member of the FDNY for 30 years, and many of the characters and incidents in The Fourth Angel-from Jimmy Gallagher to the back room politics of the FDNY-are drawn in part from his experiences.
I had never met a firefighter before I began dating my husband, but I soon learned a lot about his world. It was dirty and physically draining. There were the near misses that he sometimes didn’t tell me about for days. The walls he walked away from just seconds before they collapsed. The fires that started out small then suddenly exploded down a hallway, testing his instinct and reflexes. Tom was in charge of one of the ladder companies at the Happy Land Social Club fire that killed 87 people in March 1990. He walked through a graveyard of young corpses, just as Georgia does at the opening of The Fourth Angel. You don’t forget that kind of devastation.
I didn’t grow up around firefighters, yet their world was never far from my heart. I was born in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town, a block from Engine Company 5. My earliest memories were of hearing those sirens in the middle of the night and catching a glimpse from my bedroom window at the red flashing lights as the engine roared by. When I was seven, my parents moved to Tenafly, N.J. A year later, the entire downtown burned. I didn’t see the late-night fire, but I saw its aftermath-a small-town main street reduced to charred timbers and rubble. It was the first time I had witnessed the cataclysmic nature of fire and it frightened me. I had nightmares about our house burning to the ground for a week.
I grew up with a heightened sense of the physical world and its dangers. My father was a hospital engineer who had dealt with steam leaks and boiler explosions on his job. It was his knowledge of hospital boiler rooms that inspired a scene near the end of The Fourth Angel in which Georgia is being chased through a boiler room. And it was my dad who helped me figure out some of the logistics of electrical cabling for the book’s climax.
But it was my husband Tom who first alerted me, through an FDNY bulletin, to a series of unprecedented fires across the country started by a kitchen-sink concoction with the thermal power of rocket fuel. From the moment I first read Tom’s technical material on HTA, I was haunted by one chilling question: “what if these fires had been set in New York?” Suddenly, I had my story, and our two separate professions-the writer and the firefighter-converged. Or, as my husband put it plainly not so long ago: “I fight them, she writes them.”