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Manes: Retired Gary firefighter lives for his brothers

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Updated: March 6, 2014 6:13AM



“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.”

— Kurt Vonnegut

I met with Cary Darnell at Bugsy’s Tavern on 45th Avenue and Broadway in Gary. He reopened the joint in July of 2012.

Bugsy’s is a biker-friendly neighborhood bar that caters to firefighters and police officers.

***

“My parents were working class,” Darnell began. “I was born in Gary and grew up in the Burnham neighborhood, a south suburb of Chicago. I went to high school at Thornridge. Now, I’m back in Gary where I started.”

How did you get the nickname Bugsy?

“There are several reasons. One of which is I used to eat carrots a lot when I was a kid.”

This establishment?

“It used to be called Red’s Keg. All my bartenders are females. They’re known as Bugsy’s Bunnies. They work great together. There are two shifts a day here, seven days a week.

“This is a bar that is dedicated to the firefighters and policemen. After 25 years, I retired as a division chief with the Gary Fire Department. We are one of the most aggressive fire departments there is. I miss the job tremendously. I’m still a member of the International Association of Firefighters. The Gary Fire Department is Local 359.”

How many firefighters are there in Gary?

“At one time, almost 300. Due to the population of the city going down, some of the fire stations have closed. At one time there were 14 fire stations running in Gary, including the Gary International Airport. When you look at Lake County in Indiana, there are only six paid departments. Merrillville is the most recent paid department. Most of those guys came from Gary.”

I’m sure some of the fire stations in Gary have been around a while.

“Yes, Station 3 on 12th and Roosevelt and Station 8 on 4th and Ridge are over 100 years old.”

Dalmatians?

“Back in the day, Dalmatians were used to accompany the horses while the men fought fires. It’s not always a Dalmatian. We had a huge poodle-mix named Sheba. She only allowed the firefighters who worked at that station to go in there. She was a mean dog, but always rode the rigs with us to the fires. Sheba would eat anything as long as you put bacon grease on it.”

Any other firefighting facts from the past?

“A lot of these fire stations have towers. They were originally built so that a firefighter could be on watch for smoke. They had a 360-degree view.”

Calls regarding cats in trees?

“I got in trouble once for asking a lady if she’d ever seen the skeleton of a cat in a tree. Fluffy got up there, Fluffy will get down.”

There are more pressing issues to deal with than a pussy cat stuck in a pin oak.

“It’s ironic that you’re interviewing me on the day we honor Martin Luther King. It was on Martin Luther King Day in ‘93 that we had the horrible accident at the gauntlet track on 4th Avenue. We were just leaving an earlier accident near the airport; I was on Squad 2 which is our heavy duty rescue rig. We were at the gauntlet within one minute. Two trains collided. Nine people died.”

Other horrific incidents forever seared into your mind’s eye?

“Sixth Avenue and Ohio Street. We pulled out four or five children. Only one survived. There are some homes that when people go to bed at night, they lock themselves up in a coffin.”

Explain, please.

“We used to go to the schools and tell the children, ‘Please talk to your parents and do night drills before you go to bed.’ You see, in this city, a lot of homes have bars on the windows. People lock their doors. You need to know how you’re going to get out if something happens.

“You never want anybody to die in a fire. It’s tragic. But I’d rather arrive on a scene where someone died in their sleep than witness a scene where someone had tried in vain to fight and claw their way out. A lifeless arm hanging out of a window is something you never forget.”

Bugsy, this place looks like a shrine.

“That wall behind you is dedicated to 9-11. We had a crew of Gary firefighters that went to 9-11. We had a second crew that went to New York in November of that year to represent the city of Gary in the funerals. That’s the actual equipment I wore when I was at 9-11.

“Our fire chief at the time was Richard Gilliam who was a former Marine. Our command post was on Church Street which is where Tower 4 and Tower 5 were. We were told to go in and help our brothers. That’s what we did. We dug all night long.”

I can only imagine.

“We found our first casualty at 3 a.m. I believe it was Sept. 14. The New York Daily News asked us to return for the 10th anniversary. Some things you have to try to get over. There were 343 firefighters who lost their lives. Some are still unaccounted for. Sad. They were the best of the best.

“It’s like the man upstairs put them all on duty at the same time. It was shift change. A lot of firefighters were going home that morning. When you see Rescue 1 out of Manhattan, there should have only been five guys on that rig, but there were 11. The guys who had just finished up their 24-hour shift jumped on the rig. All 11 perished.”

Final thoughts on firefighters?

“We’re a brotherhood. We protect each other. It doesn’t matter what color you are. Every firefighter bleeds red.”

***

It never ceases to amaze me that multi-millionaire ballplayers can make more money for one at bat than a guy like Bugsy Darnell made in a year.

Still, I like to think there will always be those special kids who grow up to be the ones who selflessly rush into blazing buildings in valiant efforts to save the lives of others. All the while watching their buddy’s back.

And despite the fact nobody will ask for their autographs once the fire’s out.



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