The guardians of Troy
Author reveals dedicated city firefighters, paramedics in action

By MICHAEL LISI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, November 13, 2005

Author William Patrick didn't have publishing houses knocking down his door after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for his book about a year in the life of Troy firefighters.

Sure, publishers were hot for books about firefighters after Sept. 11, but the stories they were after were of firefighters responding to disasters or battling major fires. Patrick's book, "Saving Troy: A Year with Firefighters and Paramedics in a Battered City" (Hudson Whitman; $22.95) wasn't that.

"This is a book about human nature, it's not a book about disaster," said Patrick, who released the book in October through his own new firm, Hudson Whitman Publishers. "The only thing 9/11 did was make editors really myopic when it came to firefighters. Unless it was a story about a global scare or terrorism or some huge, disastrous fire, they didn't care. And they didn't want to know about the Troy Fire Department."

Patrick, a Troy native who spent most of the 1980s as a woodworker, cabinetmaker and part-time writer, certainly did. Moving back to Troy in late 1993 after Old Dominion University in Virginia eliminated its creative writing program, where he was program coordinator, Patrick decided to write full-time. A book about the Troy Fire Department would be his first project.

Patrick already had success as a writer; had written a novel ("Roxa: Voices of the Culver Family") in 1989, and "Rachel's Dinner," a 1991 teleplay made into an ABC-TV movie starring Olympia Dukakis.

Later, he made national news in 1996 when he sued Universal Pictures and comic Eddie Murphy, claiming they used his film screenplay "Brand New Me" as the basis for a remake of "The Nutty Professor." The suit was settled two years later, time Patrick spent writing his second book of poetry, "We Didn't Come Here for This," published in 1999.

But in the mid-90s, Patrick, 56, used his childhood friendship with Steven Dworsky -- then Troy's city manager and public safety commissioner -- to get permission to shadow firefighters and tell their story.

On the job

For a year, Patrick spent as many as three days a week with the firefighters of 1st Platoon at Central Station in downtown Troy, riding with paramedics Jeff Gordon and Don Kimmey in Medic 2 or tailing Engine 5 Capt. Terry Fox. He was in the firehouse, listening and laughing with firefighters as they busted each other's chops, complained about the food, and made up gruesome jokes to deal with the deaths of those they couldn't save and the sometimes heartbreaking lives of those they could.

"I had two things in mind when I wrote this book, and one of them was to give (readers) the exact same experiences I had, to put them in front of the medic rig and let (them) breathe and smell everything," Patrick explained. "When you're there, there is a similarity, and sometimes you can't tell one day from another. At the same time, every single call is unique, and that's what I was going for."

What they face

"Saving Troy" puts readers right in the action. The present tense story is an intense read, a series of terse day-in-and-day-out vignettes that give a detailed, inside look at what paramedics and firefighters face and how they react -- mentally and physically.

Like the sadness and surprise firefighters felt after reviving an attempted suicide, only to find out that the woman's lover -- who shows up looking for money while they are there -- may have intentionally infected her with HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS, just hours before.

Or their feigned indifference for James Hack, a 54-year-old chronic lung cancer patient who dies after spitting up enough blood to soak himself red and half-fill a Tupperware quart container besides. As the paramedics do what they can, Patrick notices a velvet painting of a clown with lips and hair the exact same color as Hack's blood.

Hack's body is still warm as the firefighters walk outdoors and spot a three-car pile-up across the street. While firefighters attend to the injured, Patrick notices one of the accident victims standing in front of Hack's steps, unaware that Hack's body is being brought out of his home.

Oh, and all three incidents happened on the same day in the span of eight hours, between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Patrick lists the call times in the chapter as reference points.

"For me, the drama in life is in ordinary events with single characters," said Patrick. "That, to me, underscored the insider's look at the job. I wanted the reader to feel he's got a membership to a secret club, one you can't get in to without hard work and experience."

That wasn't easy. The easy part was calling Dworsky, who gave the project the thumbs-up and had Patrick sign forms promising not to sue if he was hurt while out with the firefighters.

Grudging acceptance

Being accepted by the firefighters, that was another story. Here was Patrick, an outsider -- a writer with a camera, for Pete's sake -- with unrestricted access to gather information for a book that the firefighters would have little control over. At the same time, Troy firefighters were getting hammered in city newspaper The Record about overtime earnings.

Eventually, grudgingly, most firefighters came around and let Patrick into their inner circle.

"That's an interesting thing, being on the outside and being on the inside at the same time," he said. "You have the experience at the moment with those people, but you're also living a double life because you're observing those people and you're making them characters in your story."

To publish the book, Patrick formed Hudson Whitman, a move that gave him creative control over its design, marketing and publicity. His previous books were published by small upstate New York publishing houses, which had little or no funding for publicity and dictated book-selling marketing strategies.

Hudson Whitman is no small-time, vanity publishing business; Patrick said he plans to use the company to publish as many as two books per year by other authors.

Steady progress

Patrick took close to a decade to write "Saving Troy," making slow, steady progress as he completed other projects. Two works were inspired by his time with 1st Platoon -- a BBC-commissioned radio play called "Rescue" and a screenplay titled "Fire Ground."

He also produced a documentary about his experiences with the Troy firefighters, called "When No One Else Will." The DVD, which sells for $5, is a companion to the book.

If anything, Patrick said he hopes readers recognize the selfless dedication firefighters have to their jobs and the simple fact that they want to save lives.

"I don't care what city you're in, these people care about you," Patrick said of firefighters and paramedics. "Before I rode with them, I didn't understand that. They want to do a good job. They always run for the truck."

Michael Lisi is a freelance writer from Clifton Park and a frequent contributor to the Times Union.

William Patrick