ON THE BOOK SHELF
By John M. Malecky January, 2008
WHEN THE BRONX BURNED
By John J. Finucane
FSP Books & Videos
188 Central Street, Suite 4
Hudson, MA 01749
Price: $15.95 + S & H
This publication is also available in book stores and on Amazon.com.
This book is soft cover and measures six inches by nine inches. It has 226 pages within 28 chapters followed by a brief epilogue.
In 1972, the book, Report From Engine 82 came out, written by FF Dennis Smith. He was probably the first to bring to our attention the nightmarish fires and destruction of the South Bronx. The book quickly became a best seller and in my opinion brought more recognition to firefighters and the dangers of our work.
Smith’s book did not state one way or another whether it was of fictional stories based on fact or not, but one thing was for sure…the South Bronx was burning regularly and destruction was becoming out of control.
John Finucane’s book focuses on the early ‘70’s as well and his book is fiction, but again much of it at least from the fire perspective, is based on fact. John was stationed at the “Tin House”, in the South Bronx, named that because it was basically a prefab firehouse made of metal. Engine 85 and Ladder 59, who many times ran with Engine 82, are the companies in that station.
The book is one main story with some side stories accompanying it. There is a main character, an Irish firefighter who grew up in the South Bronx back when it was safer and sounder. As with firefighters, the crew he is with are all close knit. The district is being plagued with arson fires which seem to outnumber accidental fires and other emergencies, and the group seeks to find out why. When requests for investigations virtually go unanswered they seek out a fire Marshall (who investigates arson) for an explanation why South Bronx fires do not get attention. As you might imagine, there are shady deals behind these fires having to do with landlords, arsonists and the bureaucracy of City Hall. Intertwined with this is the loss of life, property, needless injuries to firefighters and the people of the neighborhoods, all of which result in hardship and heartbreaking memories. You can imagine how all of this can accumulate into resulting mental illness for many. The defrauding of insurance companies can also be added.
The observations of the crew as well as back room testimonies from neighbors prove valuable in pinpointing seedy characters suspected in setting fires. Add to this the unwritten order of why arson in these neighborhoods is not investigated, as explained by the Marshall, who happens to be a good friend of one of the crew. Hence the story in this book is about the crew and Marshall trying to track down fire setters being paid by gangs hired by landlords seeking insurance money. The story is continuous throughout the chapters. Fires happen throughout the chapters with details of steel-nerved combat in bringing them under control, saving lives and the close calls which at times they encounter.
The book would not be complete without romance which is one of the side stories. It involves our main character and a neighborhood girl who he courted years ago before he entered the Army. They are from two different ethnic backgrounds but nevertheless find that they still have feelings for each other and that each has their own opinion as to why they had separated. A neighborhood man, who is from her ethnic background also has his eye on her and despises the firefighter. He turns out to be a fire setter and the story keeps you on edge as to how the each of these situations wind up.
The book also relates to certain people who have no love for firefighters despite their will to save lives and otherwise help others. It is peppered with examples of assaults, traps and other means of venting their anger. After all, for one thing, firefighters have a job and make money. This is something which many of them do not have and who rely on government assistance. Also, from the fire setters point of view the firefighters are counteracting their goals by extinguishing the fires.
Finally, the book story results in a LODD (line of duty death.) In the FDNY, a LODD is not far fetched. It happens too often and in this case, is due to an arson fire. Live out the details of the family’s hardship as well as that of his second family…the members of his fire station.
Stories like this can be told in the Fire Departments of many large cities, and are not meant to be dwarfed by the FDNY experience. May we read this book with zeal as well as frustration with the way the system works ignoring our hardship in the name of financial and political gain. As with 9-11-01, to those who have given their lives, may we NEVER FORGET!