Heroes Among Us: Fireman Ralph Tiso

Photo of Firemen Ralph TIso

Heroes Among Us: Fireman Ralph Tiso

This story isn’t really about 9/11, though it kind of started and ended there…

You may recall that last September we at the Firefly hosted a show of previously unshared works by Photojournalist Peter Foley. It was offered to us by his brother, John, a local teacher who will tell you this work launched his brother’s career. He wanted to show it someplace thoughtful.

What is most impressive is the reverence and sensitivity with which Peter handles this material. He doesn’t show it often. It’s not on his website. What he wants most is for the work to honor those documented.

We said “yes” and agreed immediately that this offering was neither about the horror nor the people rendering it, but about those who showed up to help. They named it “Heroes Among Us.” We hung it in a front corner, complete with a personal testimonial from Peter. It proved to be a nice spot to kneel in and quietly contemplate. It seemed to mean a lot to people.

Soon after it opened, Firefly Steve Walker came in and recognized his neighbor.

Photos of firemen responding to September 11th

“I Know That Guy!!!”

“I know that guy! Oh my God, what a story!” said Steve, when he told me, “9/11, yeah, but not for why you think. This guy’s a regular hero. You’ve got to meet him.”

Steve advises me that the Tisos are fairly private people who aren’t looking for accolades. Still, the portrait is profound and so is the story. The Foleys have already repeatedly been touched by the impact of this show and this, now, is incredible. They offer to make a special print. Steve arranges for Ralph and I to meet.

I am so glad I met him. His wife, Linda, too.

A plaque above Ralph Tiso's granddaughter’s dollhouse recognizing his 30 years of service to Rescue 3. It holds his Fireman’s, Lieutenant’s and Captain’s Badges.

One Fireman’s Museum - A Visit to Ralph Tiso’s Home

Ralph is Steve’s next-door neighbor in a townhome community. He opens the door, politely welcomes us, and then invites us downstairs.

The basement is one part gallery, one part play area for his grandchildren. Ralph shows us where he works out and where he does his office work. He then leads us to a wall of photos and commences a tour of his career as a fireman in the Bronx from 1968 until 2002.

Ralph points to a group of firefighters, starting with a friend lost to the flames, “We called him Chatty Kathy because he talked all the time, but he died in a fire in Queens. That’s a Bronx picture,” he points to another, “This is when I was the Captain of Rescue…This is when I was the Captain of the Squad, and that’s when I was in a truck company on the cover of the Daily News.”

Cover of the Daily News in 1967 - "Fire Lieutenant Ralph Tiso gets a rose and a kiss from Erica Zachary, 2, after he and two other firefighters went through a raging inferno to rescue Erica, her mother and two sisters from almost certain death in an apartment at 150 E. 182d St, Bronx, yesterday."

“Did you pull out some people in that little girl’s family?“ asks Steve

“Yeah read it…there’s a little writeup there…”

I read, “Fire Lieutenant Ralph Tiso gets a rose and a kiss from Erica Zachary, 2, after he and two other firefighters went through a raging inferno to rescue Erica, her mother and two sisters from almost certain death in an apartment at 150 E. 182d St, Bronx, yesterday.

When we meet later, he makes sure I know that Cliff Thompson and Joseph Sepkowski were the firefighters who were with him. They grabbed two of the kids, while Ralph tended to Erica and her mother.

“One of the sisters was playing with matches,” he says at the time. “That’s what started the fire.”

Images on Ralph's wall from 9/11 including a collection of images commemorating fellows lost when the towers collapsed

9/11

He turns to another shot. “That picture up there is me at the Trade Center,” he says. It’s from the afternoon of 9/11. I’m carrying a defibrillator hoping we could find somebody alive, but we didn’t”

I tell him I remember that aspect being among those that hit my mother hardest…the idea of folks trying to find somebody to rescue and there not being anyone. I tell him I can’t imagine how he must feel.

He answers by pointing to another photo: “Those were my men that died.” he says. He indicates one gentleman in particular, “This is the Captain of Rescue 4. He was working for me that day because I was getting scuba training.”

He goes on to explain that only a Rescue Captain can work for a Rescue Captain. This one in particular had lost two men in the Father’s Day Fire and had been out for PTSD.

“Oh, wow.” we breathe.

“He got killed in my place.”

“Oh boy. That must be tough to deal with,” says Steve

“Yeah, a little. Survivor’s remorse.”

I tell him I remember that aspect being among those that hit my mother hardest…the idea of folks trying to find somebody to rescue and there not being anyone. I tell him I can’t imagine how he must feel.

He answers by pointing to another photo: “Those were my men that died.” he says. He indicates one gentleman in particular, “This is the Captain of Rescue 4. He was working for me that day because I was getting scuba training.”

A Familiar Image…

We then come to a picture that looks familiar, this one taken by Allen Chin, which Ralph says was originally published in the NY Times.

“That’s the picture that was in Newsweek,” he says…“On top, the guy sitting next to me is Lieutenant Williams, one of my lieutenants…these are all guys that worked in my company…and that…the guy with the hand on his head, that’s Stanley Sussina.”

“That must have been just a few minutes before Peter took his shot,” I say, “because I was just looking at the portrait and the gentleman down in the bottom right is in the bottom right of the picture.

“See now, there’s a little controversy between that picture and the one you have in the gallery because, in the one in the gallery you have Paul Heglund sitting next to me. I never remember Paul Heglund sitting next to me…Steven Moseler was sitting next to me. He was a fireman from Rescue One who hooked up with my group.”

That’s the picture. Taken with a film camera. Ralph was there…for days…as impressive as that moment was, it was just one in a million. He must have just forgotten…

Newspaper clipping about a building collapse that occurred early in Ralph's career.

A Few Miracles

“Now this picture” he points to old newsprint, “That’s me up here on the ladder. That’s Pete down here. The building is vacant, except for the bottom floor is a bar…but there were squatters up on the top floor.”

This happened fairly early in his career, when he was a regular Fireman. Ralph continues to explain that he got one guy out and then, “I went back in because he said there was a woman in there, but there never was a woman in there. And then, later on, they pulled everybody out and poured water in to put the fire out. Then they sent the companies back in to do overhauling, and the floors collapsed. About eight guys got trapped…but none of them were seriously injured because they were all on the top floor and they rode it down. By some miracle, there was nobody underneath.”

“That’s amazing,” I say.

“Somebody was watching over them that time,” remarks Steve, “that’s for sure.”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t you say that you actually fell from one story?” asks Steve.

“Yeah. I have bad ankles because of that.”

“Did you break anything?”

“No, only ligament. They couldn’t believe it when I was at the hospital that I didn’t break any bones. I had ligament damage, tendon damage, that was it… so now I have arthritis in my ankles.”

He laughs.

Well Worn Equipment

We turn to shelves on the other side of the room. There are medals and photos, books and movies…other memorabilia and collectibles. Pictures of family. A few religious artifacts. It’s kind of like a quiet, unassuming altar.

Ralph shows us the picture of his ship from when he was in the Navy for four and a half years. Then he shows us his fire hats, “That’s my helmet from Rescue 3. Where I retired.”

He then points to the one from 33, “This helmet has seen a lot of fire”

“You can see,” remarks Steve, “God. Look at that.”

Yeah…

Ralph shows us his gas mask and talks about how they’re now all custom fit. They didn’t used to be. Then, he hands Steve a 1-1/2” hose nozzle from before they were made of composite material.

Steve marvels at its weight, “You would hold that for hours?!?”

“Now, beside the weight,” Ralph explains, “For every pound of pressure going out, you get two pounds of pressure pushing against you. That’s why you have two or three guys on the line – so you don’t lose it.”

Medals of Bravery and Valor

There’s a plaque above his granddaughter’s dollhouse recognizing his 30 years of service to Rescue 3. It holds his Fireman’s, Lieutenant’s and Captain’s Badges. 

Ralph points to a framed set of medals, the actual commendations for which he has carefully filed away. There’s a Hugh Bonner award, which the NYC Fire Museum will tell you was named for “a stalwart Chief of Department who preferred to rule by example.”

“I got that for rescuing a construction worker who was buried in Queens,” Ralph explains.

There’s an Edward Thompson Medal for Outstanding Bravery from when he was on the 33 truck, a Chief’s Association Medal from when he was a Captain on the Grand Concourse, and an Albert S. Johnston medal from when he was in the 58 truck and rescued a man trapped in an apartment.

He points to another, “This was a special award from the NY Yankees and the NY telephone company that I got at Yankee Stadium.” It sounds like a fun day, “This one is for being in the Honor Legion. That’s an Honor Legion medal.”

While the way he says this indicates it impresses him to have it, you wouldn’t really pick up that it’s the kind of medal you get for being considered by your peers to be among the bravest of the brave just by listening to him. There’s no pomp in any of his presentation. No arrogance or bravado. Just a guy thinking about things that happened, and humbly grateful to have been appreciated.

 

While the way he says this indicates it impresses him to have it, you wouldn’t really pick up that it’s the kind of medal you get for being considered by your peers to be among the bravest of the brave just by listening to him. There’s no pomp in any of his presentation. No arrogance or bravado. Just a guy thinking about things that happened, and humbly grateful to have been appreciated.

There’s a medal off to one side from 9/11 that he almost shrugs off. Everyone who was there that first day got one. Validating this impression, later, when he’s showing pictures of “his last medal,” he also points out men in those images who did not survive when the towers collapsed.

There are other more personal tokens of appreciation, and tributes to friends lost. One, which might be both, is a model of that famous image of firemen raising the American Flag at Ground Zero. The phrase “Every Sunrise is a Gift!” is inscribed in sunny script at the bottom.

He’s looking at something else though, and smiles, “That’s Yoda, My favorite character.”

I like him, too.

Photo of one of Ralph Tiso's shelves...photos from the Navym shipmates, in Italy by the Leaning Tower of Pisa. His favorite character, yoda...a red car...

They Just Showed Up

Talk turns back to 9/11. Peter Foley, the photographer, had been interested in the FDNY and actually had himself embedded with a company for a few weeks. This wasn’t why he was on site that day, though. Like many New Yorkers, he just heard the explosion and went to work.

“The first two weeks after 9/11 there was no security, so people were just showing up. I mean, we had volunteers just coming in…we had guys in military uniforms walking around and digging. We had no control over them, which was not a good thing.”

He says it again, “It was not a good thing…”

“But the phenomenal thing,” his face changes, “was that first night (because I was there that whole 24 hours). All of a sudden construction equipment just started showing up. Dump trucks just started showing up. People started coming with laundry baskets full of water.”

“I knew five or six unions guys,” I say, “Dock builders, Iron workers…they just dropped everything and showed up.

“They showed up out of nowhere,” agrees Ralph, “Construction workers and hardhats”

“I always feel like they deserve a little more,” I say, “because no one ever talks about them and I know these guys, they just showed up. They just showed up and they stayed there…”

“Yes. Good point. You know, independent guys who owned a backhoe, all of a sudden they showed up. Dump trucks showed up. Even before sanitation trucks showed up. It was unbelievable.”

We share some stories. Then Steve asks, “Any of those guys have any effects later on? Healthwise?”

“Oh I’m sure.” Says Ralph, “I’ve got GERD, acid reflux. I have bad sinuses now and I’ve had skin cancer. I have Parkinsons, but they say that that’s not related.”

We talk about others…

“But the phenomenal thing,” his face changes, “was that first night (because I was there that whole 24 hours). All of a sudden construction equipment just started showing up. Dump trucks just started showing up. People started coming with laundry baskets full of water.”

“I knew five or six unions guys,” I say, “Dock builders, Iron workers…they just dropped everything and showed up.

Collapse Rescue Unit

“I commanded the Collapse Rescue Unit.” He clarifies, “I commanded that also. I commanded the two units.”

“So that’s if something collapses…” I start

“Any collapse in the city we would respond…” affirmed Ralph, “We were always complaining, like if a collapse happened in Staten Island, I would have to respond with my rescue rig and the collapse rig. Two rigs. By the time I get to Brooklyn they would be turning us back, so we were always trying to get another collapse unit to handle Brooklyn and Staten Island.

“After 9/11 they finally smartened up. Now each rescue unit – there’s one in each borough – has a collapse rig…so now each rescue handles collapses in their own borough.”

“It took 9/11 to change that?” asks Steve

“Yeah. They never wanted to spend the money.”

That’s for sure…

“Any collapse in the city we would respond…” affirmed Ralph, “We were always complaining, like if a collapse happened in Staten Island, I would have to respond with my rescue rig and the collapse rig. Two rigs. By the time I get to Brooklyn they would be turning us back, so we were always trying to get another collapse unit to handle Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Scrap Book

Ralph is starting to warm up a little. “I told Steve,” he says, “If you want to do anything with me, you’ve got to talk to my people. My wife. She’s my people.”

He brings us upstairs. His wife smiles warmly and steps forward to shake my hand, “I’m Linda.”

We sit at the kitchen table. Linda offers us cookies and something to drink. We proceed to go through a scrap book.

There’s a Newsweek article that features images taken at the same time Peter Foley was on the scene.

Ralph points out the people, “Here’s Knabbe. This is one of my lieutenants, Kevin Williams, This is Steve Moseler he’s from Rescue 1 but he hooked up with me at Special Operations. Now, in the picture you have there’s a different person sitting next to me and I don’t remember that person sitting next to me…”

He again accepts that it must just have happened, but you can tell it puzzles him. He moves on.

 

There’s an article from 1972 when he was working for Ladder Company 59 and ran up eight stories to rescue 53-year old Lula Howard. Both received medical aid for smoke exposure. Echoing Ralph’s tacit sentiment that this what just what the job was about, the article goes on to discuss two other firemen who’d also recently climbed above the fire floor to save others.

An article from 1986 tells of how Ralph dragged an unconscious, nonbreathing man with burns over 50 percent of his body out of his apartment. Then there’s that Daily News piece from 1987 about the woman and three children in their apartment.

Ralph didn’t mention that there were cars blocking the fire hydrants, wasting precious time, nor that the building was so engulfed in flames they nearly leapt from the 5th floor window to get out. Even worse, Tiso knew the ladder would never reach the 5th floor in time. The mother was hysterical and refused to come with him. He brought one of the children out, ran back in, and then finally fought the woman to pull her back from the window and ultimately get her to safety.

It was something of a miracle: All who witnessed said they were mere seconds from death. You only have to see the picture of flames roaring out the window to understand.

A few days later, Ralph remembers, someone came up to him “’You saved my life,’ she said. It was the mother of the kids. She had come in to get a fire report and I didn’t remember her.”

I marvel again at the sheer number of normally unforgettable moments Ralph must have experienced.

“She’ll never forget you,” I respond.

Heroes Don’t Always Win

It’s not always a happy ending. The next headline is “5 kids die in fire: blaze traps them in basement”

“I save this article,” he says, “because, see they have a baby here? I was searching the floor…it was two floors of fire…and my position was searching the second floor, actually. There was another company also searching…and…two firemen came out of a room and they told me ‘Lieu’ (I’m a Lieutenant) ‘the room’s good. The room’s clear. So, I took their word for it and searched the rest of the apartment. Turns out there was a kid buried in there; a baby.

“After that I never took another company’s word. If my responsibility was that room, I was going in. Even if they told me it was searched…

“…what happened was the rescuers were working on a kid when they found her. There were a couple of kids that died in that fire…” He sighs.

There are so many pictures. He never fails to point out his family members, nor his fellows who died. Peter Ganci, who was Chief of the Department. Chris Blackwell. Both of them perished in 9/11.

Then there’s a photo of his rig outside Yankee Stadium…

Firehouses

Conversation turns to Firehouses themselves. The next article is about Howard Safir, who was the NYC Fire Commissioner from 1994 to 1996. Rescue 3 was moved from Manhattan to the Bronx into a dilapidated old Firehouse. There were leaks, rats and a kitchen that was literally an old stable.

Ralph tells me Safir had been invited down so they could explain they needed $15,000 to make repairs, “So when we were leaving, he said ‘Captain, I understand what you need but I don’t like Firemen doing work on the Firefhouse.’

“I thought that was the end of it,” Ralph remembered, “Two days later I get a call from the Assistant Commissioner saying that they were going to put in a brand-new kitchen.

“What Safir did, he went to Fernando Ferrera who was the Bronx Borough President and told him, ‘You know one of your elite firehouses has a terrible kitchen?’ and he got the money from him! So, we invited him to the firehouse, and had him slide the pole. After the kitchen was in, we invited him for lunch.”

“So, you asked for $15,000….” I say.

“And we got a $40,000 kitchen,” smiles Ralph, “Commercial stoves. Venting. Everything.”

It’s Nice to be Appreciated

Some of the stories are quite entertaining. There’s a Proclamation from the Mayor of Honolulu in there. This is because Emme Tomimbang Burns, who Ralph and Linda call the “Oprah Winfrey of Hawaii,” did a special on his firehouse because of Honolulu natives who passed on 9/11.

Ralph admits he kind of pushed her off at first. “As a matter of fact I was kind of rude to her most of the time, but she was persistent and we did this special. Then, she flew us out because the special was in the Hawaiian film festival. I got to give a little speech and the Mayor proclaimed Ralph Tiso day in the city of Honolulu!”

They still keep in touch with Emme. It’s a nice memory. Linda smiles.

Then there’s a thank you letter. “The construction worker that I got out in Queens was from Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was an African American. This is from the Lion’s Club in Bedford-Stuyvesant. His Uncle was one of them. They sent me this card, which I thought was great.”

He lingers on it for a moment and then moves on…

Challenging Times: The Burning of the Bronx

Ralph tells us that he liked being stationed in the inner cities because he wanted to serve people who really needed help. However, firefighting in the 70s and 80s in the South Bronx was an overwhelming and undermined affair.

Ralph grimaces as another article almost falls out of the book. It is a picture of devastation.

“I have a color picture of this,” he grimaces, “It fell and I have to put it in a new frame. This is Charlotte and 170 in the Bronx. When I first went down there, down to that area, there were all buildings there. There must have been 200,000 people living in that area. This is three years later…this is what was left. They just burned everything…”

A lot of fingers are pointed, most of them at the New York City government, which was bankrupt, and a RAND computer modeling system that was employed to help cut costs. The algorithm was imperfect to begin with and seemed further plagued with bias and corruption, leading to a deeper withdrawal of services from some areas than others.

Manhattan was gentrifying. Redlining concentrated impoverished people, devastating the South Bronx. More generally, racial tensions had had metaphorical gasoline and matches thrown at them as the nation – and that area in particular – plunged into a period of overwhelming cynicism and deep desperation.

 

Manhattan was gentrifying. Redlining concentrated impoverished people, devastating the South Bronx. More generally, racial tensions had had metaphorical gasoline and matches thrown at them as the nation – and that area in particular – plunged into a period of overwhelming cynicism and deep desperation.

Here’s an opinion piece by Joe Flood in the 5/16/10 NY Post. He is the author of “The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City — and Determined the Future of Cities.”

Many love it. Quite a few who lived there take issue with his portrayal.

“Decade of Fire” is a critically acclaimed documentary written by Bronx-born Vivian Vazquez Irizarry, which she offers from the perspective of one who lived through this very poignant example of institutional racism and seeks to be part of the healing.

I ask Ralph and Linda if they have any thoughts on these works or others they’d recommend. They shake their heads. They think it better for people to research and make up their own minds. You can tell it was frustrating, to say the least.

Ralph does appear to reject the assertion by Flood that only 7% of these fires were arson. He blames Mayor John Lindsay for this, “He was the main guy because he kept just giving them money and giving them money.” He proceeds to explain what he sees as a system that may or may not have been well intended, but served to incentivize destruction.

A lot of fingers are pointed, most of them at the New York City government, which was bankrupt, and a RAND computer modeling system that was employed to help cut costs. The algorithm was imperfect to begin with and seemed further plagued with bias and corruption, leading to a deeper withdrawal of services from some areas than others.

“They’d give you money for furniture, so if you burnt your furniture, you’d be able to get new furniture… the Fire Department even had a unit that would move people into new housing.” He explains there were no questions asked. As far as he can see it didn’t solve any of the problems, but did provide options to people who had few. Similarly, he speaks of methods of quieting unrest that seemed far more likely to incentivize more unrest than to actually resolve anything.

“It would seem to keep the area under control…” frowns Ralph, “He was trying to run for President through NYC…”

Later, Ralph explains that these incentives would come together such that people would stand on the roofs and throw rocks at the firemen. Occasionally, they would have to abandon their equipment and retrieve it later, sometimes with a police escort.

“Arson with the landlords, too,” grimaces Linda. Generally smiling and gracious, she is now visibly upset.

“Right. I’m getting to that…” says Ralph…

“That must have stressed out all the Fire Departments,” Steve comments.

“Yes. Oh yeah. I was in special units in the seventies where we just did fire duty. We had no District, we just did Fire Duty…Landlords started burning the rest of the buildings down to get the insurance money and get out. This is the result.”

“I come from that area,” says Linda, “It was infuriating.”

“There was a night and afternoon when I was in the tactical control unit,” remembers Ralph, “which was a special unit that relieved busy companies. We got to our company at 3 o’clock and we didn’t get back to the firehouse until 9:30 that night. We were just going from ‘box to box,’ from fire to fire.”

“… that was a typical night – 20-25 runs and at least one or two real fires. Sometimes more.”

On an Average Night…

“I can just give you a night tour of the South Bronx,” says Ralph, “There could be 20 runs in a 15 hour period. In those 20 runs we could get two major fires. That could be every night.”

“They would have to sleep with their clothes on,” remarked Linda.

“There was a night and afternoon when I was in the tactical control unit,” remembers Ralph, “which was a special unit that relieved busy companies. We got to our company at 3 o’clock and we didn’t get back to the firehouse until 9:30 that night. We were just going from ‘box to box,’ from fire to fire.

“There were a lot of what we called ADVs – Abandoned Derelict Vehicles. What the people used to like to do, they’d like to fill them with garbage and light them up. We would have a lot of those…

“… that was a typical night – 20-25 runs and at least one or two real fires. Sometimes more.”

He frowns.

Talk turns away from bad memories to better ones growing up in the Bronx, and of the love story that is Linda and Ralph’s relationship. He explains that a big part of what made him a good captain was not him, but her.

Faith and Love

Talk turns away from bad memories to better ones growing up in the Bronx, and of the love story that is Linda and Ralph’s relationship. He explains that a big part of what made him a good captain was not him, but her.

Family, you realize, means the world to Ralph. Each time we meet, his son and grandchildren walk in while we’re talking. You can feel the love.

A couple of times, I turn to Linda, “How did you do it? How many sleepless nights must there have been?”

Ralph will point out that it wasn’t just him she would worry about; that she was effectively the wife and mother of the whole house. She knew everybody and she knew everybody’s kids.

Linda will nod, but emphasize that that meant she wasn’t the only one; that the network of family members would also be the thing that confirmed Ralph had been seen and was ok.

More often, she just shrugs. She says she knew he’d be okay; that there was no stopping him and that he knew what he was doing. While one wonders if it’s easier to say this in hindsight, the matter-of-fact way she presents it is remarkable. Clearly, she is a woman of great faith.

Of course he’d be fine.

A shelf honoring those lost on 9/11

It Does Take Its Toll

“We were so macho we wouldn’t take R&R,” Ralph remembers, “The captain, the officer would say (when I was a Fireman) ‘You guys want R&R?’ and we’d be like ‘Nah, let’s get to the next one!’

“We didn’t go sick. You didn’t leave the rest of the guys.

“You know, on the news when there’s a fire,” remarks Linda, “like just a few days ago, they had that big lithium battery fire…or that one where they lost a few people? And then they say, ‘Two people were killed’ — and I’m not minimizing that! — but then they say one fireman had ‘non-life-threatening injuries’?

“Non-life-threatening at the moment, maybe, but after a while those add up….”

Ralph has two bad shoulders, two bad ankles and a bad back. All of that is from the job. They tell him the Parkinson’s is unrelated, but most of the other issues that he has are.

Thank You, Ralph

Despite the toll, you can tell Ralph loved his job; that he didn’t care for the politics, but he did care about rescuing people. While he was clearly appreciated as a lieutenant and captain, Ralph is crystal clear that if it wasn’t for the pay raises he’d never have taken those jobs. He just wanted to be one of the Fireman.

Perhaps that’s what made him such a good captain.

God only knows to how many he was a hero.

We are grateful.

Several framed images from Ralph's career. In action, receiving commendations and with his company.