Halberstam only scratches surface in 'Firehouse'

Not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam set out to write a book about a New York City firehouse.

He spent two and a half months with the men of Engine 40, Ladder 35 on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which lost 12 men at the World Trade Center.

The result is "Firehouse," a portrait of the men who didn't come home that day and how their families and fellow firefighters have dealt with their deaths.

Halberstam attempts to show the bonds that are formed among firefighters and how they deal with the reality that each fire they fight together could be their last. He tries to reveal the nuances that exist inside the firehouse, which to most firefighters is their home away from home.

"A firehouse, most firemen believe, is like a vast extended second family � rich, warm, joyous, and supportive, but on occasion quite edgy as well, with all the inevitable tensions brought on by so many forceful men living so closely together over so long a period of time," writes Halberstam in the book's opening chapter.

But his story of these 12 men and the people they left behind falls short of conveying how profoundly the events of Sept. 11 changed the firehouse forever.

Halberstam introduces the reader to each of the 12 who died that day, but it is a hasty introduction, performed with a handshake rather than a long, familiar hug. Bruce Gary has strong arms like Popeye's, Steve Mercado likes to do impressions, John Ginley was a good father, Michael D'Auria was a good cook. There is little depth to each man and the waters become even more shallow when Halberstam tries to describe the pain that each of these men's loved ones must surely be experiencing.

When April Ginley, wife of Lt. John Ginley, visits ground zero shortly after the attack, she finds no comfort. In fact, she is angry � that her husband is dead, that she wasn't prepared to lose him, that the other wives seemed so empty and stoic.

But Halberstam spends only a page and a half exploring this raw, honest moment.

There are some intimate moments when Halberstam hits a nerve. He writes about one firefighter's son who asks his mother how long a person can stay alive without food. He describes the men as they try to identify Jimmy Giberson in a short piece of videotape as he's running into the south tower about 10 minutes before it collapsed.

But even as he describes the emotional day on which three of the men from 40-35 were found in the rubble, Halberstam fails to grip the reader with any sort of personal sentiment.


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