Every firefighter is trained to do it, but New York City firefighters can spend their whole careers never seeing a rope rescue performed.
Over the weekend in the Bronx, Jeff Cool of Garnerville and Pat McKenna of Tappan, both firefighters with Rescue 3 in the Bronx, went over the side of the roof of a four-story building on a rope to pluck two people from windows as fire swelled.
"It's the first time I've ever done it in real life," Cool said yesterday. "I've trained on this. ... It's drilled into your head from Day 1."
Saturday at 7 p.m. on Bruckner Boulevard, plenty of people needed rescuing, seven in all. Some were taken out through the building, others by aerial ladder. But there appeared to be only one way to save a woman hanging out one window, and a man screaming at another.
So when Rescue 3 arrived, Cool and McKenna climbed the ladder to the roof, and each put on a rope. Rescue 3 Lt. Kevin Williams coordinated both efforts to lower Cool and McKenna, who were about 6 feet apart.
"I got to the window with my guy, Mr. Perez," Cool said. Though Cool is a big man, Perez was bigger, and scared. "He's a 200-plus pound man I'm 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. He was saying, 'I'm gonna die.' "
Cool said he assured Perez that he wasn't, and then worked to fulfill that.
"Somewhere I got the strength. I just bear-hugged him," Cool said. He lifted Perez out the window.
"Then they lowered us down," said Cool, the father of two. "I was just holding onto him for dear life. I was holding onto him like one of my newborns. ... The whole thing went phenomenal."
Meanwhile, McKenna was nearby, at another window, rescuing a woman in her 50s.
"She was panicking. She was in dire straits," McKenna said last night from his East 176th Street firehouse.
The smoke and heat had kept her from going out her apartment's door, and she hung out the window, trying to get as much air as she could, McKenna said.
"Our only option was out that window," McKenna said. "When I went over the side of the roof on a rope, she realized that. She wasn't expecting a fireman at the end of a rope.
"I got situated on the windowsill; I grasped her."
The simultaneous rescues were rare and heroic, Williams said.
"It's really, truly a measure of last resort," said Williams, a 25-year Fire Department veteran who has served with special units since 1980. "I've been involved in one other personally," he said, and though he has seen a rope rescue then followed minutes later by another, he had never seen two at once.
"The risk to the firefighter is huge," Williams said. "If you have to pick five different ways to rescue someone, this is desperation time."
Saturday night on Bruckner Avenue fit that description.
As the fire got stronger, the victims below grew more panicked.
"They were ready to jump," Williams said. "Both had resigned themselves they weren't gonna make it. They have fire behind them, then a fireman on a rope comes, they're afraid of the height."
All seven of the people rescued from the building were taken to area hospitals, as were nine firefighters. Most had smoke inhalation, and none of their conditions appeared to be serious, Williams said.