Saturday, May 26, 2018

In aftermath of 9/11, beloved Dalmatian lived a long life as a firehouse pup

On Sept. 11, 2001, seven members of Ladder Company 20 on Lafayette Street in the NoLIta neighborhood of Manhattan were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center, about a mile and a half mile away, along with seven members of Squad 18, which shared the firehouse at the time with the ladder company.

A few weeks later, during the period of mourning that followed, a purebred Dalmatian puppy showed up at the company's doorstep.

The dog, a gift from two deputies with the Monroe County sheriff's department in upstate New York, was given the name Twenty, after the ladder company.

Twenty immediately loved the firetruck, a classic Seagrave hook-and-ladder, and began accompanying the firefighters on all their calls, from raging blazes to false alarms.

"For 10 years, she never missed a run," said Mike Toal, 60, who had been a senior chauffeur at Ladder 20 and often drove the truck.

The dog also went with the firefighters to events held for fallen members and provided sorely needed moments of cheer and humor on a daily basis, Toal said.

"We were burying guys left and right at that time," Toal said. "She came with us to a lot of burials and funerals."

Even after retiring five years ago, Toal would return every month, with dog biscuits, to visit Twenty. He was among the many current and retired firefighters who went to the firehouse last week to spend time with the aging and ailing dog before she died on Tuesday.

"There were 20 guys in the kitchen crying" as a veterinarian prepared to euthanize Twenty, who was 14, in the firehouse, he said.

It was too much even for the most hardened members of the Fire Department, recalled Lt. Gary Iorio, who worked at Ladder 20 for 10 years and was present in Twenty's last hours.

"I've been through a lot of stuff, and here I'm crying over a dog, but you couldn't help it — she was part of the place," he said.

The tradition of a Dalmatian as the iconic New York City fire dog stretches back to the 1800s, when fire vehicles were pulled by horses, which often had a good rapport with Dalmatians.

One prominent Dalmatian was Hooper, of Engine 211/Ladder 119 in Brooklyn. Hooper became the title character in a 1993 children's book, Firehouse Dog.

But as modern Fire Department regulations, work schedules and other logistics have made keeping a firehouse pet less viable, Twenty's presence stood out.

The department announced the dog's death by issuing a photograph and a quote, which quickly gained traction on social media and was picked up by many news outlets.

Twenty was a classic fire dog. She slept and ate with the firefighters and went with them on all their calls.

"She jumped up into the rig for every run," Toal said. "She had her own seat and her own window. If anyone else tried to sit in it, they got covered in dog hair."

"I think everyone got a kick out of this dog looking out the window," he said.

Her barking added to the cacophony as the truck wove through crowded, noisy city streets, Iorio said.

"She'd be barking her head off — it was almost like The Little Rascals," recalled Iorio, who said Twenty became a spotted symbol of healing for the firefighters and a local celebrity in the bustling, tourist-filled neighborhood.

"She calmed you, she brought a certain peace to you," he said. "She was a focal point of stress relief.

"There was a time after 9/11 when the firehouse was like being in a tomb," Iorio said. "You couldn't get back to normal, and the dog helped with that."

Twenty arrived right after a funeral for a firefighter killed at the World Trade Center. Toal still had tears in his eyes when he answered the door that day in November 2001 to find the two deputies from Monroe County holding Twenty.

Toal had already spent 20 years at the firehouse by 2001 and lost close friends on Sept. 11, including Capt. John Fischer, who died while leading a group of firefighters from Ladder 20 trying to rescue people inside the north tower.

Ladder 20 was one of the first groups of firefighters to respond to the terror attack, and the 14 fallen members from the two squads sharing the NoLIta firehouse at the time who were killed that day was an inordinately high number of the 343 firefighters who died in Lower Manhattan.

Toal grew close to the dog, who would often sleep with him in the firehouse's bunk room.

She liked the rhythms of the firehouse and would jump up as soon as she heard the emergency tones signaling a run. Once at the scene of a fire, Twenty would remain in the truck while the firefighters did their work.

"The tones would go off, and she'd start barking and running around," Iorio recalled. "Mike would open up the jump seat door and she'd jump up in there. You wouldn't think a dog would want to go, but she got energized from it."

Toal said that Twenty ate the same food as the firefighters. "When word would come over the intercom that chow was on, she'd be the first one in the kitchen," he said.

Firehouse members decided to have Twenty cremated so that her ashes could be placed near a memorial in the firehouse that holds official department plaques commemorating firefighters who died in the line of duty.

"I liked her more than most people I worked with," Toal said.

"She had 25 fathers," he said, referring to the number of firefighters working in the firehouse. "She was family. She liked being in the firehouse. She liked firemen."


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