Volume 18 • Issue 17 | September 16 - 22, 2005

Downtown Notebook

Small anniversary turnout at firefighters’ museum

By Orli Van Mourik

It’s 2 p.m. on Sat., Sept. 10th when I draw up to the modest entrance of New York’s Fire Museum on a quiet block on Spring St. My cab driver — clearly a veteran — has never heard of the museum and seems unconvinced of its existence. “278, you said?” He asks, with a furtive look of paternal concern. I exit the cab and walk into the building, expecting to immediately collide with throngs of mourners, but am startled to find the gift shop at the front completely deserted apart from a dark-haired salesgirl standing behind a counter full of tchochkies. I dutifully deposit my $2 in the wooden donation box and wander into the main room on the museum’s first floor.

Fashioned out of a converted firehouse erected in 1903, the museum has the warm, shabby feel of a house that’s been lived in too long. The floor in the main room is covered in mud-colored paint that will likely chip away entirely if left unchecked much longer. The dingy, eggshell walls are covered haphazardly with sepia-toned photos and a hodgepodge of uninspiring paintings. The rest of the collection consists of an odd assortment of historical firefighting paraphernalia, replete with dummies dressed in uniforms appropriate to their era and the taxidermied corpse of a firehouse dog credited with saving the lives of dozens of people. The exhibit seems designed to appeal directly to the tastes of 4-year-old boys. Perhaps unsurprising, the small contingent of guests circling the room is made up almost entirely of young families.

I make my way slowly over to the first of two rooms commemorating the heroes of 9/11. The somber black walls are a startling contrast to the kitschy quality of the previous room. The main attraction is a large, black flat screen mounted on the wall, which silently projects a video of rescue workers climbing heaps of rubble. Three visitors sit in folding chairs watching familiar pictures of smoke fires, deformed steel and mounds of concrete. Their silence is punctuated by the intermittent beeping of a slide show being broadcast on two monitors situated below the television.

I shuffle quietly into the next room. The glass cases lining the walls are filled with relics recovered from ground zero. Among them are a red axe wrapped in black electrical tape and an orange flashlight still covered in a thin film of ash. A benign looking piece of crinkled steel, weighing no more than the average coffee table book, is displayed in a case alongside a small type-written note identifying it as a piece of one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. In the middle of the room is an M-shaped monument covered in tiles that bear the black and white photos, names and titles of the deceased. The bureaucratic headshots are surprisingly animated — one face winks back at me with thinly-veiled hilarity. I feel momentarily like a cheerleader caught in the sights of the star quarterback.

Apart from the silent mourners in the video room, the museum visitors appear almost entirely incidental. It has only been four years, I think. Where are all the people? I approach a small, blonde woman, dressed in turquoise, staring pointedly at a patchwork display of ground zero photos. When I begin speaking to her she clutches herself protectively around the middle and I suddenly realize my mistake: I assumed she was a tourist; but she’s a survivor. Her father, Captain David T. Wooley, is one of the hundreds of faces peering out at me from the monument in the center of the room. It’s Stacy Cooke’s first visit to the museum and I feel as if I’ve stumbled on to holy ground.

“They never found him . . .we were never officially notified,” she says, gesturing unconsciously towards his picture.

I return to the Fire Museum the next day feeling sure that the anniversary will draw people outside of the fraternal circle of firefighters and their families. It’s 2:45 p.m. on Sept. 11th. I’ve gotten a much later start then I anticipated and I hurriedly shove a $10 bill into the collection box as I enter the museum, lacking any smaller bills. The entry hall has only a handful of people in it. Near the doorway, a museum dignitary holds court with a man and a woman wearing official-looking badges; a firefighter in full dress uniform lingers uncomfortably near a brick wall, clearly unaccustomed to this type of inactivity.

The eight or nine industrial-gray folding chairs positioned in front of the video screen sit empty. I move on to the next room of the 9/11 exhibit, noting for the first time its vaulted glass ceiling, awash with light. There are fewer then 10 people scattered around the room. I see that someone has replenished the supply of flowers in front of the monument since yesterday: orchids and carnations ornamented with tiny American flags. I assume I have missed the crowds, having arrived less than two hours before the museum closes, but after consulting the guest book it’s clear there has been no rush here today. Perhaps 20 people have scrawled quick notes since opening: two of those, firefighters from Japan and Holland. A grandson writes: “Hi Grandpa, I miss you. I hope you’re safe in heaven. I hope you are happy with all your friends.” I feel like I was intruding in private affairs and it doesn’t take me long to decide it’s time to go.

On the sidewalk, I encounter a man smoking with single-minded intensity. What’s you’re name? I ask him. What do you do? Rick Sinski is a former police officer, a veteran of the Suffolk County Police Force, who now runs a profitable masonry business. He lost two first cousins the morning of Sept. 11th — Tommy and Peter Langone, a policeman and a fireman respectively. He says he watched the towers fall on television knowing they were there. Does it help to come here, I ask? “Yeah.” He nods his head emphatically, his thin frame slightly bent from the effort of talking about it. “There should be a line of people down the street today,” he says. “But I’m not a blamer. This is what happened.” He takes another drag from his cigarette and looks philosophical. “Vindictiveness is just a lazy form of grief.”

Orli Van Mourik is a graduate student in New York University’s journalism program.


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