Browning Court: Things We Found In The Fire

Last week, a fire tore through 16 Browning Court in Mendham Township. That night on the scene I was reminded there are those who are still determined to do the right thing, no matter what the cost.


Last Monday night I had returned from a long weekend out of town sheparding my father through surgery and was about to head to bed when I saw the Randolph Fire truck turn down my street. Before the flashing red and white lights had finished blading the front room of my house with color, I knew I was about to head out for a story.

This truck rolling past me at a little before midnight on a Monday was headed into Mendham

And I was headed after the truck. 

Although I arrived only a few minutes after the call went out, I felt as if I were late to the party. Browning Court was lined with emergency vehicles and flood lights already illuminated the home which was hemmoraging smoke out into the unseasonably warm night.

Over the course of the next five hours I watched crews of firemen from Brookside, Ralston, Mendham Borough, Chester, Randolph, New Vernon, Peapack, Bernardsville, Basking Ridge and Flanders work to contain the fire.

I watched, as these men laden with heavy gear, climbed up onto the roof of the burning building to saw open vent holes in the ceiling. Despite the fact that the first floor had collapsed and the foundation was flooded from melted piping.

Because it was the right thing to do.

I watched members of the Mendham First Aid Squad calmly and efficiently handle injuries and disperse bottles of water to those working the scene.

Because it was the right thing to do.

I knew some of the people I saw on the scene from my first six weeks at Mendham-Chester Patch. Assistant Fire Chief Peter Staples was among them, as was Chief Jay Alderton, both from the Brookside Engine Company. But the majority of the faces I encountered at the scene were new to me.

As night turned into morning I held up the police tape to faciliate admittance as service workers entered and exited the scene. As they passed and we exchanged pleasantries, two things leapt out at me.

Despite the difficulty and danger of the task in front of them and the fact that it was the middle of the night, they took the time to be polite and even friendly to someone they didn't know and didn't need to spare the time to be civil to.

And second, these folks are volunteers.

I want to pause a minute and let that sink in.

I'll wait.

Ready? Ok, I'll continue.

These guys, the ones that were rushing IN TO the fire at their own peril do so because they want to help. They do so because they care.

And maybe because they are a little bit crazy.

I spoke to some of the guys on the Chester F.A.S.T. team from Chester who were called to the scene. This Firefighter Assist and Search Team is specially trained to standby at fire scenes in case other firefighters fall into trouble. Firefighters can at times become disoriented or lost and can be injured due to deteriorating conditions.

In other words, these guys go into situations that have overcome their bretheren already working a fire.

These guys are a lot a bit crazy.

On my ride over to the scene I was quietly lamenting my rotten luck. I was exhausted after a long and tense weekend and wanted to go to sleep. I certainly didn't want to be out all night working.

Looking back now, I am embarrassed I had those thoughts. I stood, safely behind the police line (most of the time) and watched these volunteers risk their lives. I watched the EMS crews take care of the home owners and transport them for treatment.

They had worked their day jobs that day and all had to return to those jobs in a few short hours, and yet there they were away from their families and their cozy beds putting it on the line for nothing more than the satisfaction of helping others.

Because it was the right thing to do.

As the work continued, I saw one of the firemen loaded on to a stretcher. His jacket and his shirt were off. I found out later he was admitted to the hospital with shortness of breath and chest pains.

I held the police tape up as EMS wheeled him past for his ride to Morristown Memorial. A few steps behind the stretcher, another fireman had his coat slung over his shoulder, the name of the firefighter in distress clearly visible.

It was an iconic moment, really. It was a perfect snapshot of the brotherhood and selflessness I knew my meager words would fail to recap when I sat down to the keyboard later.

I put the camera in my pocket without taking the picture. 

Why? My story and photos would be up before word could reach the injured man's family.

Not taking the picture was the right thing to do.

I certainly wouldn't elevate my small choice to anywhere near the level of courage that these volunteers exhibited. Heroism is something that is part of who they are and what they do.

But being a first hand witness reminded me of the debt we owe those willing to risk their own safety to serve their community.

And the example they set is one we can all try to follow, even if it is as simple a decision as not taking a picture.

John Dunphy March 19, 2012 at 09:15 PM
A great editorial from a journalist Patch is lucky to have within its ranks. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Russ!
Russ Crespolini March 19, 2012 at 09:19 PM
Oh, John. Now I'm blushing. You and Biden hang out yet?
Tracy Tobin March 21, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Russ Ask the Chester and Mendham Fire and First Aid Squads for data on the number of calls that they respond to in a year. I think you will be surprised at the number of call outs the volunteers handle. Add onto that mutual aid calls, mandatory training, drills, refresher courses to maintain certification, etc. and I think you will find that it amounts to at least another half time job for the volunteers. I recently attended Washington Township's Annual Emergency Services dinner. The number of years of service and number of individual call out responses was incredible. I am sure that you will find it is the same in the Chesters and Mendhams. The residents of our five municipalities owe a great deal of respect and thanks to the men and women who volunteer for the emergency service units.
Russ Crespolini March 21, 2012 at 02:25 AM
You know, Tracy I was at the joint council meeting in Chester where they presented their numbers and discussed budget. Absolutely staggering. Record calls, two major disasters. Unbelievable, really. My mother has been an ICU nurse for 40 years and she, like so many police officers I know, deal with tragedy and risk on a scale I could never fathom. But at the end of the day (and not to take anything away from them) that is part of their job. These volunteers do this on top of all the other responsibilities they have in their lives. It is very humbling to witness.


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