Retired firefighter Harriet Duren and New York City Fire Museum director, Linda Burke, came to the StoryBooth in Lower Manhattan and talked about being in one of the first classes of female firefighters in New York City.
Born and raised in Harlem, Harriet talked about her family’s reaction to her decision to become a firefighter. “They laughed at me. My father was impressed, but he never would say anything. My mother was adamant against it. She did not want me to come into this job. The idea of going into the fire department was something very strange. They thought that maybe a police would be better – at least I’d have a gun.”
She later describes what it was like the first time she entered a burning building. “The one thing that really encompasses you when you go in there, it can be very quiet. And you can hear the fire crackling. It’s like you, you’re in a sound proof booth, because all of the smoke and gases are around and you have on your mask, and you’re searching, really searching….”
She also remembered her last fire in harrowing detail.
“It was on a Sunday at 1:00 in the morning and by 1:05 I was on fire and out the window. We went in the top floor to search and it exploded and all of it came on me, and then I was on fire and I had to go out the 3rd floor window.
The fire truck couldn’t get the ladder over to us so they told us to jump. I saw my lieutenant go out the window and I saw my irons guy-and they never woke up. So I thought I was going to be dead too. I stopped to pray first, and when I did, firetrucks came, another firefighter ran up to the building, and when I got ready to jump he put his body in the way. I jumped from the 3rd floor to cement and I didn’t break anything. It saved my life. I never forgot him.”
Harriet was with one of the first fire engines to respond to the 1993 World Trade Center attacks – her engine received a medal for their work there.
After 15 years in the New York Fire Department, Harriet retired from active duty, but is still fighting fires by teaching fire safety at the New York City Fire Museum.