WEST ROXBURY, Mass. — Some things, a firefighter never forgets. Like the day Shaun Hadlock, only 19 at the time, watched three comrades – including his father – enter a burning home seconds before the roof collapsed.
“He was pulled out by the two other guys,” said Hadlock, now a 20-year veteran and a lieutenant with the Gray Fire Department. “Luckily, he was standing just 3 to 5 feet inside the house, so they were able to pull him out pretty quickly.”
Still, in those few seconds, did it scare the hell out of him?
“It did,” replied Hadlock as he stood outside Holy Name Church on Thursday to honor a firefighter who wasn’t so lucky. “But it didn’t stop me from being here.”
Him and countless others.
To stand on Centre Street in West Roxbury on Thursday morning was to witness all that is glorious – and at the same time terrifying – about these men and women who run into burning buildings while the rest of us run out.
The day before, they had gathered by the thousands in nearby Watertown to honor Boston fire Lt. Edward Walsh. Now, here they were to bid farewell to Firefighter Michael Kennedy, who along with Walsh perished last week in a wind-driven inferno that roared through a five-story brick building in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.
They came from Seattle, Los Angeles and Toronto. They came from New York City, Philadelphia and Jersey City. And they came from countless smaller cities and towns, like Portland and South Portland and Gray and Hollis and Yarmouth – all drawn by a common bond, a shared mission and a whisper of a reminder that what happened to Walsh and Kennedy could happen to any one of them.
“Once a year, when we sit down and start doing our annual training, it’s something that I’ve always made a point to remind our guys,” said Firefighter Gary Latno, who has served in Gray for 14 years. “I tell them, ‘Remember, this may be the day, or the week, or the year when you’re faced with that exact same prospect. Are you ready to give your life for someone? Because it may happen.’ ”
And when it does happen, you get this: a spectacle that is as uplifting as it is heart-wrenching, as hard to watch as it is impossible to look away, as triumphant as it is tragic.
“I’ve always loved helping people, and this is the best way I can think of to do it,” said Luke Vachon, 23, a member of the Hollis Fire Department since he was 18. “It’s not about glory. It’s about being able to help your fellow man.”
Vachon watched last week’s fire on television and, like so many firefighters who did likewise, knew instantly that this one had nightmare written all over it.
As the flames quickly consumed the building on Beacon Street, trapping Walsh and Kennedy in the basement, Vachon remembered a funeral two years ago this June: Hollis Fire Chief George Davis had succumbed to a heart attack after returning home from a call, and among the multitudes who came north to pay their respects were guys with Boston Fire Department patches on their shoulders.
“Even in our little town, we had guys come up from Boston,” said Vachon. How could he not drive two hours south and return that respect?
There is a rhythm to these rituals.
The chartered buses began rolling in just after 8 a.m., their passengers disembarking into a river of blue that soon stretched as far as the eye could see. Old acquaintances were rekindled, white-gloved handshakes abounded and, yes, it was well within the bounds of good taste to share a belly laugh over a favorite story retold.
To a man and woman, they called one another “brother” and “sister.”
The sun rose higher in a cloudless sky. A huge American flag, suspended from two extended ladder trucks, hung high over the street. Suddenly, from off in the distance, the sound of drums and bagpipes floated in on the breeze.
Nothing moved, save the funeral procession: hundreds of drummers and pipers, Ladder 15 laden with flowers, lone Boston Firefighter Paul J. McIrney of Engine 53 in Roslindale carrying his lost friend’s helmet, Engine 33 bearing Kennedy’s flag-draped casket.
“You feel those drums vibrating right through your chest,” Portland fire Capt. Keith Gautreau later marveled. “You can’t describe it. It gives you goosebumps.”
Then, as Kennedy’s family and friends followed the casket into the church for the Mass of Christian Burial, a block party of sorts broke out up and down Centre Street. Six-packs of beer materialized out of nowhere, poured discreetly into plastic cups. More jokes, more back-slapping, more quiet celebration as if life itself depended on it.
“We’ve actually talked about it among ourselves,” said Portland Lt. Alan Greene when asked to explain the sudden mood shift. “And the consensus is that if it happened to any of us, we’d rather it be a party than a mournful reception. Just everybody get together and have a beer – there’s no point in dwelling on it for too long.”
When it comes to an old building going up in flames, after all, a place like Portland isn’t all that different from a place like Boston.
“We’ve all been in that same spot, going into a basement fire,” said Greene. “You don’t think about getting out when you’re going in. It’s funny, you get in there and you get in trouble and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m turned around.’ Things just turn bad real quick.”
Pausing for a moment, he added, “That could have been us – but for the grace of God.”
Greene remembers coming home to Maine from the funerals of six firefighters who died in the fire at Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse in 1999. The very next night, a three-alarm blaze tore through an occupied building in Portland’s Congress Square.
“We pull up and we have this place just rocking,” he recalled. “People are in the building, the chief is screaming to get the people out of the building and I just remember watching the (deputy) chiefs pace back and forth, back and forth. It was still fresh in their minds and we didn’t want to …”
He shook his head, groping at the memory.
“We were much more cautious that night, I think,” he finally said.
Inside the church, the funeral Mass neared its merciful end. Outside, the cups disappeared. The columns of blue re-formed. For the second time in two days, a final farewell beckoned.
Standing with his Portland comrades, Lt. John Brooks quietly gave voice to the thoughts of many.
“When something like this happens, I think you sit back and reflect,” he said. “Have I been in this situation before? Yes. What did I do? How could it, in an instant, have gone in a whole different direction? Am I lucky to be alive?”
Aren’t they all?
Brooks has an app on his smartphone that enables him to tune into scanner traffic near and far. He listened to the Boston fire unfold last week as he drove home from a meeting. While he couldn’t see what was happening, he instantly detected something different, something desperate, in the scratchy voices of Engine Company 33.
“It’s an inherently dangerous job. We all know that,” Brooks said. “But I’m proud to be here. I’m proud to be part of a bigger brotherhood.”
A lone drum began to thump. The bagpipes came back to life. Brooks adjusted his white lieutenant’s hat and took his place in the blue line that went on forever.
“This reinforces what we all know,” he said. “We’ve got each other’s backs.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: