From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

A Hero for Our Time

It was New York City’s worst week.
But it was New York City’s best week.
We have never been braver.
We have never been stronger.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani

In the days before September 11, 2001, America was a little short on role models. Oh, we had basketball players, rock stars and millionaires, but there was a dearth of larger-than-life, genuine heroes. In those carefree, careless days, we had no one to show us how to be: how to be brave, how to be kind, how to be generous, how to be valiant.

Soldiers had come home from Vietnam, not war heroes but burned out and angry, and among them was one—bedecked in medals—whose inner need for an outlet for the fury inside found its expression in the blaze of firefighting. I remember the first time I met Lieutenant Patrick Brown. It was in 1991, and by then he had become one of the most decorated firefighters in New York City. It was over dinner with a mutual friend in a restaurant where the staff knew and respected him. I was enchanted by his easy charm, the contrast between his ordinary-guy demeanor and his perceptive philosophy. And then, within days, I turned on CNN to see Patrick and another firefighter lying on their bellies on the roof of a building holding a one-inch rope in their bare hands, anchored to nothing, as another firefighter swung on the rope and rescued first one and then another frightened man from the window of a burning building. “The guy was going to jump if we didn’t act right away, and there wasn’t anything to tie the rope to,” Patrick explained, his hands abraded to shreds as he accepted another medal.

In 1999, Time magazine did a cover story on “Why We Take Risks” and featured Captain Patrick Brown among extreme skiers and race-car drivers. It was an odd juxtaposition from the start. Patrick’s picture was a bit formal, but his quote was typical Pat. He said that in the F.D.N.Y. you were trained not to take “stupid risks.” It was never about money or thrills, he said, only for “the greater good.” When the article came out, he sent me a copy with a note that showed he was a little mystified at the honor . . . and the company.

As his legend grew, so did his spirit. He was relentless in his efforts to save those in need. It was said that if there were children or animals trapped in a burning building, Patrick was the one to send in. He had a special radar for the weakest among us, as if his heart were a magnet. The other firefighters admired, even loved him and called him “Paddy.” The women loved him—he was so handsome. I thought he looked like a young Clark Gable—and we called him Patrick.

The more intensely he desired to help others, the more expansively he grew inside. He began to study yoga, saying it helped him find “the beauty of life again.” He even tried, to no avail, to get the other firefighters to practice with him. In an article in USA Today, his yoga teacher, Faith Fennessey, called him “an enlightened being.”

He trained for and received a black belt in karate, and then turned around and taught self-defense to the blind. He became incandescent, and yet if you had said so to his face, he would have shaken his head and changed the subject.

In 2001, I was writing a book with my partner, Judith Acosta, about words to say when every moment counts—words that can mean the difference panic and calm, pain and comfort, life and death. And when I thought of life and death, I thought of Patrick. So I gave him a call. “What do you do, what do you say,” I asked, “when you encounter someone who’s badly burned, maybe dying?”

He became thoughtful, almost shy, as he said that when things are at that terrifying pitch and lives are on the line, he tries to “spend a moment with the victim in silent meditation. Sometimes for just a few seconds, sometimes longer. It depends on the situation,” he said. “With some victims, I will put my hands on them and do a little meditation, breathe into it, think into the universe and into God. I try to connect with their spiritual natures, even if they’re dying. It helps to keep me calm as much as I hope it helps them.”

On September 11, Patrick Brown arrived at the World Trade Center, focused with a clarity of vision that bore through smoke and flames. It is said that someone yelled to him, “Don’t go in there, Paddy!” and it was reported that he answered, “Are you nuts? We’ve got a job to do!” I knew him better. Those weren’t his words. So I was relieved when I talked with the men at Ladder 6 and they told a different story. One of the firefighters told me, “When they shouted to him not to go in, he said, ‘There are people in there.’” Of course.

Another firefighter, who also spoke of how much they all admired Patrick, said, “I saw him enter the lobby and his eyes were huge. You know how he gets.” Yes. Drawn to battle. Drawn to serve. X-ray vision at the ready.

I visited Ladder 3, his company that had been devastated by the loss of twelve of their twenty-five brothers, and asked about Patrick. Lieutenant Steve Browne told me that, before he met Patrick, he had been a little worried about the new captain because he was such a legend. Surely he could be full of himself and difficult. And then Patrick walked in. “And he was so . . . modest,” Browne said. “He was just too good to be true. He always stood up for his men, no matter who he had to stand up to. You can’t teach what he knew.” Another firefighter said of him, “He touched a lot of lives.”

I knew as a friend that he had never gotten over the deaths of some of his men in Vietnam. The medals never helped him sleep one bit better. By the time we met, he had also lost men on the job, and each loss tore at him like the eagle that tore out the liver of Prometheus (who, it happens, was punished for stealing fire from the gods to give to mankind). When Patrick went into the World Trade Center that fateful day, those who knew him agreed that he could not have lived through the grief of losing men one more time. If his men had died, and he had not, we believed, he would never have recovered.

And so, as we waited to hear the names of those lost in the tragedy, we hardly knew what to feel. A week later, the friend who had introduced us finally, against her own better judgment and wracked with fears, walked over to the firehouse to learn his fate. There sat Patrick’s car, where he had left it before the disaster. It hadn’t been moved. There was no one to move it. She turned away and went home. Hesitating again, she dialed his number. The phone rang and the message—in his wonderful, gravelly Queens-accented voice—answered and, she told me, “I knew I was hearing a dead man.” And we both cried.

These days, since September 11, people have come to recognize that heroes aren’t necessarily the richest, most popular people on the block—they are the most valiant, selfless people among us. A Halloween cover of the New Yorker magazine featured children dressed up as firefighters and police officers.

America has a new kind of role model now, one who has shown us how to be. After the evacuation order, as others were leaving the building, someone heard Patrick call out over the radio, “There’s a working elevator on 44!” which means he had gotten that far up and was still and forever rescuing.

And then the apocalyptic whoosh.

I know it must be true that if you died with Patrick by your side, you died at peace. That was his mission. He was where he had to be, where he was needed, eyes wide, heart like a lamp, leading the way to heaven.

Judith Simon Prager

Reprinted by permission of Mike Luckovich and Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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