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Updated: Wednesday, 15 Aug 2012, 7:02 AM CDT
Published : Tuesday, 14 Aug 2012, 8:44 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - Austin’s oldest active fire station faces an uncertain future. Thought to have been built around 1908, Fire Station #4 sits at the corner of 10th and Blanco streets, just west of downtown.
With more than a century under its belt, the building is showing its age, especially on the second floor, which once housed a community center and theater, complete with a stage. For years, the Austin Symphony used the room for rehearsals. Now plaster is crumbling from the walls. Tiles are dropping from the ceiling. The wood floor is worn and faded. Rats are an ever-present problem.
The long porch that once allowed citizen access to the second floor without disturbing the firefighters below is long gone.
The entrance to the small bay that once housed a horse-drawn fire wagon has been enlarged to accommodate a modern fire truck. But a new replacement truck, delivered just last week, is so long, firefighters’ lockers at the back end of the bay had to be removed to make room for the beast.
The list goes on, encouraging talk of removing the building in favor of something new and shiny and modern.
Steve Bilich is not amused.
Bilich is an Austinite, a graduate of McCallum High School and the University of Texas. After college, he lit out for New York City and an acting and filmmaking career. That’s where he was on September 11th, 2001, when an attack on the World Trade Center towers unlocked the gates of hell in America.
Bilich had taken his second-hand hand-crank film camera out on that gorgeous blue-sky morning. When the sky turned black with smoke and dust, he turned the camera on the burning and collapsing buildings, creating a short film that later took a major award at the Tribeca Film Festival .
Three days later, Bilich set his camera aside, headed for Ground Zero and volunteered to help on “The Pile.” For seven months, he labored there, straining his back, breathing toxic air, and struggling to hang on to emotional equilibrium.
In the process, he got to know firefighters and love them. He learned to mourn the 343 of their number who perished on September 1st. He went to bat for the survivors from the station just across the street from the South tower. It was known as the Ten-Ten house, home to the Ladder Ten/Engine Ten companies.
The building was heavily damaged and five of its firefighters died that day. The NYC Fire Department ordered the rest of them dispersed to other stations, dismissing their desperate desire to stay together.
Bilich came home to Austin and unsuccessfully petitioned the local firefighters union to support the Ten-Ten cause. Autonomy, as it turned out, is big in the firefighter community.
The union did agree, though, to help him launch a fund drive and firefighters not only from Austin, but from other surrounding departments took their boots to street corners where grieving and grateful citizens filled them with bills, large and small.
In the end, Central Texans sent close to $1,000,000 to New York firefighters and their families.
That is where it all might have ended, were it not for Bobby Beddia. Beddia was a New York firefighter and a 9/11 survivor who drove a truck for the department there. He and Bilich were friends, good friends.
“He would drive around the neighborhood and ring the bell and people would run and wave like an ice cream truck was driving by,” Bilich recalled, “because that's the love that they have for their firefighters.”
Bilich recalls introducing Beddia to the woman who would become first his wife, and then his widow.
On August 18, 2007, Beddia rolled his truck back to Ground Zero, where the Deutsche Bank building, the sole remaining high rise there was burning. It had been damaged on 9/11 and was being slowly dismantled. Bilich says a worker tossed a still burning cigarette butt into a pile of debris, causing the fire.
High up on the seventeenth floor of the building, Beddia and fellow firefighter Joseph Graffagnino got trapped and both suffocated. Bilich calls them the 344th and 345th NYC firefighter victims of the 9/11 attack.
The death of his friend gave birth in Bilich to a renewed sense of purpose: the salvation of Austin’s oldest fire stations, chief among them, Station 4, in his own Old West Austin/Clarksville neighborhood.
“I'm four blocks away and I'm proud to say that this fire house is my fire house,” he said, “not my fire station as it says on the building. 'Station' kind of gives it a less warm feeling than a 'house.'
“A house is a home when it's kept, when it's open, when people are invited in, when people are proud to point it out, take photos of it.”
The deli man
Bilich promoted his idea to anyone who would listen. Among those who did was Donnie Dickey, 22, who worked in the deli at the neighborhood’s Fresh Plus Grocery.
A student at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Dickey shares Bilich’s love for community service. He volunteered to help with the project and the two of them started meeting
with firefighters, fire department brass, neighborhood groups, and the firefighters' union board.
Things went well enough, but Bilich’s passion and lingering trauma symptoms became as off-putting as Dickey’s young naiveté was endearing. Bilich voluntarily backed away, assuming a mentor role.
Dickey took the reins, applying for a “Student Project” grant of up to $10,000 from St. Edward's and pressing forward, mostly on his own, with stakeholder meetings.
He garnered allies. Preservation architect Bridgette Beinecke inspected Station 4 and determined it was not only structurally sound but a perfect candidate for environmentally responsible restoration.
“The greenest buildings,” she said, “are the ones that are already in existence. You've already got foundations, walls, a roof. And if Austin wants to be at the forefront of being a green city, then certainly the city of Austin and the Fire Department should be exemplary in reusing what they have.
“Take what you've got; make it more energy efficient; add insulation; upgrade the wiring, but it's a sound building.”
Down the street, Master Gardener Bill Dick volunteered to spearhead the planning and execution of a Fallen Firefighters Memorial Garden behind the station.
Bob Nicks, President of the Austin Firefighters Association , as the union is formally known, was also excited.
“That's an awesome, awesome project,” Nicks said, “and our hats are off to him and I wish him all the success in the world. It's a great, great thing he wants to do.”
Old West Austin Neighborhood Association President John Teinert joined the chorus.
“We're gung ho,” he said. “We want it. We definitely want the firehouse to be preserved. We love it; we love the firemen in our neighborhood.”
As encouraging as all that is, though, these are not the people who make the decisions about things like the future of fire stations.
At the Austin Fire Department , Assistant Fire Chief Matt Orta is one of the people who do. Orta’s portfolio includes the department’s facilities and he is anxiously awaiting the results of a citywide engineering facilities assessment, expected by year’s end.
The study will examine, among other things, the actual condition of twenty of the department’s oldest stations, including the one on Blanco Street. Armed with the information the assessment will provide, Orta and others at the department, along with, of course, city leaders, will get a roadmap of how to proceed.
“Maybe the station isn't worth repairing,” said Orta. “Maybe we just need to raze it completely and start a new facility, build a new facility there. Or perhaps this is worth fixing and investing some capital in this infrastructure.”
The language of bureaucracy, though, does not come easily for the chief. You see, when he was just a child, he lived only a few blocks from Station 4 and he rolled around in the neighborhood like it was a warm bath on a cold day.
“I went to Matthews School on West Lynn,” recalled Orta. “I used to walk there. There was a community pool and a park right across the street from where I lived, you know. (I) walked down to the, you know, neighborhood store and get my candy hit, you know. I had fond memories of that time.”
But the chief is not paid to wax nostalgic.
“I go back,” he said, “to prioritizing the mission of the fire service, you know, getting the men and women on the trucks, getting the trucks out of the station. And as basic as that sounds, we have crumbling driveways. We have facilities that don't have separate men's and women's bathrooms and locker rooms.”
The assessment, he promises, will provide some answers.
“I think what we need to do is take a good hard look at this list and determine what it is we need to fix now. That would be my number one priority. Then, from there on, we can look at, you know, nice-to-have fixes.”
It is just that kind of talk that pulls back on the reins of the Restore Firehouse 4 horse’s gallop.
At the neighborhood association, President Teinert is cautious.
“There's been no decision,” he said, ‘on what the neighborhood support is. Obviously, everyone in the neighborhood wants a wonderful fire station and a great place for the firemen to be and for it to be a great focal point. We want that. We want that building; we love that building, absolutely. We all want that building.
“It's just that we don't want to step on anybody's toes,” Teinert went on, “in saying yes, this how we're going to do it; this is how it's going to happen. We don't want to renovate someone's house that doesn't want to be renovated, in other words.”
And at the union hall, President Nicks, too, advises patience.
“We're supportive of keeping the old firehouse intact,” he said again. “I mean firefighting is a very traditional business. We definitely think that if something like that was lost we lose a little piece of what we are and we're very supportive of keeping that station in place.”
On the other hand:
“There's a lot of people that approach
us on different projects and sometimes we like to give them a little bit of time to see how that develops.
“On a case by case basis, they'll be asking for support and more than likely, we'll be offering that support.
“And as this project matures, we might be standing shoulder-to-shoulder. But I don't want to make it look like we're not supportive of the project because we certainly are.
“We're going to be watching this group; we'll be working with them and time will tell. If they have the juice and the legs they seem to, we might be standing shoulder-to-shoulder at City Hall someday talking about what we need to be doing.”
The job ahead
Encouraged by statements like that, Donnie Dickey remains upbeat, despite the hurdles ahead.
“I think this is something Austin can benefit from,” he said, “having their old firehouses restored and giving bright surroundings to the firefighters.
And that goes double for Station 4.
“I know the community loves this firehouse,” Dickey said. “It's old; it's historic. I'm totally confident that, you know, we will get to the point where everybody will stand behind this because it's such a great cause.
“I mean these firefighters risk their lives to protect our property. I think the community can stand behind theirs.”
Out in front of what he prefers to call Firehouse 4, Bilich removed his cap, emblazoned with an NYFD insignia.
“This was Bobby Beddia's hat,” he said quietly. Looking over his shoulder at the firehouse and its inhabitants, he went on: “They're an amazing group of people and they should be honored, loved, respected and visited in their home.”
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