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Monday, 15 October, 2001, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
Firefighters: The new all-American heroes
Seven-year-old Nicholas Lynch says "Thank you FDNY"
Joseph Winter

The United States has always had its heroes - those who won the war of independence, cowboys, railway-builders, industrialists, baseball players, and, briefly, the dot com revolutonaries - but since 11 September, firefighters have become the nation's new idols.

In New York, Sunday was declared Firefighters Appreciation Day.

It was not a high-profile event and there were no public speeches or politicians.

fire engine with US flag
A news sense of patriotism has gripped the US
But a succession of people, mostly with young children, paid a quiet visit to the New York City Fire Museum to say "Thank you".

The museum is just a mile from Ground Zero and the ruined World Trade Center where 343 firefighters lost their lives trying to save those trapped in the doomed skyscrapers.

Since 11 September, sales of Fire Department of New York caps, helmets and T-shirts have rocketed.


We used to be a sleepy little store but now we can't keep the stuff in stock

Fire museum curator Peter Rothenberg
"We used to be a sleepy little store but now we can't keep the stuff in stock," museum curator Peter Rothenberg told BBC News Online.

And that is despite intense competition from those selling tourist souvenirs, who quickly added FDNY memorabilia to their traditional stock of I Love NY and God Bless America t-shirts.

New idols

"They gave up their lives to save other others without even batting an eyelid," said Laurie Wajsfelner from Boston.

On 11 September, her 3-year-old son Sacha saw the smoke billowing out of the Twin Towers on television and immediately put on his fireman's helmet and lined up his toy fire engines in front of the screen.

Maureen Bouderau and her grandchildren
Making thank-you cards for the firemen
"He will never forget that day as long as he lives," says his mother.

Mr Rothenberg said that while the general public have been flocking to the museum in the past month, there have been far fewer children "possibly because firefighters are now associated with destruction".

By Sunday afternoon, the museum was full of children making "Thank you" cards for New York's firefighters and models of fire engines.

Moving on

It was part of the healing process for their parents, too. Several had tears in their eyes as their thoughts returned to the day when more than 5,000 people were killed in downtown Manhattan.

One of the museum's officers, Richard Harden, also seemed to find it cathartic to retell at length his story of how he was almost crushed to death by the collapsing North Tower.


Nicholas Lynch now hopes to join the FDNY
He reels off a list of names of his colleagues who were not so lucky and pulls out a diagram he has drawn to help explain the sequence of events.

"It was a mountain moving at a million miles a second towards me," he said, his eyes watering over.

Is he starting to come to terms with it and move on?

"You can never put something like that behind you."

Career of choice

Alexandra St Jean joined the FDNY as a cadet in February and just eight months later found herself helping out at New York's most deadly disaster scene.


Every time I see a firefighter go by, I wave. They really touched my heart

Maureen Bouderau
But the experience did not put her off. She says that with all the respect she gets from the general public now, she could never do any other job.

"Every time I see a firefighter go by, I wave. They really touched my heart," said Maureen Bouderau as her three grandchildren make "Thank you" cards.

Seven-year-old Nicholas Lynch wanted to become either a palaeontologist or a marine biologist but now says he wants to be a fireman.

It's early days yet but what does his mother Claudia think of that?

"I'd be really proud of him but I'd prefer him to do something safer. But then this showed that even office jobs aren't safe any more."

See also:

23 Sep 01 | Northern Ireland
Firefighters raise money for US victims
19 Sep 01 | Americas
Fighting fires, not rubble
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