I took a class called "American Dreamers" thinking it would be something I could get into, only to find out it was basically about a book of sermons by a Protestant Reverend, Jonathan Edwards. Turns out the professor of the class was a joint collaborator of the book. Conflict of interest perhaps? You see I only started photographing the Bridgeport Fire Department because I was so bored with my day to day college life. Firetrucks would roll up and down the streets at all hours of the day and night. Who, as a boy growing up, didn't want to drive or at least sit in the back of a firetruck? I started by doing a report for the school newspaper. I spent a day at fire headquarters on Congress St. meeting and talking to the guys about the job and the city. They showed me old photos on the wall and took out tools from the back of their rigs. The one thing I’ve come to understand throughout the years, was not only the knowledge each firefighter must obtain, but the willingness to show and teach what they’ve learned. I realised then that their was more to the job than just putting on a coat and riding in a shiny red truck.
My first fire took a while to come. It didn’t hinder what I was trying to accomplish and it gave me time to really meet everyone. The Bridgeport Fire Department have 4 shifts - A,B,C, and D. They operate on a 3 days/nights on and 3 days/nights off. When A shift works days, D works nights and vice vera. Same with B shift and C. The weeks leading up to going to my first fire, I got to meet most of the members of fire headquarters. They told stories and I listened. I asked questions when I didn’t know what they were talking about and I was impressed by their willingness to not only answer, but to explain and at times teach me. They brought out ropes, hoses, and rescue tools and trained on the apparatus floor, in the back lot, and talked it all over again in the kitchen, in the cascade room, and around the table leading into the cascade room. Its hard for me to say that “my first fire” came on a Tuesday morning. I’m not a fireman. I was barely a photographer and if I’m to be perfectly honest I was treading the line between photojournalist and average fire “buff.”
The morning of the Harral Avenue fire, I wasn't at the firehouse. I was actually on my way home from class. I turned the scanner in my car on and began hearing companies signing on the air and responding. Harral Avenue sits in the Hollow section of Bridgeport. Engine 3 and Engine 4 roll out of the same quarters on Wood Avenue, take a right, and are on scene in seconds. I arrived just after the first companies - walking up to the middle of the block and turning to see Rescue 5 led by Lt. John Mazza. Its my first photo of the day. At the time John still wore his old, tan coloured turn out gear. With the rest of his crew wearing the new black and yellow gear, it made Lt. Mazza stand out and although not intentionally done, the tan gear gave you the perception he was in charge of the company. One of the best photos I took was at the Harral Avenue "job." Firefighters Christian Teague and Greg Hickox climbed up to the pitched roof of the wood framed house to cut a vent hole. As they sawed through the roof, fire began shooting out through the hole. The heat radiating out of the vent cut is intense and firefighters Teague and Hickox have to scramble off the roof. I take close to 10-15 snaps with the camera. They eventually get to the ladder that got them there and climb down. The hole they caught is perfect and allows companies inside the apartment below much needed relief from the friction heat.
When I got permission from the Bridgeport Fire Department to do this project, I was "assigned" to the chief of Battalion 1 located at fire headquarters. On the day of the Maplewood fire, Billy Haug was the chief. Now if you were ever to ask a Bridgeport fireman about Billy Haug, you'd get a story of integrity, reliability, and down right good firefighting. In Bridgeport, Haug is what Ray Downey was to New York. In Bridgeport, Haug is a legend. I sat in the back of Battalion 1 as we snaked in and out of afternoon traffic. A persistent spectacle of lights and sirens, kids paused their summer fun to watch us storm by. Smoke began to trickle over a row of houses as a clue we were going see fire. "Get the camera ready, Chris" was the instructions from the front seat. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” As we pulled onto Maplewood, a crowd of people stood on one side of the street looking up as others still ran out the front door. A man carried his most prized possession - a old, beat up 32" television. You know the kind before flat screens with the huge, heavy back on it. How he got it out the door so fast without losing a knuckle or two is beyond me. Battalion 1 pulls up first with Engine 4 rounding the corner and hooking up to a hydrant across the street. Before he bolts out of the car with his aide, Lt. Eddie McCann, Chief Haug yells back to follow him for some great photos. Looking back now I realize how new I was at this because I took too long to get out of the Chevy Suburban and by that time the two of them had disappeared into the building.
They eventually emerged on a 2nd floor balcony yelling at Engine 4 to stretch a hose line to the 3rd floor. Its my second and third photo, the first was of course the structure itself with flames blowing out right side top window and thick black smoke pushing out the front. Haug continues directing engine companies toward the 3rd floor and returns to the front of the building to direct Tower Ladder 5 where to position itself. I click off a few more shots than I can remember - guys stretching hose, others positioning ladders, the fireground is like the outside of a beehive with organised chaos and commotion. Each member has a job and the importance of executing it quickly means a life saved or the fire is that much closer to being extinguished.
Chief Haug then turns to me and asks where I went, that I missed great action shots of the hose line advancing up the stairwell. He then grabs me and tells me to follow him. We walk up the second floor and then to the third, tracing the exact route of the engine company who dragged the first hose line in. We land onto the 3rd floor to a compressing heat I've never felt before. I begin to sweat inside my department issued turn out gear. In front of me at the top the stairs I see Firefighters Cef Rivera and Juan Davila tugging on charred ceilings with hooked poles. I take 2 photos and step aside. At the same time Firefighter Jimmy Bonosconi of Rescue 5 appears out of a back room and hurries for the stairs, cradling something in his arms. I'm not sure what it is but I take another snap. It's another one of my favourite photos. There's Jimmy about a third of the way down, his mask still on his face and the walls around him completely burned to the colour of black and deep brown. In his arms is a dog. Upon entering the apartment, the Rescue begins searching for life. They crawl from room to room with very little visibility hoping to save anyone, anything in need of saving. This time its a dog. Next time it could be a human. Times before its been a son or daughter; a sister, a brother, a mother, or a father. Anytime these guys hit the heat driven friction of a house or apartment, they never know what or who they might find.
In 2012, I published a book about my years as a photographer for the Bridgeport Fire Department called “Signal: 29.” Its filled with pictures and stories from fires and car accidents in the most populated city in the state of Connecticut. I created the book because I was just so struck at the level of comfort someone can be with the tensest of situations. I watched as guys hooded up, masked up and boldly entered a literal world of unknown with unbearable heat and blinding smoke. But, on a night with a "good" fire, you'd get the old cliches of "I signed up for the shit" or "I couldn't imagine working anywhere else." I wanted to show that this wasn't just another job, not just something you sign up for and get. I wanted to show that riding on a firetruck is all very cool (It fucking is), but what happens when it stops is where the true test of an individual begins. The book shows fire, a lot of fire, but more importantly it shows the people who fight it, day in and day out.