The Chief’s Helmet
Find beauty. Be generous.
In January of 2015, I received a call at home from a stranger who asked for me by name. He said he had a photograph of a helmet of an FDNY chief from the twelfth battalion (where my father was not only one of four chiefs and also the only battalion commander) and wanted to give me a copy. He explained the photo was taken for a book created and sold as a fundraiser for victims’ families in the aftermath of September 11th. Famous photographers were dispatched throughout the New York City to take pictures at the firehouses where firefighters and officers were lost. At my father’s battalion, two chiefs were died and instead of a picture of the firehouse, the photographer took a photo of a chief’s helmet.
The helmet figured prominently on a full page in The Brotherhood — a 240 page coffee table book. After the book was published, each photo was sold at an auction and the man on the phone had purchased the photo of the chief’s helmet. When he received the photo, the package also contained duplicate prints and he generously wanted to give one to me.
I’ve never met this man. He lives in Connecticut (I live in NYC) and found my phone number on the Internet. In the haze of the conversation, I thought the helmet was actually my father’s. Much later I realized that was impossible since he would have had his helmet with him when he responded on September 11th. But when I got the phone call in 2015, I had a three-week-old baby and could barely think straight. When I answered the phone, I was irritated he woke me up from a rare nap. To this day, I don’t know why this man sought out me me, and not my mother or sisters.
The photograph is stunning. It is a close-up of only the helmet and quite large — twenty-four by thirty-six inches. Most of the frame is taken up by the very front of the helmet — the identification badge — which says “Chief 12 Battalion.” The number “12” is directly in the middle of a gold background and the font for the letters is dated — like a font you’d see etched on the side of a building from the 1920s.
Firemen’s helmets start out black. Chiefs’ helmets start out white. Smoke and soot quickly turn some chiefs’ helmets black. Well, any chief, like my dad, who actually went into fires and didn’t stay outside. Once I asked my father why he went into fires when he could stand outside to do his job. He said, “I have to go inside to see what’s going on.” Simple. And, he obviously loved it. The part of the helmet seen in the photo is black. An active chief -groomed from having been a fireman — had worn that helmet.
I had the photograph framed and it hangs in the hallway near the front door of my apartment, where I pass it multiple times each day. It is a fine example of an artist finding beauty in the mundane. Simply a chief’s helmet, a close-up of the very front, nothing else. Yet it is so poignant the editors of the book gave it a featured page out of the hundreds of photographs to choose from.
I love this photograph. A guest once remarked it must be hard for me to see it every day. It isn’t hard for me at all, it’s a beautiful reminder of my dad. I also see in it a combination of two of his favorite things — being a fireman and his ability to find art and beauty just about anywhere he looked.
After I received the photo, I reached out to the photographer to ask about his experience taking the picture. I imagined it must have been very difficult for him to visit the firehouse so soon after September 11th and I wondered how his project was received by the firemen. The artist e-mailed me back right away. A couple of weeks after September 11th, when he arrived at my dad’s firehouse, the firemen working that day were open to his project and gave him a lot of freedom to walk around. One of the guys suggested the helmet as a possible subject. Many other photos in the book show the outside of the firehouses covered in bunting but for the photo to honor my dad, just the close up of the helmet. That’s it. Simple and wonderfully complex all at the same time. Just like my dad.