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After a year viewed as heroes, firefighters say they want to shed the mantle
By Michael Luo, Associated Press
NEW YORK — John Hemsley spent his vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., trying to hide. He dodged questions about what he did for a living and wore no paraphernalia associated with his work.
"I spent my week trying to be incognito," he said.
Hemsley was tired of being a hero.
As a New York Fire Department captain in an Upper East Side firehouse that lost nine men in the attacks, Hemsley was thrust into the strange limelight of the post-Sept. 11 world, in which ordinary men suddenly became icons.
He's done a high school graduation, a grammar school moving-up ceremony, multiple church groups and too many benefit dinners to count. He's signed autographs, posed for pictures and given hugs. He's polished and re-polished his speech, thanking the public and praising the American spirit.
"I felt an obligation to do it," he said. "But it was still overwhelming."
By the time summer arrived, "I was barely limping across the finish line."
In the altered cultural landscape after Sept. 11, New York firefighters and, to a lesser extent, NYPD and Port Authority police officers, have been elevated to almost mythic status. It is a mantle that some have relished, but most have worn uncomfortably.
In a profession that frowns on self-promotion, many have come to see the hero status as a burden, something they never asked for and feel they can't live up to. Others have even argued that it's dangerous.
"It's a big thing to have to shoulder," said firefighter Mike Heffernan, who lost his brother on Sept. 11. "Especially on top of the grieving you're still doing."
In the days immediately following Sept. 11, city firehouses became meccas of grief; firefighters, the objects of worship. Hundreds showed up with flowers, poems and gifts.
The flow has abated considerably, but some firehouses remain besieged.
In Lower Manhattan, when a fire company responds near ground zero, firefighters have to stop on the way back to sign autographs and work the crowd, said firefighter Tommy Narducci, a member of Engine 10.
"Anytime we're near the rig, forget it," he said. "It's photography central."
In the months that followed Sept. 11, as sales of firefighter action figures and anything FDNY skyrocketed, the department was bombarded with requests for public appearances. Gruff men, used to going to the corner bar after work, became speechmakers and black-tie dinner regulars. They popped champagne backstage with singer Bono of U2 and threw out the first pitch at playoff games. FDNY members served as pageant judges, graduation speakers and parade marshals. Countless appearances have taken them from Simsboro, La., to Paris, France.
The demand on police officers has been less, but some have been similarly flooded with invitations. Port Authority police dog handler David Lim, who was pulled from the rubble but lost his canine partner, Sirius, has rung the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, traveled to Alaska to start the Iditarod dog sled race and presided over the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco. At a recent charity auction he attended in San Diego, someone bought one of Lim's Port Authority hats for $650.
"After the anniversary," he hopes, "things will naturally calm down."
Hemsley, being a captain, shouldered much of the responsibility in his house, Engine 22, Ladder 13. His willingness, albeit reluctant, took the pressure off others, like firefighter Peter Clinton, one of just three men from the house's Sept. 11 day shift who lived.
Clinton, who found himself in demand as a "survivor," declined everything. "Even though it seems like a good thing ... eating for free, drinking for free, good looking girls," he said. "For me, it's like a burden."
The attention only reminds the men of the trauma of the day, and takes away from time with their families when they need it most.
"The Waldorf is nice, but not when you haven't seen your family in three days," Heffernan said.
The hero worship has interrupted the normal grieving process for firefighters, said Malachy Corrigan, director of the fire department's counseling services. In the past, firehouses were sanctuaries, places for healing.
With constant attention, however, "that's almost in suspension," he said.
Only in the past month or two, after the site closed, have firefighters been able to find the space to begin to reflect. One reflection: The pedestal they've been put on is unrealistic.
"We're just regular guys," Heffernan said.
Some comments about fire and police department heroes, following Sept. 11:
"In the past, when we wore firemen's stuff, we were the only ones wearing it. All of a sudden, it's become like Gucci." -- Mike Redpath, a New York firefighter, on why he no longer wears his FDNY clothing in public.
"They were willing to go into the building to try to rescue people. They weren't thinking about their own lives." -- Lauren Jones, 18, from Charlotte, N.C., who stopped by a Manhattan firehouse with her family to snap pictures and buy T-shirts.
"We still put our pants on one leg at a time. We don't do it two at a time. We're not Supermen." -- Mike Heffernan, a New York firefighter.
"These are the new heroes. Kids want to emulate them. A year ago, it was Britney Spears, but now it's NYPD and FDNY and the military." -- Alan Marcus, vice president of public relations for FAO Schwarz, speaking in December about booming sales of fire, police and military action figures.
"Six months ago, if you'd been asked to do a word association with New York Police Department, the answer would have probably been 'brutality,' Now, universally, the answer is, 'hero."' -- Norman Ornstein, political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, quoted in December.
"I've had people come right out and say: 'I want to be in the limelight. I want to be a hero."' -- Norma DiLorenzo, a psychologist who interviews fire and police applicants in Minneapolis, quoted in February on the jump in firefighter applications.
"It's like going to the tiger cage. Where are all the tigers? They're all hiding." -- Peter Clinton, a New York firefighter and Sept. 11 survivor, on how many firefighters have taken to huddling in the back when tourists drop by firehouses.