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The Last Men Out
  About the Author

Tom Downey writes about the worlds of Brooklyn firemen, Yemeni jihadis, Malagasy river guides, Barcelona private eyes—anyone whose story moves him. A year before 9/11, Downey began shooting a television documentary and later wrote a book about a group of elite rescue firemen in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. Downey’s nonfiction narrative The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse (Henry Holt, 2004) follows ten years in the life of their company, from the high of knocking down a wall of flames to the low of losing a brother. Downey now writes for a variety of publications including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Slate, Condé Nast Traveler and Men’s Journal. Notable recent articles include “The Insurgent’s Tale” for Rolling Stone, in which Downey profiles a jihadi he met in Yemen who fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan and al-Zirqawi in Iraq. “The Insurgent’s Tale” was selected for The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006. Downey’s “The Case of the Missing Angulas: A Barcelona Mystery” for Condé Nast Traveler is Downey’s first in a series of fictional mystery stories in graphic novel form that take readers into the heart of a great metropolis. Downey has worked as a freelance documentary producer for Discovery International and the Open Society Institute, a job that has brought him to locales as exotic as Haiti, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia and the Bronx. He studied English Literature at Princeton University, spent a semester abroad at the American University in Cairo, and taught filmmaking at a film school in Singapore.

He is represented by Heather Schroder of International Creative Management.

 Tom Downey


Tom Downey on "The Last Men Out"

I heard about firefighting when I was growing up because my father and my uncles were firemen. I didn't join the fire department, but the job still had a hold on me. A few years ago I went to see my cousin Joe at his firehouse in Brooklyn one night and, when the alarm bells rang, he practically shoved me into the front seat of the rig, right between him and the driver. We tore through the streets of Brooklyn with the siren wailing.

When, from a mile away, we were able to see the smoke, Joe banged on the glass partition to signal to the guys in the back that it was a real job. On-scene, the rig screeched to a halt and all six guys sprinted up the stairs of the involved house. Two minutes later, the structure flashed over with flames. Feeling the heat from the sidewalk, I panicked, thinking of those guys inside. But then I saw one guy make it out okay, and then another. A half hour later, the fire extinguished, all six were back in the rig and I was thinking: What a life.

In January of 2001, I was back in Brooklyn at Rescue 2, the firehouse my Uncle Ray Downey had commanded for fourteen years. I was there for the long haul, to shoot a TV documentary, and I had chosen Rescue 2 because of their reputation for being New York's busiest firefighters. For months I practically lived at the firehouse. I ate pork sausages and cavatelli at the kitchen table with the guys, shared a lot of laughs and, like any new guy in the firehouse, served as the butt of many jokes. I got to know the guys well, spending night shifts cruising the borough with them. The men came in all shapes, sizes, and demeanors. But all the men loved their job. And they all loved Rescue 2. I started to love the place too. I even started to think about becoming a fireman. I followed them to burning buildings and saw the men run out of air, and then vomit or just collapse on the sidewalk. I had microphones and cameras with them inside the fire, so I could hear the calm before it got bad, the urgent shouting when it got really hot, and the elation after they knocked down a blaze.

I began to write down some of the stories the guys told me when I realized that a lot of the Rescue 2 experience could only be captured in a book. I wanted to write about the war years of the sixties and seventies, when the ghettoes of New York City were burning day and night, and about the pain the company felt when they lost a fireman in the line of duty. I also wanted to write about some of the incredible rescues that these guys pulled off.

By 2001, when I was there, New York's rescue companies were at the top of their game. They had battle-hardened men in key positions and they had honed their skills at countless fires and emergencies over the years. The men had been to all the biggest infernos in New York and to mammoth disasters like the Oklahoma City bombing; but none of that prepared them for what happened in September.

As I was just starting to work on the book, September 11th changed every New York fireman's life and seriously disabled the rescue companies. In this book, I want to show what the city and the country lost when these special forces, which had risen so far, suffered such a devastating setback. For most of story I tell, I return to the years before 9/11, to what seems like a long, long time ago. Those years were good years for the men of Rescue 2. They were innocent years, when a fully involved apartment building was a thrill and no one thought much about suicide bombings or Islamic terrorists; all that seemed unreal compared to the fires burning just around the corner from the firehouse. These were the years that formed the men who responded on 9/11.

This book is about only a small group of men within one fire company. I am writing, wherever possible, about the men I know best. There are many other men who have labored as long and as hard as the men in these pages, have risked as much and accomplished as much, but go unrecognized here. There are other men at Rescue 2 and men at every company in the City of New York who are as brave, as strong, and as heroic as the men in this book. A century ago a New York fire chief was asked who was the bravest fireman. "Who can say bravest?" He replied. "We are all the brave." He is still right: all firemen are the brave. This book is about a few of those men and the firehouse they built.

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