Heroic Legacy

Local man honors NYC firefighters

Photo by Paul Thayer, courtesy of Mike Higham A family is rescued by New York firefighters as the building they live in burns.

ELLAMORE — A website has been created to pay tribute to an award-winning photo journalist that spent years capturing the work of New York City fire companies.

The website was a project of area resident Mike Higham, who was a member of FDNY Ladder Company 14 in East Harlam from 1968-1971, to pay homage to Paul Thayer, a “fire buff” and Pulitzer Prize-winning photo journalist, who befriended one another.

“During that time I met Paul Thayer, who spent thousands of hours just riding the trucks with a 35-millimeter camera,” Higham said. “This was before digital cameras where you hit a button and everything gets set up. This guy took incredible pictures.”

The two families became close, and after Thayer’s death in 1977, Higham and his wife, who had since moved to West Virginia, paid their respects to Thayer’s wife.

“My wife and I became good friends with Paul and his wife. When he passed, we went to pay respects to his wife, Dorothy, and, as we were leaving, she pulls this box out of the closet and it has these 11 by 14-inch prints, most of which are on the website,” Higham said. “I’ve hunted up a few other pictures but most of what is on the website were in this box.”

Photo by Paul Thayer, courtesy of Mike Higham New York Fire Department firefighters battle a blaze at a mattress store.

Higham said Thayer’s wife told him she believed her husband would have wanted him to have the prints, which he preserved for roughly 40 years.

“She said, ‘I think Paul would want you to have them,’ and I said, ‘Well, they are really yours.’ We went back and forth on that and finally I thought, ‘You know, they really need to be preserved,'” Higham said. “I held onto them for over 40 years. Right after 9-11, I put up a display at the Upshur County Library.”

Higham said he believes Thayer’s photos need to be seen.

“I’ve always felt like they really needed to get a wider distribution,” Higham said. “People really need to see them.”

He added Thayer’s mission in life was to show people a “graphic view” of what firefighters do on a day-to-day basis.

Photo by Paul Thayer, courtesy of Mike Higham A New York fire crew passes a fire hose up as a burning building begins to collapse.

“Paul Thayer’s mission in life was to give the public a real graphic idea of what firefighters do and I feel the same way. I think people need to appreciate the service that firefighters perform and the sacrifices they make,” Higham said. “If you look at those pictures – the comment I get mostly from firefighters in this day and age is they look and go ‘Man, those guys are not wearing masks and they’re not wearing bunker gear. They are just doing it.’

“In this day and age, firefighters are still doing it and most of them are doing it for no pay. I think people need to appreciate that and I hope they do.”

Higham explained that a local artist and professional webpage designer helped him get the images online. The images can be viewed at www.fdnyheroes.com.

While not in any of the photos himself, Higham said there are pictures on the website depicting three individuals he worked with, including the first company officer he worked for.

“Most of (the pictures) were from before I even got there,” Higham said.

Photo by Paul Thayer, courtesy of Mike Higham Firefighters work to rescue a small child from a burning building.

Thayer’s dedication to documenting the heroics of FDNY firefighters resulted in him being awarded with the department’s highest civilian honor of Honorary Deputy Chief. He would develop his prints in the basement of Rescue Company 1 and give them, free of charge, to the firefighters in the photographs.

The original prints have been donated to the New York Fire Museum, according to the website.

Higham moved to West Virginia in 1980 and has lived near Upshur County during his time here. He has been a member — and former chief — of the Ellamore Volunteer Fire Department for 38 years. While he no longer goes to fires and wrecks, he still helps the department in any way he can, including obtaining grant funding.

Photo by Paul Thayer, courtesy of Mike Higham A FDNY firefighter administers oxygen to a fellow crew member after battling a blaze.

Photo by Paul Thayer, courtesy of Mike Higham A funeral procession carries the body of a fallen firefighter through the New York streets.