Above and Beyond

"I was just doing my job."

How many times have you heard this particular phrase humbly uttered? More often than not, it's heard on the news, as a wide-eyed newscaster shoves a logo-emblazoned microphone into the face of one who has, say, just saved a child from a burning building, single-handedly fought off a band of armed robbers, acted heroically in battle, or some such miraculous feat. It's an almost knee-jerk response for the average Joe who's probably just been called a hero for the first time.

And sure, to some extent there's some truth to it. It is a police officer's job to protect citizens from harm. It is a doctor's job to save lives. Soldiers get paid to protect the country.

But at a time when the average Memphian's knee-jerk reaction to "city official," or "city employee" brings to mind corruption and scandal, it's important to remember that the title "city employee" casts a wide net, and while that net seems bursting at the seams with those we wish we could throw back, it also includes the teachers who labor to reach students in less-than-ideal conditions, to maintenance and sanitation workers who have some of the most important, and often-overlooked, jobs in town. And yes, firefighters also belong in this category.

When discussing this month's cover story, "Anatomy of an Inferno," we wanted to present the destructive fire of October 6th in a new way. That morning, as the city woke to the news of two different three-alarm blazes threatening to destroy much of historic downtown, our hearts instantly, and rightly, went out to the members of First United Methodist Church, the city's oldest church, and one of downtown's most beautiful structures. The sight of a burning church is ripe with symbolism, and perhaps here in the South any burning church instantly reminds us of a time most of us would like to forget. It hits with a knockout punch.

And while firefighters did indeed get praise for their efforts that night -- and for days afterwards as they stood watch over the still-smoking piles of rubble -- what I never heard was how they were able to battle this destructive blaze without a single loss of life.

It's miraculous, really.

As writer Preston Lauterbach reveals, the more than 200 firefighters who showed up on the scene worked with a precision and perseverance I'd never before understood. Lives have been loss in lesser fires, to be certain. But for the first time, we hear about that night from the perspective of the firefighters. What went through their minds, how they attacked the fires, and the decisions each had to make in an instant between their job of saving structures and preserving life.

That night those men and women rose above what their jobs called for, and it's high time someone told their side of the story.

And that's what we call doing our job.

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