FDNY Chief Bill Freehan / New Book: 5 Floors Up / Wall Street Journal Review

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Chief Bill Feehan, like his father, William, before him; his son-in-law, Brian, after him; and grandson Connor after that, proudly wore the fire department’s patch on his shoulder. (One almost wishes an illustrated family tree had been included for repeated reference.) Bill was the only officer in FDNY history to hold every rank, including fire commissioner. Mr. McDonald devotes the most space in “Five Floors Up” to an account of Bill’s career trajectory and home life—from his relationship with his vivacious but ailing wife, Betty, to moonlighting as a security guard for an ungrateful aristocrat, to his battles with raging fires during the “Bronx is burning” arson epidemic of the 1970s—and, ultimately, to his heroic death.

It only makes sense that “Five Floors Up” starts and ends with the catastrophe of Sept. 11, 2001. On that morning, Chief Feehan and 342 firefighters alongside him sacrificed their lives in the race to save those caught in the World Trade Center before the collapse. Mr. McDonald’s first chapter details a short, rather distant account of the harrowing day from a gathering in the backyard of Bill’s grown daughter Tara. These early pages of “Five Floors Up” are jarring and a bit disorienting, for you aren’t yet familiar with the cast of characters and are unsure of where to place your dismay.

But in the latter pages Mr. McDonald manages a gut-wrenching firsthand minute-by-minute, decision-by-decision description of the morning of 9/11. With skilled interviewing, the last hours of Chief Feehan’s life are pieced together, starting from his routine coffee and over-easy eggs at Flushing’s North Shore Diner to his refusal to leave Ground Zero minutes before the North Tower fell.

“Five Floors Up” is an homage to the families who absorb the aftermath of such courageous choices and a tribute to those whose job is much more than a career. It is a resurrection of firefighters fallen in battle with the “red devil” and a celebration of those who have picked up the hose in their stead.
 
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