It was a bad day. It’s not clear if they were on the roof when it collapsed or under it. It doesn’t matter right now. Four Houston firefighters are gone, killed in a struggle with a monstrous five-alarm fire. They died trying to make sure there were no occupants trapped in the hotel. The team consisted of veterans and rookies. One was a spring graduate of the Fire Academy. At 24, she’s proven herself to her comrades.
As the sun set, the bodies of the fallen were given a hero’s escort to the mortuary.
I’m not sure why it hurts so much when firefighters die. The combative nature of soldiering or police work comes with the expectation that somebody will get killed. You pray it’s the bad guys. And while the loss of a policeman or soldier is never expected and always painful, the unending battle between good and evil allows some frame of reference, some explanation that makes sense.
Firefighters, however, touch a part of us that still lives in innocence. As children, we venerate them as superheroes. I remember having a reflective “Child Finder” sticker on my window as a youth. It was designed to direct the firefighters to the children’s bedrooms in the event of a fire. I always slept better with that sticker on my window. It made me feel safe. It was the closest thing I had to a Bat-Signal. I knew that if things got really bad, somebody really good would come to save me. Someone like Anne.
When we grow older, we appreciate the selflessness of firefighters. There really is no urgent need to save somebody’s burning house. As long as the family is safe, it would be easy to let the flames consume it. But the benevolence of firefighters like Matthew pushes them to protect not only people, but property as well. They know that burning building is somebody’s home, somebody’s business. And they care.
A few years back our neighbor’s home caught fire. Turns out they had a few too many drinks during their memorial day BBQ, and pushed the smoldering grill back against the house where it was normally stored. Hours later the radiant heat from the grill ignited the wall, and the house erupted into flames. When the firefighters arrived, the owners were safely on the street, so the firefighters focused on saving the property. I’ll never forget seeing grown men in full battle gear marching out of the house with whole hanging bars full of clothes, which they hung from a tree to keep them clean. They returned to the flaming house multiple times to return with books, collectables, and pictures. They even rolled out an old piano. Later they explained that the water and soot would have been more damaging than the smoke, so they did what they could before they unleashed the hoses.
Firefighters remind us that there are still good people out there. People like the two men who both shared the name Robert. In countless little towns across America, many of these men and women are volunteers who give their blood, sweat, and tears in the service of complete strangers. They’re not looking for political gain, government largess, tax cuts, or to promote some agenda. They just want to help, and to do good.
Firefighters remind us about all that is right with America, particularly in an era when it seems we focus way too much on all that is wrong. And that’s why it hurts when we see them fall. Our superheroes aren’t supposed to die.