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At every job there's usually a big guy, what New York firemen call "a monsta," who works the roof and cuts a hole in it to let smoke escape. Another behemoth knocks down the front door. Meanwhile, a little guy crawls down the hallway, on his stomach, to the baby's room and emerges cradling the shrieking infant like a football. There are different body types for different roles. "You're using every God-given thing you have," says Pat Murphy, who was broken in as a probie by Mike Carroll. "You use your head, your legs, your back, your eyes, your ears."
Murphy is a second-generation fireman. He learned from the best: Mike Carroll. In firefighting, though, teaching goes only so far. "For the most part it's hands-on training," Carroll once told Interview magazine. "Sometimes you get disoriented—that's a very scary feeling. To find the source of the flames you go by the heat sensation in your ears. When you feel that tingling sensation, you know you're getting closer."
During a fire the concept of teamwork takes on new meaning. Everyone must execute. Don't execute correctly, and you're putting your brothers (and sisters) in jeopardy. Don't execute correctly, and people may die.
The most spectacular fires, for good or for bad, make the news. There may be a hero, or not. Score is kept in lives saved and lost. It is not, it never has been, a game, not to the pros. At the end of the day the firefighters, happy to be alive, go out for beers before heading home to nurse their injuries and aches.
Ladder 3 was known for its athletes and its teams. Mike Moran played football with Danny Suhr. ( Moran survived the Sept. 11 attacks; his brother, John, a battalion chief, did not.) Patty Brown, the Ladder 3 captain who died at the World Trade Center, was a marathon runner, a boxer, a black belt in karate, a student of yoga. Mike Carroll was a softball player. In parks up and down the East Side of Manhattan and on the fenceless ball fields of Central Park, you hear stories about little Mike Carroll—he was 5'9" and 160 pounds—and how he played the game.
Mike's father, Bill Carroll, was the first athlete in the family. He played stickball. That was the game in Yorkville when he was growing up in the 1930s and '40s. The games were played in the street, and any batted ball caught was an out, no matter what it bounced off. Old-timers say Bill Carroll could hit for power and could figure out every carom. As kids he and his buddies played for bragging rights. When they got older, they played for beer. Losers bought at the winners' bar. Every street had its own team and bar. Bill played for 82nd Street. His bar was Susie's.
Mike and Bill Jr. grew up hearing about their father's stickball prowess, hearing stories about his two-sewer shots, stories of balls ricocheting off fire escapes in bizarre ways and directly into his burly hands. As boys in the mid-and late 1960s, Mike and Bill Jr. lived with their sisters, Nancy and Eileen, and their parents in a two-bedroom railroad flat at 84th Street and York Avenue, an apartment just long enough for Mike to practice sliding across its wooden floors.
By the time the Mets won their first World Series, in 1969, the six Carrolls had moved to a modern three-bedroom apartment on First Avenue, near 85th Street, where Bill Sr. and his wife, Jean, live today. After October '69, Mike had a team for life, the Amazin's, and a role model, Bud Harrelson, the slight New York shortstop who backed away from no ball and no man. Mike, however, could do another thing: Like his father, he could hit.
By the late 1970s and the early '80s, when Mike was at La Salle Academy in lower Manhattan and then Manhattan College in the Bronx, softball had replaced stickball as the city game. School sports—overly supervised, overly structured—didn't interest him, but playing for the bar down the street, playing for free beer and neighborhood honor, that made all the sense in the world. The problem was, there were so many bars down the street, and they all wanted Mike's bat and glove. Some summers he would play for three or four teams in different leagues. He would play fast-pitch in Central Park, modified are under the 59th Street bridge, high are on Randall's Island.
Firefighting runs in some families the way beautiful voices run in others, and so it is with the Car-rolls. Bill Sr. became a fireman in 1954 and retired in 76, having spent all his 22 firefighting years at Ladder 3. He had a second job as a union steamfitter. He worked sometimes at the World Trade Center, installing sprinkler systems in the towers. He remembers once looking out a window and seeing a plane flying beneath him.