29 SEPTEMBER 2001, Page 24


After the grief the relief: Philip Delves Broughton on how Manhattan's heroic firemen

are finding comfort under the duvet

New York THE good news from here is that the firemen are getting all the sex they could want. While the desperate, lonely men who make up Osama bin Laden's shock troops had to kill themselves for their 70 sloe-eyed virgins in paradise, the men of New York's Fire Department need only walk into a bar. The city is awash with thousands of hotties in Fire Department tube-tops eager to help with the relief effort.

Sex in wartime is notoriously clawing, ravenous and available. New York during the past couple of weeks has been no different. Two nights after the attacks on the World Trade Center, I was in Alva, a normally respectable joint on 22nd Street, where all eyes were on four busty women pawing at a pair of exhausted firemen, demanding they sign their straining T-shirts.

Friends tell of women who have been chaste for months or years, depressed by New York's ruling caste of banking chestbeaters, Internet nerds and literary wimps, who are now pulling back the duvet for a fireman. The fantasy is suddenly permissible, even civic-minded, now that the firemen are the city's heroes.

In recent years, a calendar featuring the pride of New York's Fire Department wielding hoses and helmets in various states of manly undress has been a huge hit. One of last season's episodes of Sex and the City featured Samantha, the lusty PR woman, being rogered against a fire engine by one of New York's bravest.

A Texan friend, an interior decorator, has long been in the habit of tugging down her top whenever a fire engine passes and screaming, 'The fire's over here! I'm on firer Suddenly, she is no longer alone. Everyone is in on the act and it is hard to think of more worthy recipients of Manhattan's sexual abundance.

It is a simple question women are asking: if the world were to end tomorrow — and it has often felt that way in New York in recent days — would you rather spend your final night with a walking retirement plan or a death-defying hero?

For those firemen who have come from rural corners of America to help out, the experience beats seeing the lights in Times Square. After their shifts, they pour into the bars around Greenwich Village and SoHo to drink and wait to be picked up. They do not need to wait long. The busiest pick-up times are from five to six p.m. during happy hour and 12 midnight to one a.m. when everyone is feeling tired and emotional.

Excessive drinking is doubtless contributing to the city's rollicking sexual mood. The death of the girly cocktail has been one of the unexpected blessings of New York's wretched present. No more Cosmopolitans, Mudslides, Saketinis. Everyone is on the real stuff: double whiskies, large vodkas, tequila shots and numbing quantities of wine and beer.

The hugs of consolation in those first few depressing days following the attacks turned, in many cases, to gropes and rolls in the hay. I once read that in bunkers during the Blitz, and on trains taking people to concentration camps during the second world war, strangers would grab and kiss as fear transmuted into sexual desire and people sought one fast rush of physical intimacy. Something similar happened here in the days following the attacks.

Physical fear has also loosened tongues once strangled by the fear of rejection. There is nothing quite like having a falling skyscraper chase you down a street to make you think of all you should have said but never did. A colleague in New York said that soon after the World Trade Center was hit, he telephoned two girls and proposed. Sadly, not even the threat of imminent death at the hands of Arab kamikazes could persuade them to accept.

The firemen, though, are a special case. In one of the most moving moments of the past fortnight, New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. addressed the more than 150 firemen being promoted to fill the posts of those killed in the World Trade Center's collapse. He said that as a child growing up in Brooklyn, he had often visited his local fire station. 'Children are drawn to you.' he told the firemen. 'It's because your engines are big and red and interesting, but it's also something more than that. It's because they sense you're special. You run towards fires when others run away. Children can sense that something is special about you.'

For the women now seducing the firemen, and the nation now hailing them, it feels fundamentally right, almost a relief, to be giving these men their due. For 20 years the country went off kilter, calling bankers and entrepreneurs 'Masters of the Universe', hymning self-serving politicians and confusing Tom Hanks with the real men who fought on D-Day. But now, with the country under threat, it is the firemen, cops and soldiers — the heirs to the cowboys and revolutionaries — on whom the country relies, not the Carnegies and Melions. These big guys called Mahoney, Petrowski and Fernandez have always been the ideal for the American male.

Of all the extraordinary moments since the first plane struck the World Trade Center, two stick out. One was on the afternoon of the day after the attack when the relatives of those missing began to appear outside Bellevue Hospital clutching piles of photocopied sheets detailing those they were looking for.

There were parents holding photographs of children and pregnant wives holding pictures of their husbands. They displayed a glassy-eyed confidence or trembled, fearing the worst. To think that they had sat at their kitchen tables, composing these posters describing people whose lives and bodies had been turned to ash by the hatred of strangers was tragic beyond belief.

The other was at dawn on Wednesday morning, the day after the attacks. The first group of journalists allowed on to the World Trade Center site ran into the firemen who had worked the first night amid the rubble. They had spent 12 hours trying to find survivors, including the more than 300 firemen crushed beneath the south tower when it collapsed.

Theirs was a truly hideous task: they spent a night under floodlights searching through fire, ash, mangled body parts and twisted metal for their closest friends. By first light they were exhausted, their faces blackened and sadder than any I have seen. They stared at us intruders as though we were going in to make entertainment out of a mass grave.

For two weeks now they have continued with their awful task. While the world's attention has shifted to Central Asia, the firemen press on, hoping that the families of the missing can at least have something to bury. After days like this, their nights deserve to be soft.