Metro

Kevin Cullen

Firefighters face stress, carcinogens, sometimes early death

On Monday morning, as they were wheeling Billy Schomburg’s casket down the middle aisle of St. Brendan’s in Dorchester, all of the firefighters on the left side of the church instinctively turned right.

They gazed upon their brother’s casket, knowing that but for the grace of God it could be them.

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Schomburg’s fiancée, Gayle Maneikis, stood at the foot of the altar, holding his Ladder 19 helmet. She placed the helmet on top of his casket and planted a gentle kiss with it.

Boston Fire Lieutenant Billy Schomburg didn’t die on the job but from the job. He didn’t die in a burning building but on the floor of his own house, clutching at a chest that held a big heart that gave out way too soon.

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He was 52 years old, in great shape, and still he died young because he was a firefighter.

“He was incredibly proud of being a firefighter,” Gayle Maneikis told me, “and he took the responsibility of what he did so seriously.”

There was, as his buddy Joe Mahoney recalled from the altar, that time on Francis Street, when Schomburg, climbing a ladder, caught a woman in midair after she jumped out a window.

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Then there was the time on Warren Street in Roxbury, when he climbed a ladder, dove through a window, and led a trapped family to safety.

For the last chunk of his 27 years on the job, he was on Ladder 19, at the firehouse where K, East Fourth, and Emerson streets intersect in Southie. He loved it there.

“Billy was a hard-charger,” said Joe Casper, longtime Ladder 19 captain, who was just promoted to district chief. “He made everybody around him look good.”

You can’t save everybody. Schomburg and others couldn’t get into the house on West Sixth Street where the charred bodies of two sisters, one 14, the other 3, were found huddled together in 2008.

“It devastated him not for weeks, but for months, that he couldn’t save those two girls,” Gayle Maneikis said.

But, like all firefighters, Billy Schomburg went back to work and tried to save others.

Two weeks before Schomburg died, so did another firefighter from the same firehouse. Pat Flaherty, who worked on Engine 2, died of a heart attack, too. He was 61.

“Two guys from the same house in two weeks,” Casper said. “That’s tough.”

In three weeks leading up to the holidays, four Boston firefighters were diagnosed with aggressive forms of cancer. Halfway through February, and 2016 is already starting to look too much like 1999, when a dozen active Boston firefighters died from cardiac events or cancer.

Stress, long shifts, exposure to toxins at fires and in firehouses, all of it combines to make firefighters die younger than the general population.

At Billy Schomburg’s funeral, Fire Commissioner Joe Finn and Rich Paris, president of Local 718 of the firefighters union, sat next to each other. If what they watched pained them, it also convinced them that the health and wellness programs that they, union and management, have been pushing for the last two years are imperative.

Before he became commissioner, Finn sat with Paris on the same side of the bargaining table, both advocating for health and wellness. When Marty Walsh made him commissioner in July 2014, Finn made improving the health and wellness of his firefighters a priority, and Walsh has enthusiastically backed the effort.

More than $5 million has been spent on new breathing apparatus, and every firehouse in the city is being equipped with industrial washing machines to clean toxins from firefighters’ gear. More than 300 firefighters have received physical training from former Navy SEALS.

Billy Schomburg was in good shape, and there’s only so much you can do to protect people from a job that throws stress and carcinogens in their face.

But the best way to honor good firefighters like Billy Schomburg, like Pat Flaherty, is to make it possible for those coming up behind them to live longer.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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