NEW YORK—As the floor gave way beneath him in a burning Brooklyn building last June, New York City fire-fighter Timothy Stackpole was praying the Our Father. He lay alone in a pile of debris, with an inferno that killed two other firefighters ready to engulf him, and was terrified of dying a slow, painful death. He thought about taking off his oxygen mask so he could pass out breathing the thick smoke and die more quickly.
“But I felt God reaching out to me, telling me to keep the mask on and to wait and trust in Him,” recalled Lieutenant Stackpole, an 18-year Fire Department veteran. “I wasn't afraid of dying anymore. I felt the Lord giving me strength. A lot of people were screaming. I was just praying.”
Rescuers eventually reached him and God's hand has remained upon him through the months of recovery from burns that exposed the bones of his ankles and seared other parts of his body, he said. He has undergone skin grafts and spends three days a week receiving treatments in the critical care unit of the Cornell Burn Unit of New York Hospital. It will be a while before he can walk normally and he may never be able to fight fires again. Yet he sees the many blessings that have come through the months of suffering.
“My faith is what has gotten me through everything,” Stackpole said in an interview from his home in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and their five children. “I have always felt that you couldn't do this job unless you had faith.”
Firefighters and the faith are a natural match. Few things other than love for God and neighbor could motivate a man to run into a burning building while others are scattering out. This may explain why about 90% of the cityís fire force, known as New Yorkís Bravest, is Catholic. They show their faith in flying colors at the annual Holy Name Society Mass with John Cardinal OíConnor in St. Patrickís Cathedral, when hundreds turn out in their dress blues. They live their faith day to day on the runs through crowded city streets, where flaming century-old tenements and sleek, modern high rises pose different challenges to their skills but the same threat of death. With overtones of a religious community, firefighters call one another “brothers.‘
“People have said to me over the years, ‘Are you scared? You could get killed any day,’” said Stackpole. “I always say that you really don't think about it much. You have a job to do and you trust that Someone will always watch over you.”
Despite the faith-in-action evident in most firefighters, some veteran members of the department's Holy Name Society have noticed in recent years a marked decline in formal religious observance within the force, especially among younger members. Attendance at firefighters’ memorial Masses has fallen off, and the spiritual retreats sponsored by the Society draw one-quarter of the numbers they did 20 years ago. The annual three-day retreat for the entire force, which includes the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, was scheduled for the Passionist Retreat House in Queens Oct. 20-22.
“We used to fill up the retreat house four times a year with 100 brothers each, just with guys from Brooklyn and Queens,” said Firefighter John Boyle, a 30-year veteran who is a member of Rescue One, a special unit that covers all of Manhattan. “Now we're down to about 40 to 50 guys, once a year. We used to have two Holy Name Societies, one for New York and one for Brooklyn, but they've been combined because of a drop off in numbers.”
The theme of this year's retreat is “Touching the Wounds of Christ.” The “brothers” of the city's force will reflect on how Christ is alive in the helpless and injured people they strive to rescue each day, and also to see how Christ can be found in their own lives, which may be marked by pain and disappointments. Brendan Kearns, from Ladder Company 137, is coordinating the retreat.
“A lot of guys have the wrong idea about the retreat, they think it's too religious and not for them,” Kearns said. “We try to stress that it's only in God that you are going to find the answers to the most important questions in your life. A lot of guys are dealing with a lot of problems in their lives, from family to finances to deaths in the family. Our message is for them to come, relax, listen, and offer these things to God. Spend some time with brothers who are going through the same thing.”
Kearns, on the force for 14 years, said that there is a great amount of spiritual hunger among the younger fire-fighters but many of them, though baptized Catholics, have not been brought up with a strong faith.
“There's a great opportunity to lead them to the faith, because the job itself leads you to some deep spiritual questions. You see some of the life and death struggles people go through and you start looking for answers.”
The fire house can be a mix of men of different ages, humors, and temperaments, he said.
“Some of the brothers in the house have big hearts and are great to be with. Others are into their own things and really aren't interested in hearing about religion. It's like any family. You live with each other and you have to get along, but it's a lot easier if you share religion,” he said.
He finds his own answers in daily prayer, carrying rosary beads in his left-hand pocket, and wearing the Irish claddagh ring. Although he is tall and burly, he has learned that “half my strength on the job comes from God.”
He remembers recently being called to Rockaway Bay, where a man had fallen into the water after a fight with his girlfriend. Kearns rode the end of the ladder as it was lowered toward the man, who was fighting to stay afloat.
“I had to get him out the fastest way, so I asked him how much he weighed. When he said 145 pounds, I just grabbed him by the belt and scooped him out of the water with one arm,” said Kearns. “When I got him to the shore I started talking to him and invited him to come to the retreat with us. I could tell he needed some spiritual support.”
He also recalled a few years ago when he cradled in his arms an elderly woman who had been hit by a car.
“I'm staring right into her eyes and felt something in my heart pass over to her. She had this look like maybe I was the last person she would see before passing on and I held her whole life in my hands,” said Kearns. “I followed up on her in the hospital. She was a Jewish woman and I brought her flowers and a spiritual book of readings and she was really touched that I would come. You never know how much good you can do in this job just by taking a little time.”
Boyle is on an elite rescue team that is called out on multi-alarm fires or other type of disaster — building collapses, subway accidents, water recoveries, freeing people trapped in cars. When firemen themselves are trapped in burning buildings, Boyle and his crew are called to enter the flames.
“I've learned for sure, there are no atheists in the foxhole,” he said. “When things get bad, even the worst people start turning to God.”
“I always feel calm and don't worry about myself. I'm more worried about the people I'm sent to rescue. They're the ones in trouble,” he said. “I feel confident in my faith that if I'm going to do good for someone else, I will be watched over.”
He helps organize memorial Masses for firefighters who have died in the line of duty. He is distressed that out of some 550 invitations sent out, only about 10% of active firefighters respond.
“A lot of the younger guys are falling away from the faith. There are a lot of other influences and stresses in a guy's life today,” he said.
Stackpole said one reason for the decline in Mass attendance is that many young firefighters are struggling financially and some working second jobs to make ends meet.
“I was always working, working and never had time to go to the retreats,” he told the Register.
He will be able to attend the retreat this month because he is on the disabled list, he noted. After his injury, he and his wife realized how faith brings out the best in people.
“Some people look at the tragedy we've suffered, but we look at the blessings. So many people in our neighborhood and parish have pulled together for us and done so much for us. We had 1,200 people in our parish church for a Mass for our family. That's more than they get on Christmas.”
Stackpole added, “I would tell anybody today to raise your children in the faith. Other things in life can be lost in a moment. But your faith in God will always be there for you.”
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.