By Lieutenant Stephen F. Medici, Halesite Fire Department
On Friday, December 16, 1960, when I was 8 years old, a United Airlines Douglas DC-8-11 bound for Idlewild Airport in New York City (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) collided with a TWA Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, descending into the city’s LaGuardia Airport.
One plane crashed on Staten Island and the other in Park Slope, Brooklyn, killing all 128 people on both aircraft and six people on the ground. At the time, the death toll was the highest for a commercial aviation accident and remained so until 1968.
I remember my Uncle Nick, a captain in the FDNY, coming to our house for Sunday dinner the following week and telling me about the work he had to do at the crash site.
Basically, his company’s job was to match up body parts found on the ground in Brooklyn. I remember his graphic description as if it was yesterday: “We had to look for a right arm in a blue sweater to match the left arm we found in a blue sweater. We put the matched parts into black bags then looked until we found another match.” And so on.
As a kid, I had nightmares about those images for years, but the idea that someone like my Uncle Nick was willing to do such a gruesome job made him my hero. When I asked him why he did those things, his response was simply: “Someone’s got to do it. And if my son were on one of those planes, I’d want someone to do it for me. You gotta make a difference.”
From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a firefighter. The week
after I graduated from college in 1974, I signed up to take the test for the FDNY. But the city of New York was broke back then and it looked like they wouldn’t be hiring more firefighters or police for several years. I was engaged to my college sweetheart and needed to find work, so I took a job on Wall Street.
By the time the city started hiring again, I’d been promoted a couple of times and was making good money. With our first child on the horizon, quitting to enter the fire academy just didn’t make sense.
But, throughout my 32-year career on Wall Street, the dream didn’t die. Every time I’d see an engine go by on the streets of Manhattan, I’d think about what might have been.
I was making money, but I wasn’t making a difference and Uncle Nick’s words were haunting me.
So when I retired, firefighting, like kite surfing, climbing Kilimanjaro and professional golf, were all goals I assumed had passed me by.
I was too old to restart a young man’s dream and do a young man’s job. After all, the volunteer department where I lived was full of 20-somethings and teens. It was no place for a 58-year-old.
But when I moved to Halesite, I saw a billboard outside the local firehouse that said, “Join the fire department. We need people during the day.” I figured, “I’ve got time during the day. There must be something I could do there to help out.” Before I knew it, and with the constant support of the men at the firehouse, I was enrolled in Firefighter 1 at the Suffolk County Fire Academy. A few months later, I became an EMT and today, four years later, I’m a lieutenant in the Hose Rescue Co. and made 160 calls last year.
So now when friends ask me why I do this; why I get up at 3:00 in the morning to race to the firehouse when there’s a call; or why I interrupt my dinner to ride the ambulance to pick up the old man who fell between his toilet and the tub, I remember my uncle Nick’s words about “making a difference.”