Just Another Day on the Job?

Time Off
14 June, 1991

Just Another Day on the Job?

Viewing the new hit movie Backdraft, local firefighters have mixed reactions to Hollywood’s depiction of thier life beating back the flames

By John P. McAlpin

Ray Wadsworth’s grown daughter found out last week just what her father has been doing for more that half of his life. As a volunteer for the Princeton Fire Department’s Hook and Ladder Company, Mr. Wadsworth has been carrying hose, laying lines, cleaning trucks, wearing air packs and nursing burns for over 25 years. But in all that time, his daughter — like many people outside the fraternity of firefighters — never got a good picture of what her father does when responding to emergency beeper calls.

Even after one painful morning when Mr. Wadsworth fought the fire that eventually destroyed his Nassau Street business, the business of battling fires remained a mystery. It took a 140 minute Hollywood epic with more star-power than most planetariums to offer clues about the lives of firefighters.

“She just turned to me during that movie and said, ‘Daddy, now I know what you do. Now I know what you guys go through,'” Mr. Wadsworth said.

Audiences across the country have packed the theaters to see Backdraft, director, Ron Howard’s grand telling of the commonplace heroics in a company of Chicago firefighters. Kurt Russell, William Baldwin and Robert DeNiro play out a tale of arson and sibling rivalry against a flaming backdrop of fire scenes that make veteran firefighters squirm, even in the air-conditioned comfort of the neighborhood multiplex.

Overall, many local firefighters say the film is a somewhat accurate depiction of their struggles with man’s oldest natural enemy, despite faults with some technical points and Mr. Russell’s vainglorious character. But by the film’s satisfying end, lay audiences have been able to peek inside the firehouse, the firefighter and the fire itself.

“It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to real life,” said Matt Fedun, a lieutenant with Montgomery Fire Co. Number 1.

“Most of it was very well done. There was a lot of technical things that a firefighter is going to point out, but for the general public, it was a pretty good example of what we do,”

“Some of it was pretty realistic and some of it was pretty Hollywood,” said Mark Freda, a former chief of Princeton’s fire departments.

Firefighters point to Mr. Russell’s character Stephen McCaffery, the older of the two feuding brothers from a famous family of firefighters. Known by the nickname “Bull,” McCaffrey is dangerously trying to be the hero his father was. He wears the insignia of the Chicago Bulls professional basketball team on his helmet, but little else.

Realistically, the men and women who are roused from their sleep to fight a house fire are barely off the truck without wearing protective breathing apparatus.

“I can’t believe that in this day and age, with all the training and all the knowledge, that a firefighter, especially one in a big city department, would be in a fire without a mask. I find that hard to believe.” Mr. Freda said.

The brash lieutenant in the film also charges into many structures so consumed by a raging blaze that in real life the job would be not to save the structure but tio simply keep the fire from spreading, firefighters said. “He was Superman,” Mr. Fedun said. “There was a lot of stuff like that.”

Early in the film, a group of firefighters is trapped inside a garment factory. Fire has snaked through the upper floors and is threatening the firefighters’ sparse foothold. With a quick breath, the fire retreats, sucked back by the change in air pressure before it explodes out in every direction. It’s the backdraft of the film’s title and a common threat to firefighters, both real and imagined.

“There was no way those guys should have been in there. That was definitely an exterior attack. But the fire scenes looked real,” Mr. Fedun said.

The film crew painstakingly tried to create fires that looked realistic. Cast members now tell tales in promotional interviews of singed clothes and burned eyebrows.

“The backdraft, where there’s flames and then they’re gone and a little puff of smoke comes out a window or door and then goes back, that’s real. But the guy standing in the room when there are flames all around him — that’s unrealistic.” Mr. Freda said.

For some family members, seeing the fire in such cinematic intimacy was not easy.

“Mark never told me all that much about the fires,” said Beth Freda. Seeing the scenes where Mr. Russel charges a blaze without the benefit of modern safety equipment for cooperation, were worrisome, but not particularly so, she said.

“I know Mark has a little better common sense than to do that,” Mrs. Freda said.

The film does underscore many of the positives related to firefighting. A strong theme is the devotion to duty and to family tradition.

“A lot of that rings true: I’m the third generation to be a member in Montgomery. My grandfather was a charter member,” Mr. Fedun said.

People who have never seen a fire will undoubtedly get an inside view of both the blaze and the men and women who are charged with stopping it. “A lot of people don’t know what firefighting’s about. they don’t know what we go through, what we do.This movie show’s, them,”. Mr. Wadsworth said.

For months before the premier, firefighters were deluged with advertising and promotions for the film. One flyer said Backdraft will do for firefighters what Top Gun did for the military, referring to the jingoistic tale of carrier pilots that spurred recruitments. ”

“But the kind of people that are going to go volunteer expecting to do some of the John Wayne things in the movie on a regular basis might be disappointed. I don’t think they’re the kind of people fire departments are looking for.” Mr. Freda said.

Thrill seekers aside, Backdraft will teach people that firefighting is more than a few red lights, rain coats and hoses.

“It’s going to bring a lot of the firemen together,” Mr. Fedun said. “And it’s going to show people what we do when we out ourselves on the line.”

On the job or on location?: Above, a real fire that destroyed a Princeton Township home in April roars on as firemen attempt to contain it. Left, the cast from Backdraft, including Kurt Russell (center), who plays a fearless firefighter who refuses to wear an oxygen mask. Many area firefighters who have seen the movie cited this display of bravado as highly unrealistic.

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