When they began their training last spring as raw recruits in New York's Fire Department Probationary Class Two, Nigel Defraties and Peter Hespe were already in better physical shape than any but the toughest athlete.
They had to be: they were among the first generation of firefighters to join the 132-year-old Fire Department of the City of New York since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. They had the future of the fire department in their hands, and the past in their hearts.
"When I was taking the oath, a lot of things were going through my head. I knew as a probie I'd have to be extra special in what I do, being what happened Sept. 11," explained Defreitas.
For nine months, Nightline producers joined Defreitas and Hespe first as they toiled in the department's Fire Academy, then as they cut their teeth inside the firehouse engine bays, bunk rooms and kitchens where the next portion of their training would take place.
The probies, as these young firefighters are known, would then spend the balance of a year before being declared a full-fledged firefighter. Their story is airing on Nightline Nov. 28 and 29.
Starting at 'The Rock'
The Fire Academy, where Defreitas and Hespe began their training, is nicknamed "The Rock" — some say because like Alcatraz the academy is on an island. Others say it is because, also like Alcatraz, there are only two ways out — only, here the options are life in the fire department or the death of a dream that many of these young men have held since childhood.
Hespe knows that tradition all too well. "I hope I fit into that tradition," he told Nightline. "You hear so much about the fire department from my father and my uncles and everybody I know, and then you hear stories, years ago, how it was with the horse and carriage. I just hope I find maybe a little piece of that somewhere in the firehouse."
Day in and day out, Hespe, Defreitas and the other members of the class ran miles, lifted weights and sweated calisthenics. Then they donned their heavy bunker pants, thick turnout coats, traditional leather helmets, air packs and face masks. They hoisted their tools — axes, wrenches, extinguishers — and, 80 pounds heavier now, proceeded to run up and down five flights of stairs carrying a fire hose. Then they had to run to class and hit the books, learning building codes and rescue techniques. Finally, as the sun set, they ran and drilled, and ran again.
This is the job, say the senior firefighters: knowledge, tradition, technique and strength. This is what it takes to be one of the Bravest.
John Regan, a Hollywood-handsome lieutenant who oversees the firefighters in training, says the book learning is crucial for firefighters. "I think most people would be very surprised to see how intelligent and sharp firefighters truly are. They carry a tremendous amount of information about building construction. They have to know everything from plumbing ... to all the different types of cars that are out there."
Tasting Fire for the First Time
Then, after the classroom, the practical learning and the memorization, comes the main event. It takes place inside a shrine reverentially called the "smoke house." It is here that probies first taste fire, a world of flames, noise, heat, and chaos — under the close watch of their instructors.
When Defreitas stepped out of the smoke house, the memory of flames was still visible in his eyes. "The heat is so intense you can't breathe," he said. "It's so intense that you can feel your air ... touch the air burning ... you stand up for like two minutes and you're dead, or you feel like it, at least."
Washing and Polishing in the Firehouse
Then it was time for the new guys to go into the firehouses of New York City, where, as Defreitas put it, they would find out that they were "lower than the firehouse dog" in the pecking order.
During the final weeks of their training, Defreitas and Hespe washed and polished 36,000-pound rigs, filled their tanks with 500 gallons of water, listened to lectures — and did the dishes. While it may sound menial, it's all part of the job according to 18-year veteran Frank Campisi. "I tell them, 'As menial as you think this job is ... nobody else is going to come in here and do it for you, or for us.' I said, 'This kind of shows us the kind of person you are. If we could depend on you here, then we can expect a lot of good things on the fire floor.'"
Waiting for the First Fire
In the firehouse as in the academy, it's all about the fire. And to the new probies, they can't wait. To retired firefighter Dennis Smith, author of Report from Ground Zero: The Story of the Rescue Efforts at the World Trade Center, that is what it's all about. "You train, you spend all of that time in expectation. And then all of a sudden you're there and you're confronted by what we call in the job 'the red devil.'"
The first fire is a baptism, but the mark of a true firefighter is consistency, bravery at all times, under all conditions.
"As time goes on, it will take that first job and then it will take the second and the third job," said Smith. "You know, if you're right there and you're consistent, they'll think well of you."