I sit across from Gary "Blackjack" Ells as we wait for lunch at a bustling taqueria in Milpitas, California. The old man (a term of endearment used by firefighters who know and love him) has a surplus of nervous energy, some part of his body is in constant motion; he wrings his hands, his legs vibrate, and his eyes dart back and forth about the room as we sit awaiting our food.
"We were on our own. I knew that firefighters were going to die that night."
I heard a voice screaming, 'Help me! Help me!' Then there was silence. I'm still haunted by those shouts for help. My feeling of helplessness was overpowering. In the distance I could hear emergency traffic being announced over the radio, but I knew there was no one outside to help us.
He escapes the specter of memory momentarily and glances at me, then his gaze again turns back to the window as he drifts once more into thought. His mask of worry is replaced by one of fervent resolve.
"Marty, you have to understand that we were hurt, and we had traveled an impossible distance - 180 feet - under extreme conditions, the fire was almost upon us and we were out of options. I gave my mask to my crew and sat back on my heels, I told them I was sorry, but we couldn't go any farther. The men were silent and I could feel the heat coming in waves burning the back of my head and it reflected off the door, burning my face at the same time.
"I couldn't believe it. We were going to die just feet from the back door."
My heart sank.
I had to see him, to touch him, to say goodbye, I still don't know...
Ed Gaicki, 27, a six-year member of the Tempe Fire Department, was killed when a roof collapsed on him and other firefighters during a massive 4 alarm blaze inside the Jumbo Bakery and Deli. Gaicki, a trained paramedic, had been nominated for the Tempe Jaycee's annual Outstanding Firefighter award just five days before his death. Gaicki was survived in death by his wife Debbie, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Gaicki, his sister Vicky and brother Daniel.
"Ed's passing left a void that can never be filled."
|A plaque in Gaicki Park honors the sacrifice offered by Ed Gaicki.|
A good many people are repulsed by the dedication that some of us display. Our passion for the job often times comes from tragedy; it comes from nightmares. I find that a lot of these men and women - these sages - that I am fortunate enough to come across and hear their stories all have some type of watershed moment in their careers that forever changes them.
|Maybe I can cheat Death if I learn enough.|
Photo by author.
down, others find refuge at the bottom of a bottle, and some find the only answer is to eat a bullet. Still others find that they must purge the hurt into a life devoted to preventing tragedy from ever happening again. It is a game they know they will never win, yet they try. They can't retrieve the lost but they try like hell to prevent anyone else from the experiencing their hurt. Redemption is found in speaking their truth.
I don't know if I could live with the pain. Eventually the echo becomes distant, but it never fades entirely. I don't know for sure which way I would go. None of us can say for certain which way we would fall until we are at the crossroads. I hope I never have to make that choice.
What do I know?
We need to hear the stories of the survivors.
I know that hearing stories from survivors and learning about the fallen, like Ed Gaicki, establishes emotional bookmarks in me. I know that I am better and safer for those bookmarks and I just might survive the unfortunate happenstance I tumble into given the trajectory of my life and that maybe, just maybe, I can cheat Death if I learn enough.
"I thought I knew what a broken heart felt like. Now I know for certain."
We feel that the harder we push, the farther away the demons will stay.
Their stories become our stories. Our fire is fed by a love for our brothers and sisters. They are why we listen, they are why we learn, they are why we teach, and they are why we work the craft so hard. We feel that the harder we push, the farther away the demons will stay.
Blackjack said to me, "Ed's passing left a void that can never be filled. I thought I knew what a broken heart felt like. Now I know for certain."