“Man down!” The cry went up as firefighter Mark Cadman led the rescue, quickly recovering the injured subject — a partially peeled potato accidentally dropped in the wastebasket — and administering first aid, washing it off before placing in the pot for that night’s dinner.
Three other firefighters were laughing along with Cadman as he nonchalantly went back to preparing the meal. Joe Yerardi sat at the far end of the kitchen table, and Jim Pomeroy was getting the main course of ham out of the refrigerator. At the other end of the table, closest to Cadman, Lt. Richard Geary was chuckling at his antics and the allusion, intentional or not, to the accident that put him out of commission for 18 months.
But these were the people Geary can joke with, the ones he spends 24-hour shifts with, the crew that he was waiting to return to through long months of rehabilitation and getting up to full strength.
“These guys are the ones that saved my life,” Geary said.
Just a Dumpster fire
It didn’t start out as a life-threatening call. On May 15, 2007, Geary and the Engine 13 crew responded to a Dumpster fire at the Boston College campus. Geary checked on his team as they opened a hydrant, and then walked around the front of the truck.
“That’s when the world went to ‘s’ in a handbasket,” Geary said.
The fire truck rolled over Geary, pinning him to the ground and breaking his shoulder in two places and fracturing his arm and ribs. Yerardi, the truck’s driver, feared the worst.
“I thought he was dead,” Yerardi said.
Geary was alive, but “in a black cloud,” slipping in and out of consciousness. He remembered talking to Cadman and Pomeroy and other firefighters who came to his aid, giving him oxygen and using the Jaws of Life to lift the truck off him.
The rescue took only a few minutes, Pomeroy said, but it felt like a half-hour. Even though Geary was sometimes conscious and making light of the situation, the firefighters knew the accident was anything but minor.
“I knew he was all right when he said his ass was on fire, but that was because he was being burned by the exhaust under the truck,” Pomeroy said. “It was said in a joking manner, but I knew he was serious.”
Even as he was in shock from his injuries, Geary was able to pull off a quick quip.
“I told the chief that I wasn’t coming in to work the next morning,” Geary recalled.
Human or mechanical error?
It would be several days before Geary could even leave the hospital. And while he was recuperating, controversy raged over what caused the accident. Two accident reports — one from a city-hired contractor and one from state police — attributed the accident to operator error, while a report from the firefighters’ union blamed faulty equipment.
To Geary, there’s no question what caused the accident.
“I know what failed that night — the apparatus,” he said. “It wouldn’t have occurred if the blocks were of the proper size and made of the right materials.”
The 24-year-old Engine 13 also contributed to the accident, Cadman said.
“You see what it took to get that piece of s--t out of service — it almost took a life,” he said.
But Geary said that while the equipment may have failed, the quick reaction of his men was exactly what he expected.
“You could say that one thing went wrong, but 99 things went right,” he said.
Geary kept in touch with the crew over the months of recovery and therapy, letting them know how he was doing. Although he missed working at the station, he wanted to wait until he was at full strength to come back. Geary wasn’t feeling up to snuff until coming out of surgery in September. Returning before he was fit would endanger himself and anyone he was working with or rescuing, Geary said.
“You know what the job is, and you need to be capable to return,” he said.
What made patience difficult, Geary said, was having his life interrupted for so long.
“When you’re starting out, you’re looking at this as a 35-, 40-year career,” he said. “It makes a big difference in how you lay out your life. Anything that comes to threaten those plans isn’t welcome.”
And he doesn’t like thinking about the injury now, preferring to just get back to work and move forward. Pomeroy said that in many ways, firefighters have to ignore the dangerous nature of the job.
“You can’t continuously think about it, you won’t be able to function,” Pomeroy said.
Getting back into the swing of things
Despite the long absence, Geary said returning to work a week ago was mostly easy.
“The toughest part has been fitting back into my turnout gear,” Geary joked, with roars of laughter coming from the other jakes in the room.
And the rapport between Geary and his crew seems unharmed by his 18 months away. On Sunday afternoon, the four were watching the NFL playoffs — disinterestedly, due to the lack of Patriots presence — with Geary munching on pistachios donated by a neighbor. The only calls coming over the loudspeaker were for emergencies outside of Station 3’s coverage area, like medical aid on Thurston Road and a rollover on Route 128, which gave the group plenty of time to banter amongst themselves.
Conversation ranged from the football game to ribald remarks about a TV chef to ragging on one another. When Geary said he missed calls like an earlier assignment to clear snow off fire hydrants, the reaction was politely skeptical.
“Yeah, right,” Cadman said.
Geary said firefighters in an engine or ladder crew naturally bond with each other just by virtue of sharing so much time together. Over years of 24-hour shifts, they learn about each other’s lives and share in the important events.
“We follow each other through romance, getting married, having kids,” Geary said.
“Divorces,” Yerardi interjected. “Bail bondsmen.”
“You come on to the department and you’re the red-ass, then 20 years later you’re calling the new guy ‘red-ass,’” Geary said with a look at Pomeroy, who with three years at the station is the youngest crew member.
The biggest change Geary has seen since returning is the level of animosity between firefighters and City Hall, which was bad when he left. But the conflicting accident reports and a no-confidence vote in Chief Joseph LaCroix have ratcheted up the mistrust, with firefighters saying the administration is still not meeting basic equipment needs.
“When I was injured, we were asking ‘Can it get any worse?’” Geary said. “And I’m back now and it is worse.”
Geary frequently talked about making the best of a bad situation, a concept he and his crew seemed familiar with. While taking potshots at their oven, which was scavenged from a nursing home, or the paint flaking off the kitchen ceiling into the food — “It adds flavor,” Cadman said — they were at home with each other, and Geary was clearly happy to be back at that home.