As a Newsday columnist I weighed in periodically on the racial conflict spilling outside the FDNY, but I had no grasp of the inside, “century-long” struggle that black firemen have been waging against formidable adherents of white supremacy, deeply entrenched at the fire stations. Not only has Ginger Adams Otis researched the facts of the matter, she has also brought alive the personages arrayed on both sides of the issue, as well as the City politicians ducking for cover over the decades.
Ms. Otis is most impressive in managing to deliver such white-hot embers of this significant fire-station battle in a narrative that is free of cant and polemics. What heat there is, and there is plenty, is allowed to burn through in the squaring off of angry firemen; the rancor of politicians, stretching back to Tammany Hall; the writ of impatient judges—and in the blazing tenement houses that the “smoke-eaters” charged into.
In addition to disciplined research, “Firefight” is crammed with telling details from knowing witnesses on the scene, over a period of decades. Ms. Otis has a nose for news sources with eyes for details; and she comes off as a writer willing to listen.
The book is thus enlivened by gripping details, as when, after the World Trade Center disaster, firefighter Paul Washington, along with two buddies, pound up the stairs “through blinding smoke” to an apartment fire in Queens.
“Dropping to their knees,” she recounts “feeling their way into the rear bedroom as they went… [Washington was] searching with an outstretched hand. As he neared a window, he heard a frightened cough. Stretching further, he felt the soft contour of a body. Tiny hands came out of nowhere and grabbed his neck. He got to his feet, hoisting the slight weight of a small child. The terrified boy wrapped himself around Washington and clung hard, burying his face in the fireman’s scratchy black coat. When Washington felt the small arms twine around his neck and the skinny legs squeeze his waist, the glimmer of his joy in the job came back. It felt so right to make a rescue.”
Washington has waged a career-long struggle for this very right “to make a rescue,” and make a difference. White firemen have been just as determined to keep Washington—and all black candidates—off the roster and payroll of the FDNY.
In a city now roughly one-third, non-Hispanic white, Ginger Adams Otis details how two richly developed, African-American characters—Washington and Wesley Williams– separated by generations, fought for racial equality in a FDNY that has “remained 94 percent white for nearly 150 years.”
In “Firefight,” the author clocks the long FDNY struggle between black and white firemen within the station-house, down back alleys, in fancy restaurants, the Mayor’s office–and finally in the courthouse.
The author unfolds her story with telling details, searing anecdotes, and a lively touch, describing one Stanford-trained attorney, who “cursed more than any firefighter,” as “slender and intense, with a riot of dark curls sitting on her head.”
This book by Ms. Otis is a well-constructed effort of a journalist to capture a vital piece of New York City history. Station-house racism is put under glass as a case study; and along the way the author name names; documents racial “denial”; and takes readers inside the federal courtroom for the showdown.
“Firefight” is a gem of the genre.Les Payne, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist