A little over a week ago, I overheard an interesting story that at the first sounded anything but extraordinary, but upon further consideration struck me as an altogether revealing account of the human tendency to turn fiction into fact and fact into fiction.
According to New York 1, the locally televised twenty-four hour news program, a street in New York was recently named in honor of Thomas Brick, a New York City firefighter who died in the line of duty on December 16th, 2003. The commemoration took place on October 27th, and among those interviewed by New York 1 was Brick's father.
"He was the first firefighter to die in a fire in the line of duty after 9/11." said Tom Brick Sr. with equal parts pride and sentiment.
His declaration struck me as somewhat dubious. The first firefighter to die in a fire in the line of duty after 9/11? As though this were something to take pride in? Taken literally such a claim would seem ludicrous. The first firefighter to die since 9/11 within the New York City Fire Department, perhaps, but within other companies across the nation, let alone across the globe, it'd seem highly unlikely. That the context within which Mr. Brick identified his son relative to the N.Y.F.D. was clearly obvious. That it was said within the context of a brief interview at a commemoration ceremony was equally if not more so obvious. What was not so obvious was why Brick chose to make such a distinction, given a lifetime's worth of memories he might otherwise have called upon.
I quickly dismissed his assertion as that of a proud father honoring his departed son the best he knew how. However, as the news on New York 1 went through its usual hourly rotation, I ended up hearing the same sound bite several times in succession and each time I heard it, I found myself that much the more perplexed by the absurdity of such a distinction. Whether or not he was the first or the last would seem irrelevant in the face of death itself. Finally, after the fourth or fifth time I'd heard Brick's statement, I couldn't take it anymore and turned off the television. However, his words stuck with me and the harder I tried to dismiss them, the harder it became to resist the compulsion to question them.
"Was Thomas Brick really the first N.Y.F.D. firefighter to die since 9/11? Had no N.Y.F.D. firefighters in the two years past died in the line of duty prior to Brick's death? Why was old man Brick so proud to have made such distinction? Would he have done so if his son had been the second firefighter to die since 9/11?"
I envisioned such a scenario, wherein Brick stated as much on public television.
"He was the second firefighter to die in a fire in the line of duty after 9/11."
Somehow, it didn't pack the same emotional punch as his original statement. At any rate, being the confirmed obsessive compulsive I am, I couldn't help but hop on the internet and do a little research. The only way I'd be able to put a stop to the endless inquisition taking place in my head was to dig around for some answers. However, the answers I soon found had the opposite effect, posing yet further questions in search of definitive answers.
According to a press release located on no less than nyc.gov, James O'Shea was the first firefighter to "die in the line of duty since 9/11." Apparently O'Shea'd "suffered a fatal heart attack on September 27, 2003 after returning home from a tour of duty at his firehouse." Yet another article found at firehouse.com reveals an inverse assertion, stating Brick was the second firefighter to die since 9/11.
Alternately, an article from the New York Times states that "He was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center but soon became the first firefighter to die fighting a blaze since Sept. 11, 2001."
"Which is it?" I wondered. "Was he the first or the second? Does it matter?" Apparently it does, otherwise folks wouldn't be given to make such distinctions in the first place.
Given the obvious inconsistencies, I found myself left but to conclude that something had gone wrong here. If Thomas Brick "was the first firefighter to die in a fire in the line of duty after 9/11", well, more power to him, he'd earned his place in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved him, and the public at large. But if he wasn't, why was James O'Shea overlooked? And why hadn't there been any effort made on the part of the N.Y.F.D. to set the record straight?
Clearly O'Shea had beaten Brick to the grave by a good couple of months. An oversight on the part of the press perhaps? It certainly couldn't have been a blunder on the part of the authorities, what with the press release posted on nyc.gov and all. Unless, of course, it was an intended blunder. There had to be a distinguishing factor somewhere amid the mire of misinformation available and I suspected it had something to do with timing.
Thomas Brick was pronounced dead upon arrival Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, having lost consciousness at the scene of the fire. Though indeterminate by the absence of an exact time of death, Thomas Brick's death undoubtedly took place between his collapse at the scene of the fire and his arrival at the hospital. The moment of James O'Shea's death was clearly established. He died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
Could the timing of their deaths, from the time of their departure from the scene of the fire to the time they were declared dead have been the sole distinguishing factor in the determination of who would be graced with such a distinction, or were there other factors involved? What other distinguishing characteristics might have seen the reversal of such a judgment, if any?
According to the nyc.gov press release O'Shea was a seventeen year veteran of the N.Y.F.D. By contrast Brick had only been a member for two years at the time of his death. O'Shea had "received a unit citation for his heroic actions at a Queens fire in 1995". In addition he'd been "a former winner of the International Fireman of the Year award.", according to firefightinglinks.com Brick had been the recipient of the "Thomas R. Elsasser Memorial Medal" for rescuing two occupants in a five-story multiple dwelling on 187th Street in Manhattan", according to nyc.gov. O'Shea was forty years old, happily married and a father of two sons. Brick was thirty and divorced with two children.
Perhaps it's simply a matter of personality that led to the apparent reversal. Though O'Shea had served much longer than Brick, he had a reputation for being somewhat of a "gentle giant" among his fellow firemen. His term of seventeen years was long and steady. His personal story, outside his life and death as a fireman, was anything but dramatic.
Apparently Brick had little with which to identify outside his life as a fireman. In an article in the New York Daily News, Mayor Michael Bloomberg observed that on his first day of duty, Brick assisted in rescuing six people in a fire in Washington Heights, an act for which he was later awarded a medal of honor. "If that's not hitting the ground running, then I don't know what is", said Bloomberg, "he always wanted people to know he was one of New York's Bravest." Perhaps Brick's pride was ultimately his undoing. What had he to prove in identifying himself as a fireman and to whom was he compelled to prove it?
It seems it's not so much life we celebrate here in America as it is death. A life characterized by modesty and humility, reaps little reward, but a death fueled on the drive for success that so characterizes this nation most certainly does. The felt need to distinguish ourselves from the masses often leads us to seek distinction where we otherwise might believe ourselves to be commonplace and average. Perhaps this is where Thomas Brick Sr. re-enters the picture.
What motivated him to distinguish his son's death against all evidence to the contrary? Did he feel as though his son's passing might otherwise have gone unrecognized? That the City elected to name one of it's streets after his son leads one to believe the answer would be a resounding "no". Did he feel as though his own personal stake in the matter necessitated taking such liberty with the truth? Certainly he was aware of the death of James O'Shea and the announcement via the nyc.gov press release that he was the "first firefighter to die in the line of duty since 9/11". Perhaps swept away by the current of nostalgia present at the commemoration, fact had become fiction for old man Brick and fiction, fact.
Beyond all fact in the matter, did he feel the folks his son died serving might otherwise conclude Thomas Brick Jr. died in vain? Perhaps. Apparently an alarm installed in Brick's helmet that otherwise might have alerted his fellow firefighters of his collapse had failed. Given the prospect his son might have been saved it's entirely plausible that Thomas Brick, Sr. might suffer the pangs of such a regret. Worse perhaps than the revelation of his son's death would be the realization that it might have been averted had it not been for the failure of his equipment. Did he feel motivated by guilt, perhaps even responsibility for his son's demise that could only but be assuaged by taking liberty with the truth? Would he rather his son died in 9/11, than in a relatively pedestrian event such as a warehouse fire? Suppose 9/11 had never happened. What then would he have to call upon in order to distinguish his deceased son?
It's strange the significance we place upon events that might otherwise force us to face the apparently meaningless nature of the events that give rise to them. It seems our very lives are constructed of efforts to evade the terror posed by such perceived meaninglessness. A lifetime's worth of hope and faith can be dashed in a day and where otherwise the death of a dream might seem entirely without reason, we feel compelled to assign meaning where none might otherwise exist.
In the final analysis whether or not Thomas Brick was truly "the first firefighter to die in a fire in the line of duty after 9/11" is of little consequence. Were that the case, I'm sure James O'Shea's family would have stepped forward to correct the error made in the public record. However, given O'Shea's nature, I suspect his family has accepted there's more to life than dubious distinctions and medals of honor. There's the memory of James himself. James the father playing with his kids in a moment of leisure at home; James the husband taking a late night stroll on a sultry summer's evening with his wife; James the son, stopping by to see his folks on a sunny Sunday afternoon. In the end it's these things that stand out as worthy of distinction. All else is mere window dressing.
And if it makes Thomas Brick, Sr. feel that much the better to remember his son as a man of distinction, then perhaps Thomas Brick, Jr. died not in vain after all. Thus considered, fact does indeed become fiction as effortlessly as fiction becomes fact; what saves us enslaves us where enslavement saves the free; and what we believe becomes far less important than why we believe in it.