The Bainbridge fire station, a sturdy wooden building decades old, was now unrecognizable, scattered in chunks on both sides of the street, its tower tilting toward the storefronts below. At the moment the train ground to a stop, automobiles were lined up patiently awaiting the end of the “ding, ding, ding” bells of the crossing arms. A huge boxcar, one set of wheels on the rails and the other not, stopped right in front of the line of cars. With a creak and a crack and a movement I’m sure seemed like slow motion, the giant boxcar waved back and forth, back and forth before finally crashing down on the unlucky car that led the line waiting at the crossing gate. The driver was trapped underneath a ton of crushed metal.
One of the small homes which lined the trackside area was smashed, killing a well-known couple as they sat in their easy chairs on what was just another nondescript upstate New York day.
I was 16 years old on the day of the train wreck. My buddies and I went down the next day to see what it looked like. Everybody went down. It was a sight of sheer horror. And yet still it was a day of inspiration and heroism and small town true grit. In those days, nobody got paid to fight our fires, to pull us out of a burning car or to keep a growing crowd away from imminent danger. In many towns they still do not get paid to do this. Which begs the question, then.
Why do they do it?
In the little one-fire truck villages and hamlets of upstate New York, these heroes still rush into a fire while everybody else is rushing out. They do it out of a sense of duty, a sense of what is right, a sense of honor. They are all volunteers with everyday jobs. They are our insurance guys and our dentists. They are our nurses and our factory workers. They are our retired shopkeepers and our ministers. But when that lonely siren blasts through the still upstate night air, and they kiss their families goodbye and head out into the inky, black unknown, they become our heroes.