I didn’t have to look for far to find a hero. I was eight when I realized not all adults were quite like my dad.
Someone asked me once what it was like growing up as a fireman’s daughter. Only upon hearing that question did I begin to realize there were many ways my life was different from my friends’ lives. For one, my father was around more. Even though he had a full-time job, he was often off for two or three days at a time because he worked several nights in a row. Which meant he was free to come to basketball games, pick me up from practices, drive the carpool, and play with my sisters and me during the day. None of the other dads could do those things.
He was also around less. Some years, he worked on Thanksgiving or Christmas. He often wasn’t home for dinner. When I was very young and before he was promoted up the ranks in the fire department, my father worked two side jobs. On his days off from the fire department, he drove to the far reaches of New York City to work as a surveyor. And when we really needed extra money, he loaded freight trucks, at night.
While I knew he ran into burning buildings when he wasn’t home with us, I never really understood what it meant for him to actually save someone’s life. I’d never even seen a burning building let alone considered what it was like to be inside one and rescue people. The summer when I was eight, on a family trip to Six-Flags Great Adventure, I witnessed in his civilian life the heroism my father showed on the job.
Lightning Loops was Great Adventure’s signature roller coaster at the time. To board the five-story- tall ride, the line of waiting passengers snaked back and forth up ten flights of stairs. After take-off, riders sped down a large hill, turned upward and completed a loop while they hung upside down over the tracks, and then finished up a big hill on the opposite side from where they started. Then, it did the same thing, in reverse.
As my dad, older sister and I got close to the front of the line at the top of the stairs that summer day, I watched people exiting the ride and saw a man grab his chest and fall to the ground. Then I saw a familiar figure jump over the railing and run to his side. I recognized the light brown, striped shirt before I realized it was my father. (My first thought was, that guy is wearing the same shirt as my dad.) Without my even noticing, my father had seen the man collapse and immediately sprang into action.
My sister, Kim, and I watched as my father and a woman started to administer CPR. I knew what CPR was because my dad had taught my sisters and me at home. We practiced what to do if two people were working on the person who had stopped breathing and I knew what to do if I was alone.
After a few seconds, the employees told everyone to head back down the stairs. Kim and I eventually went down to find our mom and other sister. We stood at the bottom of the steps and watched as my dad and a couple of Great Adventure employees carried the passenger down the stairs. They stopped at every single landing so my father and the woman — I would later learn she was a nurse — could keep up the mouth to mouth resuscitation and chest compressions. It seemed to take forever even though I could tell they were moving as fast as they could. They continued CPR on the ground until the paramedics arrived.
It had been a brutally hot day and my father had been working, really working, trying to save the man’s life. He was sweating and looked beat. Not only had he performed CPR, he literally carried a man down 10 flights of stairs. He bought a soda at a concession stand and we waited for him to cool down. Not a single employee from the amusement park asked his name. No one thanked him. It was as if they didn’t care he had put his own day on hold and was physically exhausted from his efforts trying to save a man’s life. My father didn’t care about accolades and if he had received them, I know he would have brushed them off. But to not be thanked? No one could offer him a simple thank you? Or some water? My father quietly composed himself and then took us on more rides. He didn’t let saving a man’s life interfere with our fun at the amusement park.
As I watched my dad work that afternoon, I was dumbstruck. I knew what his job was and I knew he had saved many lives over his years as a fireman. But those were stories and I hadn’t witnessed any of it firsthand. Watching him at Great Adventure was the first time I saw him try to save someone. If he wasn’t already my hero, he was, starting then. The sheer physicality of what he did overwhelmed me. I couldn’t imagine trying to carry another person down one flight of stairs let alone ten and then stop, administer mouth to mouth, and pick the person up again and keep going. My father was physically strong, I knew that. But at the age of eight I also thought my dad could play for the N.B.A. if he really wanted to. I hadn’t begun to figure out what made adults different from each other. I thought all men were as strong as my dad but I was beginning to realize that not everyone was quite like him.
That scene has never left me. My father’s tall, lean figure carrying the large man and leaning over the body on each landing as he administered mouth-to-mouth. It’s not something a person forgets — especially a daughter watching her father try to save a man’s life.
To me, he was the guy in the pictures — making goofy faces at the camera, doing silly dives off the diving board, and loving us with everything he had. But the same guy who could swim in the ocean with all three of us hanging onto him and laugh so hard at his own jokes that he couldn’t get out the punchline, had this whole other part to him that I was only beginning to understand.
My dad would help anyone who needed it. He believed we all had a responsibility to look out for each other. I once watched a show on TV depicting a harrowing car accident and a bystander who took drastic measures to save someone trapped inside the car. The re-enactment was quite accurate because another bystander took pictures of the scene. As my father watched with me, his first response was, “Why is that guy taking pictures? Why isn’t he helping?”
This question comes to mind almost daily as I read reports of people who livestream violent crimes on Facebook, or take pictures of someone stuck on the subway tracks. I’m happy to see the helpers in the videos and good, morally conscious people doing their best to help someone in a bad situation. I wonder though, why isn’t everyone trying to help?
My father’s moral compass never wavered. There was right and there was wrong. There was never a gray area. Helping someone who needed it was the right thing to do. Doing nothing, was the wrong thing to do. He had skills to offer and he did. He lived by his oath to protect lives and property.
My dad wasn’t afraid to get involved in any situation that didn’t look right. In the early 1980s, after attending a memorial service for my great aunt in Greenwich Village, my family walked toward a nearby restaurant for lunch. On Sixth Avenue in broad daylight, my father saw someone trying to get into (really, break into) a car and he thought it looked suspicious. As we walked past, he said, “Hey, is that your car?” and the guy ran away. I recently saw a report of a man in Queens who was out walking his dog and did the same thing when he saw someone breaking into the car. The person this man confronted shot and killed him for getting involved.
Last year, I read in the news about of a group of teens who were harassing an elderly couple on the street when an off-duty fireman walked by and told the kids to knock it off. The kids punched this fireman in the back of the head and then kicked him as he laid on the ground, giving him a concussion and breaking several teeth. When I read this story, I knew my father would have done the same. He wouldn’t have let the fact that he was outnumbered six to one stop him from protecting someone who was vulnerable. I don’t think any New York City fireman could have passed that scene without trying to help — at least not the firemen I know.
As a kid, I didn’t realize how dangerous these situations could turn out. I thought that’s what all adults did — stood up for people who may need it, prevent others from doing wrong. It took me a while to understand that not everyone was like my dad, but I’m grateful that there are people like him in this world.