Paul Hashagen retired from the FDNY after a quarter century, but he continues to serve with his Long Island volunteer fire department. And he remains ready to respond to whatever emergency comes over the radio, even if he happens to be home alone with a grandson who had become ill at school.
The grandson, 8-year-old Matthew Smith was settled in his pajamas under a blanket on the sofa, watching television, when the radio crackled with a report of a fire with people trapped just four blocks away.
With people in danger and the fire so close by, Hashagen could not just sit there with his sick grandson. But he also could not leave the boy alone. He called to Matthew as he might have called to a fellow firefighter back when he was still with the FDNY’s fabled Rescue 1.
“I told him, ‘There’s a fire and people trapped around the corner, we have to go!’” Hashagen remembers.
Hashagen quickly put clothes and a coat over Mathew’s pajamas and they dashed out into the cold that measured at 14 degrees on the afternoon of January 7. A moment later, they were at the scene.
Almost since birth, Matthew had been visiting the Freeport Volunteer Fire Department’s firehouse. He had once visited the quarters of Rescue 1, where Hashagen worked 20 of his 25 years, including 9/11, when the company lost 11 of its 26 members, including its legendary captain, Terry Hatton.
But the boy had never before been at a working fire. And Hashagen had only to look at the smoke to know it was a serious blaze.
“It’s chugging,” Hashagen recalls.
Hashagen put Matthew in the front seat of the ladder truck and joined the other firefighters in the search and in battling the blaze, which had spread from the basement all the way up to the cockloft. One man was carried semi-conscious from the fire and the others escaped safely.
“I think [Matthew] was a little startled by how fast everything happens, all the activity, so many people around,” Hashagen says.
After he helped knock down the fire in the basement, Hashagen’s air tank was in need of replacing. He emerged from the broiling heat into cold that needed only a minute to turn his wet gear to ice.
“Next thing you know, you’re like frosty the snowman,” Hashagen says.
As he went to replace his air tank, Hashagen checked inside the truck and saw Matthew sitting with what appeared to be a kind of terrier.
“Where’d the dog come from?” Hashagen asked.
“One of the firemen took him from the house and I’m holding him,” Matthew replied.
Hashagen noted that the dog was relaxed and content in the boy’s care.
“Okay, you take care of him,” Hashagen said.
Hashagen returned to the smoke and flame as the boy tended to the terrier.
“In a blanket, petting him,” Hashagen would recall. “Being put in charge of the dog really made his day … He and the dog are watching the fire from the front seat of the fire truck.”
After the blaze was extinguished, a retired cop came over with hot cocoa. Matthew was in little boy bliss.
“He’s sitting now with a hot cup of cocoa with a dog in his lap and he starts critiquing the fire, telling them the kind of things we can do,” Hashagen says.
Matthew could have been a pint-sized member of Rescue 1.
“I think it’s in his blood,” Hashagen says.
The moment then came for the boy to return home.
“He tried to linger because he did not want to give up control of the dog,” Hashagen says. “Eventually, he leaves the dog in the care of another fireman and we go back, discussing the fire and the dog.”
They arrived at Hashagen’s house and Matthew again became a boy home sick from school.
“We put him back on the couch and put a blanket on him and he went back to watching television,” Hashagen says.
Hashagen had taken a cell phone picture of Matthew and the dog in the front of the truck and no boy could have looked happier.
Hashagen adds, “He had a real exciting story to tell when he goes back to school.”