It was the worst fire Lenny Calvo of the North Hudson Regional Fire Department had ever seen, a 20-story high rise heavy with smoke and reports of people trapped inside. It was 1998. And he had been called to respond.
"We couldn't understand what all the yelling was about," said Calvo, from Union City. "Above the trees and bushes, [there was] nothing more than a light smoke condition. As we approached the scene and walked past the trees, it was like a curtain going up. There was total chaos. Fire and smoke, people yelling."
Thus begins one of the sixteen stories of the everyday lives of firefighters in New Jersey. The stories recount some of the events firefighters throughout the state must face in their careers. Each firefighter responding to a call faces death and often becomes the vehicle to save other people's lives.
For Secaucus Firefighter John Reilly, this came several times, but never so poignantly as when his beeper went off one day, and he found himself responding to a car crash along the New Jersey Turnpike, one of the busy highways the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department was assigned to handle. A truck had rolled over a car, crushing the car so badly that few could believe anyone inside survived. Until, according to Reilly, "a hand ... an actual human hand, raised out from the small opening in between the car and the trailer that sat on top of it. The driver in the car saw the light coming through the opening and squeezed his fingers through it to alert workers that he was still alive."
For Mike Terpak of the Jersey City Fire Department, one of the everyday dramatic moments came when he and another fire fighter got trapped inside a room full of flames. The door was stuck tight behind them, holding back the flow of water that could save their lives.
For many people lucky enough never to have needed a firefighter to rescue them from a burning building, or to give them oxygen after being trapped in a building with noxious fumes or to be extricated from the twisted wreckage after a motor vehicle accident, September 11, 2001 was a wakeup call.
TV images broadcast around the world showed the public the dramatic efforts firefighters exerted in their attempt to fight the terrible blaze that ripped through the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Images of firefighters shielding victims as they hurried out from under the stream of smoke to safety made many viewers appreciate how significant a role firefighters play in people's lives. And even more stunning were the reports of firefighters dying in their effort to continue the rescue even as the towers began their collapse.
While dramatic and tragic - especially considering the enormous number of rescuers dying as a result - for firefighters who respond to calls, either as a volunteer or as a career, such dangers and such tragedies are nothing new.
The scenes depicted on September 11 were scenes each firefighter has encountered on a smaller scale. The dangers and dramatic rescues many Americans witnessed on TV during the World Trade Center disaster are part of the everyday events each firefighter faces. It's a daily routine that often goes unnoticed, even though sometimes involving dramatic rescues, sometimes involving overwhelming odds, and sometimes involving the death of victims as well as the firefighters who struggle to save those people's lives.
For Frank Viscuso, a Kearny firefighter, this was the reason he wrote Common Valor: True Stories from New Jersey's Bravest, in which he depicted dramatic moments from the lives and careers of l6 local firefighters.
"I wanted to show how those extraordinary things are very common," he said during an interview this week. "There is a potential to risk your life every time you go to work."
Viscuso did not intend to write a book. In fact, he wanted to read one, searching out a volume from local book stores. He found books about firefighters in New York but found none that talked about firefighters in New Jersey.
A fire captain who served his own department for 12 years, Viscuso had heard many stories from numerous firefighters, and he finally decided someone needed to show the common nature of these experiences by writing a book.
Viscuso had some writing experience. He had written three screenplays previously but was uncertain that he could tackle something as complicated a book. Six months and just over 21 interviews later, Viscuso found he had a manuscript.
"I called around to different departments and told them what I was looking for," he said.
Firefighters were often eager to respond, each one apparently feeling the same need to make it clear to the public about what they do and how common it is for them to risk their lives when helping to save others. Most of the stories in the book are from Northern New Jersey, with five stories out of Hudson County towns alone. Although he called throughout the state, this area was a rich source, and he soon found enough stories for his book. Since Viscuso works in Hudson County, he was most familiar with stories here, having read about some of them in the newspaper. Of the 16 stories, only one deals with Sept. 11, 2001.
"I felt I had to include something from that day," he said.
One common disturbing thread he found in his research for the book was that nearly every fire company he called was understaffed. Municipal budget cuts often struck fire departments first, as elder firefighters retired but were not to be replaced in order to save money.
Viscuso only marginally touches on his own experiences in the book's introduction. During the interview, he said he came to firefighting as a family tradition.
"My dad was a hero to me, and I looked to him as an example of what manhood is all about. This is what he did. So I did it, too."