I Have Time And Attention For Action But None For Despair...

"Of my friend, I can only say this:
Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, this was the most...human..."

- Capt. Kirk
   Star Trek 2, The Eulogy of Spock

"A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles."
- Christopher Reeve

"We really never know what to expect when we get a call," said Burris. A hero is no braver than an ordinary man but he is braver five minutes longer."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"A boy doesn't have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn't like pie when he sees there isn't enough to go around."
- Edgar Watson Howe


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Music: Hero-LP-Version.mp3 by David Crosby

Every little boy dreams of being a fireman someday.  Hearing the staccato ringing of the firehouse bell, dressing quickly and sliding down a pole, hanging onto the back of a fire engine as it roars down city streets, sirens blaring. Kids dream about being heroes, saving kittens from trees and people from burning buildings; to them, 'hero' is synonymous with 'fireman'.

If only the real world were like that. Glamour is not a word often associated with the life of a modern-day fireman. 'Hero' might be, but not in the same context as in childrens' fantasies.

Today, being a fireman is often a thankless job. The word around local firehouses is, people too often tend to take firemen for granted - until they need them.

When a tragedy happens, people are told to call 911 on their telephone. If police happen to arrive on the scene before the Fire Department, their job is to secure the area - and wait until the firemen get there. Firemen are generally always the first people to go in when there's a fire, a medical emergency, a murder, or any other kind of trouble imaginable.

"I don't watch much TV anymore," said Fireman Xon Burris, a Pleasant Hill resident and father of two children. "When I do, it's usually a sitcom or something light. I can't stand to watch violence, or anything about murder anymore."

bus wreckageNot since he joined the fire department over eight years ago. Burris, who was raised in Pittsburg (CA) and attended high school at the now-defunct Pacifica High facility, was one of the lucky ones. He was selected from a group of about 2,000 applicants to become one of Contra Costa County's finest about a decade ago. Only about 40 men were so honored; the rest walked. He was bright-eyed and ambitious. He would get a chance to do what few men do, and what he had wanted for himself as a career for some time.

After rigorous months of training, both physical and in the classroom, Burris was assigned to a central-county engine. Not long after his first assignment, his unit got an emergency call - a school bus full of small children, traveling to the Bay Area from Yuba City, had been involved in some sort of accident near the Carquinez Bridge separating Contra Costa and Solano counties. Within minutes, Burris and his firemates were on the scene, but no one expected what confronted them. The bus had goine out of control, jumped the rail, and catapulted an ungodly distance in a horrifying free-fall before crashing to earth, landing directly on the roof.

Burris was the first man inside. What he saw, no amount of mental preparation, training or horror films could have prepared him for. The bus had been crushed. The space between the roof and the floor, normally about seven feet, had been reduced to 2 feet. What the impact had done to the children is unspeakable. It took me almost two years to get over it,"  Burris said, his face somber and his voice barely audible. "I've seen a lot of terrible things since then, but the ones that hurt the most are whenever kids are involved. I think firemen dread calls involving kids more than anything else. I know I do.

It is obvious by now that being a fireman means dealing with life-or-death situations, sometimes daily.

Bob EasonBob Eason is captain at Six Engine, the busiest station in the Contra Costa consolidated Fire District located off Willow Pass Road in central Concord. He was with Burris at the scene of the Yuba City bus accident. In his 14 years as a professional firefighter, Eason has seen few things like it.

If not for the close camaraderie between firefighters, Eason said he wouldn't have been able to make it through the rough spots.

"One minute you're in a burning building. I keep reminding myself that this isn't a war, but a service we're doing. There are so many highs and lows. Sometimes you feel how exciting this job can be, and others, you ask yourself why in the hell you aren't doing something else.

Firefighters are often chided about their "morbid" sense of humor, Eason noted. Sometimes after an accident, they can be found joking and making light of what they just experienced. But it's all part of their method of survival, he stressed, an escape mechanism. You have to be able to set some of the terrible things aside in your mind," he stated. "You see a lot of distasteful things in this job. I wouldn't be able to function if I didn't level things out in my mind.  Sometimes, after a rescue or being at the scene of a murder, I just want to go home and gather my family around me - because people I just left won't ever be able to do that again."

Most recently, on the fateful night of December 23, firefighters got a call to rush to the Sunvalley Mall in Concord after a twin-engine aircraft plowed through the roof of Macy's, raining flaming fuel and debris on thousands of Christmastime shoppers at about 8:30 p.m. Burris was working as captain of his squad, like Eason, at the time of the call. "It was a terrifying scene," Burris said the morning after. "But what was weird was, the same crews that attended the bus crash were on duty for Sunvalley. It was a strange coincidence."

Burris and Eason were among the first men inside the mall after the tragic, and untimely, disaster struck. "Overall, we did a great job of getting the injured out of the mall and into hospitals," Burris said. "But it wrecked Christmas for everyone. I've never seen so many hysterical people, running around with  expressions of terror on their faces. And seeing the kids all burned up...it may not show on the outside, but it hurts."

Burris said that, had the Sunvalley sprinkler system not cascaded water onto the fire, "We may have watched the whole mall burn down that night." He recalled rushing onto the scene as terrified people ran for safety, and seeing a person lying crushed and burned under a pile of concrete debris - he couldn't look for long. He tagged other injured people on their wrists, helped to treat the most severe burn cases until paramedics arrived, and even fought his way up escalator stairs against an onrushing tide of water. "It was like Niagara Falls," he said, not smiling.

Burris vividly remembers seeing an airplane propeller laying on the mall floor, covered with blood; watching the children, who just minutes before had waiting in line to sit in Santa Claus' lap, being rushed outside, their frail little frames covered with severe burns; glancing up at the gaping hole in the roof, water pouring off bent and twisted steel girders; and the madness of it all. ;But he cannot weep - he knows he could face another tragedy tomorrow.

"There are a lot of great things about the job," said Burris. "You develop a real fraternity with the other guys, because you have to live with them just like they're your family. It's like being married, really, at least in a sense. And that's not always easy."

Not the glittering weapon fights the fight, but rather the hero's heart.
- Proverb

Both Burris and Eason have become very realistic in their view of the world, each acknowledged. "I've seen the way things really are," said the latter, "and I know that Rambo doesn't really exist, things like that. The experiences tend to make you a bit callous. And just when you think you've seen it all,  suddenly you're thrust into a situation that shocks you and scares you to death."

by Tom Beaudin
January 1986
Contra Costa Times

"A knight is sworn to valor, His heart knows only virtue,
His blade defends the helpless, His might upholds the weak,
His word speaks only truth, His wrath undoes the wicked.

Inside the table's circle, Under the sacred sword,
A knight must vow to follow The code that is unending -
Unending as the table - A ring by honor bound.

The right can never die, If one man still recalls.
The words are not forgot, If one voice speaks them clear.
The code forever shines, If one hearts holds it bright.
A knight is sworn to valor..."

- The Olde Code Dragonheart 1996