PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The first thing you notice in the firehouse kitchen at Engine Co. 45 is that you can’t see the walls.
They are hidden.
Every inch, floor to ceiling, totally covered by plaques.
Commendations for heroism, bravery, valor.
This room, where Lt. Matt LeTourneau sat, ate and laughed with his crew every working day, is literally wallpapered with stories of the lives they saved.
I know this because on a very special day, May 25, 2016, I am eating lunch here with the members of Engine 45, Ladder 14 and Medic 25.
The only smoke and fire on this perfect Spring afternoon spout from the grill outside where Firefighter Greg Marshall prepares his legendary chicken recipe. Not wearing his protective gear, Marshall is blasted by a steady stream of insults to his cooking prowess, still producing what even his firefighter-critics concede is a spectacular grilled chicken sandwich.
If a firehouse were a church, the kitchen would be its altar.
It is here – too tired and beaten to even speak – that firefighters gather in silence.
Stories of dangers, suffering, lives saved and lost, seen rather than heard in their bloodshot eyes and soot-blackened faces.
After crawling in total darkness through a building burning hotter than your furnace, after pulling a person outside, hoping, praying they are still alive, words just don’t cut it.
Between calls, this same kitchen echoes with laughter, griping, totally inappropriate jokes, and always plans for tomorrow – that almost mystical “day off”, free and safe for a few hours until the next shift, the next alarm. There is always a next alarm.
Seated side by side, the Lieutenant and I dig in – this is, after all, no ordinary lunch. It is my last day as a reporter, ending a 45-year career, 36 with CBS3. Lunch with the Lieutenant and his firefighters is my final assignment. And that’s just how I planned it.
Weeks earlier, I got a surprise phone call from Engine 45’s crew asking if “I’d like to drop by for lunch on my last day.”
Understand this: an invitation to “drop by” a firehouse for lunch is among the greatest professional honors I could possibly imagine. Let others show off their embossed invitations to the White House galas or ritzy fundraisers. When a firefighter spots you and says, “Come on in, we just put on some coffee” or “Have you had lunch? Got some chicken soup ready!”, it is a profound compliment. Just for a few moments, or a few bites of a chicken sandwich, you are welcomed into this incredible family; you are in the company of heroes.
Humbled, I immediately clear my schedule, telling Lt. LeTourneau’s crew, “Get lunch cooking, I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
How I wish I could remember more of my conversation with Lt. LeTourneau that beautiful afternoon. I know we spoke about our common experiences as volunteer firefighters – Matt with Station 44, in Springfield, before joining Philadelphia in 2007; my 29 years as a volunteer and life member of Narberth Fire Company.
Of course, every firehouse meal conversation is riddled with wisecracks so I’m not convinced, as we munched and joked, that an accurate recollection would even be possible.
I do recall, however, looking again and again at those plaques surrounding me. So many stories, so many lives saved. How many entire newscasts might I fill with just these tales of courage?
I quickly realize, however, that could never happen for one simple, inspiring reason.
Lt. LeTourneau and his crew are bound by a code of quiet humility. The risks, the triumphs, the pain, stay here, voiced only around this kitchen table. Read the plaques if you like, but if you expect to hear a single, self-congratulatory syllable from LeTourneau or his firefighters, well, find another firehouse or, better yet, another profession.
Always remember this Lt. LeTourneau and his fellow firefighters didn’t arrive at Engine 45 by accident. It wasn’t “luck of the draw”. With almost the same intensity as they fight fires, the Lieutenant and his crew fought to be assigned here among poverty-scarred neighbors and crumbling buildings. They know it is among the busiest, most dangerous fire battlegrounds in the city, but it is here they are needed most, here that their strength, their skills, their raw courage so often make the “life or death” difference.
Most of us may see only danger; they see the ultimate chance to save lives.
For firefighters, getting assigned at last to a legendary company like Engine 45 is like a broker hitting it big on Wall Street.
Too soon, it’s time to go.
Amazingly, no alarms have sounded interrupting our lunch.
As we walk outside for goodbye pictures in front of the trucks, I see the firefighters’ helmets, hanging near the engine and ladder, ready to be strapped on quickly. I notice they are as clean as a dinner plate at a fine restaurant.
Yet, deep inside, the yellow hard plastic is stained black.
How many fires, how much heat, how many burns, scars and close calls do you endure, before that plastic, so much stronger than human skin, begins to blacken?
The indelible tattoo of bravery.
As the terrible news slowly came together Saturday morning, I thought of Lt. LeTourneau grabbing his helmet, jumping into the front command seat of Engine 45.
Moments before, the call for Box 7743 has blared out on speakers. Now as the trucks roll, the firehouse door slowly drops, clanking shut. The sound of the screaming sirens fades and disappears. At that kitchen table, filled with firefighters only minutes ago, only coffee mugs, half drunk, growing cold, remain.
The Philadelphia Bulletin, in an editorial commemorating the deaths of 8 Philadelphia firefighters at the Gulf Refinery fire in August, 1975, wrote this: “A firefighter is a hero the day they take the job, after that, everything they do is in the line of duty.”
Slowly, agonizingly, more details will eventually emerge about what happened during those terrible moments on North Colorado Street.
This much I do know: Lt. LeTourneau made a commitment to put other lives ahead of his own on the first day he set foot aboard a fire truck. Use whatever words you like to describe courage, Matt lived it. Everyday, every alarm, including his last.
Know this as well: every firefighter I lunched with that day, along with scores of others, instantly reacted, offering their lives hoping to rescue the trapped
I know this because as a young reporter at the Gulf Refinery fire, I told of firefighters diving to certain deaths into a lake of burning gasoline trying to save their trapped brothers.
I know this because at the One Meridian inferno, I reported nearly a dozen firefighters were minutes from dying as their air supply ran out, but they refused to
stop searching for 3 members of Engine Co. 11, trapped and killed in the flames.
I know this because Lt. LeTourneau, his crew and fellow members are an elite group willing always to give their lives for others. They are firefighters.
Soon, there will be more plaques on that crowded wall of courage inside the kitchen of Engine Co. 45. Memorials honoring Lt. Matt LeTourneau.
Thanks again, Matt, for your kindness, for that gourmet chicken sandwich, and for the chance to know – for far, far too short a time – a truly great man and firefighter.
Former CBS3 Investigative Reporter, Life member of Narberth Fire Company
January 8, 2018