In Peru, a country where public institutions are suspected -and often guilty- of corruption, firefighters are among the most valued public servants. But part of their reputation comes at a cost. What is Peru sacrificing to maintain the mystique of a national hero?
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[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. And this is Kenny Flores, a firefighter from Lima, Peru.
[Kenny Flores]: When I go the firehouse or people ask me “what do you do there?” I tell them “I’m doing my patriotic duty,” you know? “What you aren’t doing, that’s what I do,” I say.
[Daniel]: Kenny is 35 years old.
[Kenny]: I provide a public service or I work for society without compensation, you know? And it’s a way of… for us, to try to make the country better.
[Daniel]: And well, for those of you who are not from Peru, I’ll explain something Kenny said. The vast majority of firefighters in Lima are like him: volunteers. They don’t pay them for their services, they do it on their free time, like something on top of their job.
[Lizzy Cantú, reporter]: Honestly when I heard about this I thought it was crazy…
[Daniel]: This is Lizzy Cantú, a Mexican journalist who’s lived in Peru for the past 6 years.
[Lizzy]: And even though in some parts of Mexico we also have volunteer firefighters, in big cities—for instance, Mexico City, Monterrey or Guadalajara— there are always firefighters who are paid and work full-time taking care of emergencies.
[Daniel]: But on top of that, Lima is a desert city, where it almost never rains and every fire could become a catastrophe. There’s no exact statistic on the number of fires, but in the capital region —including Ica and Callao— there were more than 5 thousand fires in 2016 and several of them were huge and devastating.
In fact, when Lizzy began examining this issue this past year, she realized how common they are. In a very short period, an indigenous neighborhood called Shipibo, a movie theatre in a very famous shopping center and a shoe sole factory in a shopping mall all burned down.
This last fire lasted three days. And that’s why in the news they started talking about the firefighter’s working conditions again…
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWSCAST)
[Journalist]: Each fire brings the situation of Peru’s firefighters back into focus. Albeit…
[Lizzy]: This audio comes from an interview they did with the firefighter’s director of operations at the time, Manuel Vera.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWSCAST)
[Manuel Vera]: We never get any recognition even though we sacrifice our lives and don’t charge anything. We’re asking for uniforms at least, personal protective equipment. We have very small budgets for that. Like always, when we get…
[Lizzy]: And yes. Whenever there is a large-scale fire they talk a lot about the old trucks, the lack of medical conditions and the fact that the firefighters work in deplorable conditions.
[Daniel]: And Lizzy hoped to hear a response that seemed logical and natural to her…
[Lizzy]: That the firefighters scream into the sky and say: “How long are we going to have to work for free!?!”
[Lizzy]: No. Something that surprised me was that the firefighters don’t want to get paid. I interviewed all kinds of firefighters, young, experienced, retired men, and women. Some that hadn’t finished high school and others that are professionals, doctors and lawyers. And all of them told me practically the same thing: that they didn’t want to get paid because that would take something very valuable away from them: the will to do good.
They said that if they got money in exchange for what they do, it would be like selling their heroism, diminishing the job. Being a firefighter —in Lima and well, in many other places— has a kind of mystique about it.
[Daniel]: Alright. Let’s be honest. In Peru, people who work for the state are almost never seen in a good light. For example: in a 2016 survey, the police had a 43% percent approval rating among citizens while members of Congress only had 11%. But firefighters…well, firefighters had 95% approval. It’s like their being volunteers protected them from the public sector’s bad reputation.
[Lizzy]: But with so many catastrophic fires, is it really sustainable to keep going this way?
Maybe Kenny’s story will help us understand.
For Kenny, it all started with his uncle Lolo. He was…
[Kenny]: A really happy jovial person, you know, really happy. He…he would grab me and hug me and press me against his chest.
[Lizzy]: Uncle Lolo was a firefighter in Pucallpa, a city in the rainforests of Peru, and he went to Lima once a year to visit family. Kenny remembers how fascinating his uncle was. He was like a superhero…
[Kenny]: And he would come and I would see him in his overalls, his uniform, you know? And he would say: “I’m going to the firehouse. I’m going to la Roma.”
[Lizzy]: He’s referring to the “Rome Italian Company Number 2,” a group of firefighters in downtown Lima. And that’s very common in Peru: When firefighters visit a city, they visit a firehouse in the area. They introduce themselves and stay to work for one or two days. They even sleep there if they let them. For them it’s an honor.
And Kenny remembers that one day —when he was around 10— he was walking down the street with his uncle Lolo and they came across a fire near his house. Several fire trucks had already arrived at the scene. Uncle Lolo didn’t go to help because he was with Kenny, but…
[Kenny]: We started to see how they worked, you know? And it caught my attention. And I said: “Someday I’ll be a firefighter.”
[Lizzy]: But even at such a young age, Kenny knew his mother didn’t like the idea that uncle Lolo was a firefighter.
[Kenny]: It bothered her. She would say: “But why, you’re wasting your time.” She would say: “You’re putting yourself in danger.”
[Lizzy]: Some time later, uncle Lolo suffered an accident in a fire in Pucallpa and suffered a permanent spinal injury. From that moment on, he stopped responding to emergencies and started driving the trucks exclusively. And that accident had a big effect on the Kenny’s mom.
So, years later, when Kenny announced that he wanted to be a firefighter…let’s just say his mother’s reaction was predictable.
[Kenny]: We were at lunch and I told her: “You know what? I’m going to be a firefighter.” My mom started crying and told me: “But why? Why do you want to be a firefighter?”
[Lizzy]: Kenny was a young adult by that point and was studying business administration.
[Kenny]: And I remember my dad hit the table [Laughs]. He cursed and said: “You’ll be wasting your time! What are you thinking?”
[Lizzy]: But for Kenny there was no going back…
[Kenny]: I ended the argument, the conversation. I said: “You know what? I can do what I want, can’t I? I’m not asking for your permission. I’m letting you know, or would you rather I do it in secret?”
[Lizzy]: He says that his father didn’t speak to him for weeks and his mother kept insisting that he not do it, but Kenny didn’t change his mind. He had decided and he had to choose what crew he would join.
[Kenny]: I started researching which crews were the most representative in Peru. There was Roma, there was la Garibaldi, there was la Lima, you know? And those were my options. My first choice was Roma obviously.
[Lizzy]: The same one his uncle Lolo would go to when he visited Lima. That’s why he wanted to join that one but also…
[Kenny]: Because of its history. Their station is full of history. It’s the oldest station we have… that’s still active in Peru.
[Lizzy]: It was founded 150 years ago by Italian immigrants. It’s across the street from Peru’s Congress building. It’s a very old building. When you go in, the first things you see are the fire trucks and ambulances. Some are just for display because by now they’re relics. And in the middle of the back of the room, there are some wooden stairs that even creak when you step on them And when you go up you see hundreds of coats of arms and really, really old portraits of firefighters. Still…
[Kenny]: It has a rich history of its own heroes like firefighters.
It has the kind of terrible honor of having the first firefighter to die in a fire in Peru as a member.
[Lizzy]: It sounds odd, but Kenny was drawn to that. That heroism, that nobility.
So Kenny sent in his resume and a few months later they told him that he’d been accepted.
He was starting out with 14 other young firefighters. The work at the time wasn’t glamorous: they swept, they washed the trucks and trained, or opened the doors when other firefighters went to respond to emergencies.
But that didn’t bother Kenny. It’s all part of the process. First you’re an apprentice, then a firefighter in training and when you put in the time and do you training and exams, only then do you go out to the street. Kenny fantasized about going to his first fire and that kept him motivated.
[Kenny]: In training you hear a lot about fire phenomena like flashover, rollover, backdraft, and you want to see it. You want to experience it. I imagined myself going out in a truck at full speed. Ahhh!
[Lizzy]: A year later he moved up to firefighter in training. He still couldn’t go to the emergencies…
[Kenny]: Then you can wear the uniform. When you put on the uniform; Ah, you’re walking on air, you know. Some guys get excited and go home in uniform.
[Lizzy]: But the hours are long and exhausting. On top of physical training, they took classes on putting out fires, first-aid and rescue, among other things.
[Kenny]: All of a sudden, I’m going to be a little crude, but you feel closer to your fellow firefighters than your own family, suddenly. Why? Because they’re the people you live with.
[Lizzy]: There he found brotherhood, a community.
And well, in November 2010 Kenny finally graduated as firefighter. For the first month he responded to small emergencies —short-circuits, gas leaks, car accidents—, but at Christmas he had his first fire. He remembers it well. It was near the Mercado Central in Lima.
[Kenny]: There were two rooms that were burning because it was a store that sells piñatas under the table, and it was one of those fires, large-scale, you know? And I was super excited, working, you know? Spraying water. But happy, you know, happy. “Ah, our first fire! My first fire!” [Laughs]
[Lizzy]: Kenny would later come to be the chief of the night watch. That means he practically lived in the station 7 days a week. Instead of going home to sleep after work, he went to his station.
But he wouldn’t go there just to sleep or wait for something to happen. A firehouse isn’t a club or a hotel.
[Kenny]: Really the firehouse is a business. You have to worry about filling up the gas in the truck, balancing the budget, doing regular maintenance. It’s really a job. And people don’t understand that.
[Lizzy]: But all the same Kenny was hooked. He got along with the other firefighters at the station.
Now, let’s remember: when they’re not at the station, a firefighter goes to school, or the office. They drive a taxi, run a business or a family. The work at the firehouse is extra. Like it’s a hobby, but one that takes up your life.
And you can imagine how complicated it can be to balance all of that. For example…
[Kenny]: I’m at work and then it happens that there’s a big fire. Unfortunately, I can’t go because my economic activity comes first. Because if I don’t, I can’t buy my equipment, I can’t maintain my house, I can’t study.
[Lizzy]: Yes, you heard that right. Kenny said he can’t buy his equipment.
[Kenny]: The corps gives us used equipment. But in some cases, uh, the equipment is totally ruined from use, it’s already totally worn out.
[Lizzy]: So some firefighters decide to buy their own equipment and uniforms…
[Kenny]: When I started, well, I got my kit and my boots had holes, I remember, you know? My helmet was terrible, because it was a helmet from the 80s, for example.
So, I bought my boots, uh, I bought gloves, I bought the helmet, I bought the hood…
[Lizzy]: He also bought the overalls, a radio, a flashlight. He figures that all in all he spent about $1,500 US dollars. Which well, is a lot of money for something you do to help people.
But when you think about it from the perspective of the person calling the firefighters when there’s an emergency: imagine you’re the one who needs help. Do you feel calmer knowing that the person who’s coming to help you has to buy their own equipment? That they’re worried because they have an exam the next day? That they’re thinking about who’s going to go open their business if the emergency goes on too long?
It’s July, 2013. A thursday, around 3 in the afternoon. Kenny had eaten lunch away from his work. He was going back to work when he saw a very dark column of smoke rising to about 300 meters. He happened to be on his cell talking to the lieutenant of the fire station at the time.
[Kenny]: And I tell him: “Fernando, I have to cut you off because I’m looking at a fire, I can see a column of smoke here!” And he said: “Ok, ok, I am going to check the system.”
[Lizzy]: Kenny thought about going to the station as soon as he could, but he was on the clock at work. So he went back to the office. He sat at his desk…
[Kenny]: And I was…I was upset, looking for the address on the internet. I turned on RRP radio and I remember I was listening to the news on headphones.
(SOUNDBITE FROM RRP RADIO)
[Firefighter]: A large-scale fire has started on Paruro Street, block 6…
[Kenny]: It was an uncontrollable fire. And I remember it like this: I just stood up and left and I went to the fire, I went to the station. I didn’t tell anyone and I left.
[Lizzy]: He went up to the scene of the fire, on Paruro, a very popular area in downtown Lima. When he got there, Roma’s truck was already there. Then 20 more trucks came. It was an enormous fire in a warehouse building that was very old and made of wood.
Kenny and other firefighters started trying to put out the flames on the first floor. But a few minutes later they realized they weren’t able to control the fire and one of his fellow firefighters, Manuel said to Kenny:
[Kenny]: “Come with me to the third floor to kick down the door so we can work up there. It’ll be calmer,” he said.
[Lizzy]: Kenny went with Manuel and Jonathan, another firefighter.
[Kenny]: And I went up last and they got in position to work. You know? And I stayed off to the side with the tools.
They were…they were forcing the door to break it down and get in to work in that warehouse. And Manuel was on one side opening the door. And his alarm started going off. He had run out of air. And Manuel looks at me and says: “Take my place. Go in with Jonathan to work.”
[Lizzy]: Kenny put on his mask and went in with Jonathan.
[Kenny]: And I remember… I remember this very clearly. I looked in his eyes. He looks at me. And I start to fall. The…the floor fell out from under me.
[Lizzy]: Kenny fell three stories. He wasn’t unconscious, but…
[Kenny]: I just remember that I couldn’t breathe. It was because my breathing apparatus had been hit and had closed. I wanted to breathe and felt like the mask was stuck to my face. I couldn’t see anything because my attention was focused on breathing and nothing else.
I got on my knees and pulled the mask off my face, and then I felt hot air. It burned.
[Lizzy]: He could finally see his surroundings.
[Kenny]: All I saw was fire, I felt hot smoke burning my ears, I felt my body burning. And then I heard Manuel shout: “Are you alright? Kenny!”
[Lizzy]: Kenny doesn’t really know why, but he thought he was in the middle of an electrical plant. And the first thing he said was…
[Kenny]: “I’m ok. I’m over here. Don’t spray the hose over here.” Because I was afraid that if they did I would get electrocuted.
[Lizzy]: Manuel helped him calm down. He told him that he wasn’t in an electrical plant but he still wasn’t going to spray water. They were going to lower the hose —or the python, as they call it — so he could grab onto it like a rope and get out.
[Kenny]: A few seconds later, I feel the python hit my helmet, I get up and grab onto the hose, I step on the handle and I say: “Ok, pull me up! Get me out of here, please, get me out of here!” And I start to feel them pulling and they start lifting me up.
[Lizzy]: In a few seconds he could see the edge of the floor above. He stretched out his arm and told them not to pull anymore. But it wasn’t just Manuel and Jonathan pulling him up, there were other people helping who didn’t hear what Kenny said.
[Kenny]: And they pulled up again. And with that…with that tug, the python handle hits my head and my helmet flies…flew off, and my mask flew off and I fell again.
[Lizzy]: As he fell, his left leg got caught on something and he was hanging upside down. And Kenny doesn’t know if it was the stress or what but…
[Kenny]: I felt someone grab me by the foot. And I hear a voice and it said: “I’ve got you.” And that voice was actually the voice of someone who had died years ago at that point. It was Lieutenant Marco Fach.
[Lizzy]: He was clearly hallucinating.
[Daniel]: He was suspended, hanging by a hose over a floor that was in flames.
We’ll be right back.
[Scott Detrow, host NPR Politics Podcast]: I’m Scott Detrow. There’s so much political news to follow these days, but you don’t have to keep up with all of it –you just have to keep up with us on the NPR Politics Podcast. With a team of NPR political reporters and editors, we record two episodes a week and sometimes more when the big news happens. Find the NPR Politics Podcast on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts.
[Daniel]: Thanks for listening to Radio Ambulante. Let’s get back to Kenny Flores’ story. Here’s Lizzy.
[Kenny]: And I was hanging there and then I reacted. And when I go up to my boot, I fall again. And understand I was unconscious.
[Lizzy]: The others figure he was like that for 20 minutes and when Kenny woke he heard them yelling: “Where are you?”
[Kenny]: I couldn’t talk at that point, because of all the smoke I had inhaled. I wanted to shout but nothing came out. And I didn’t know how to let them know…where I was. And at one point, I remember I had a flashlight and what I did was turn the flashlight on and off. Until I hear them say…one of them say: “There he is.”
[Lizzy]: They picked him up and took him to an ambulance on a stretcher. The TV news was already there and they recorded the whole thing.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWSCAST)
[Journalist]: A member of the Roma Company fell from the third floor and was immediately transported to Dos de Mayo Hospital. Four other first responders have also suffered injuries in the fire. After 4 hours of working non-stop, they were able to control the fire.
[Lizzy]: Kenny called his mom at the hospital. She lived in Colombia but she was visiting Lima. She had been out of the house with his aunt. And she didn’t know any of what was going on.
[Kenny]: “Listen, I’m ok” I tell her, you know? “Whatever you may be seeing on TV is an exaggeration,” I tell her [Laughs]. “It’s a lie.”
“No, what happened is I feel, but I’m ok. I didn’t break anything,” I say. “They took me to the hospital just in case. I’m at Dos de Mayo.”
“But you’re ok?” She asks me.
“Yes, I’m ok, I’m talking to you,” I say.
“Now, be careful,” she tells me. “At time are you going home tomorrow?” “Tomorrow I’m coming home early,” I tell her.
[Lizzy]: But the next day…
[Kenny]: My mom calls me crying because she saw the news. She saw how they got me out, you know?
[Lizzy]: The images on the news showed how they carried him out on a stretcher. Kenny was black with smoke and ash. He looked like he was in the worst condition.
[Kenny]: And she started crying, telling me to be careful, that she didn’t want me going into fires anymore. And I tell her: “But, mom, I can’t stop because it’s what I do and also there’s the issues of degrees, I have to go in.”
[Lizzy]: Though that’s not completely true. Which is to say, as a volunteer, in theory, he could stop whenever he wanted. But here come the mystique, the promise I mentioned before. It never occurred to Kenny to leave the firefighter’s corps for a second.
[Kenny]: When you join the corps, you know that you’re going to suffer that kind of thing, you know? I mean, it’s not ideal, you don’t plan on it, you don’t want on it, but you know that it can happen. Because being a firefighter is risky. On top of that, I didn’t think about retiring from the crew because nothing had really happened to me.
[Lizzy]: But today, four years later, things have changed.
Two years after the accident —in 2015 — Kenny met Rosario —or Charo to her friends. A mutual friend who was also a firefighter and took night classes with Kenny introduced them. The three of them met up at a bar.
[Kenny]: And well, I see a girl, with black hair, dark eyes, I liked her look a lot. She had a penetrating gaze. And I was hypnotized, you know? I was… I mean, I just wanted to talk to her.
[Charo]: He really got my attention because we agreed on a lot of things. On topics like history, books—he likes to read a lot like me. Theatre, music….
[Kenny]: We talked about things going on at the time, what was happening in the country. We talked about nonsense to make ourselves laugh, you know? But… I really remember that on the first date, well, we didn’t talk about the fire station at all.
[Charo]: I already had a friend who was firefighter and she had already told me about what they did, and I had already gone through that amazement at someone’s being a firefighter with my friend, so it was like it was normal.
[Kenny]: That day I didn’t care about my shift. I got here at 2 in the morning. I called the chief and gave him white lie: “I had a problem…” “Don’t worry, Kenny!” I had never been late; that day I was late.
[Lizzy]: Three months after they met they started dating. At that time, Kenny was the chief of the night watch at the station, so he lived there, and well, that took a heavy toll on his relationship…
[Charo]: After work, he would pick me up and we would go take a walk or go out to eat or we would be at home but at night he left. He couldn’t spend more time with me. And I remember that was always hard for us.
[Lizzy]: And after dating for just 3 months they decided to get married. After much consideration, Kenny resigned from his position as the chief of the night watch a week before the wedding. This allowed him to go to the station for a few hours at night and go back home to sleep with Charo. To have a more normal marriage.
[Kenny]: We wanted to share moments together, you know? Not like when I was single, I went to the firehouse whenever I wanted, you know? Now I have to make plans. And sometimes you make plans and on the day you’re going to go it’s like, “no, I want to go to a movie,” we want to go to a movie to have a moment and then I look at the time and I don’t go, you know?
[Lizzy]: While before Kenny served around 100 hours a month at the station, now he only goes about 40. In a certain sense, this is more normal: a young man goes home, he wants to see his wife, sleep by her side.
Here is where the firefighter’s mystique runs into reality. What is that young man going to sacrifice? His domestic life? A paying job? Or his volunteer work, which on top of being demanding, is dangerous?
According to one of Kenny’s chiefs, this is a very common problem for Lima’s firefighter’s corps: when they join the corps, the volunteers are young, with a lot of free time and few responsibilities. But as they mature, they have families, they have less free time and they change their priorities.
And that may be the biggest paradox. Just when they’re still young and strong and have more time under their belts, that’s when they start having less time to go.
And Kenny is entering a stage in his life…
[Kenny]: When I’m not just responsible for myself. When you get married, you prioritize other things, and right now my priority is my family, my family as in my wife, and I don’t know, maybe later my children. My children.
[Lizzy]: And what happened on October 18th of last year was a shock to the system for Kenny.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWSCASTS)
[Journalist]: And as we said at the start of this edition, there was a tremendous fire at El Agustino that is devouring a warehouse at the Ministry of Health.
[Journalist]: An impressive 30 firefighting crews have come to the scene.
[Journalist]: We’re hearing that this hasn’t happened in many years, or rather, they have not had an emergency as intense as the one you are seeing tonight, I repeat…
[Lizzy]: El Agustino is a popular district near downtown Lima. The fire started in a shoe sole factory and spread to a medical warehouse belonging to the Ministry of Health. Some 40 workers had been evacuated from the buildings but they believed more were inside.
That day the firefighters were more motivated than normal because they had had a celebration for Señor de los Milagros, which is the most important religious holiday in the region. The Roma crew and some of their relatives had gone to the ceremony. Kenny was still there.
[Kenny]: I heard Alonso say: “Fire!” He said standing on the stairs. Eduardo came in and we said hello, and…and he said. “Alright, let’s go. I’m driving.” At that moment I wanted to go to the emergency too.
[Lizzy]: But Kenny wasn’t on duty that night. And…
[Kenny]: Charo had told me that we were having people over for dinner. And…in a couple situations it was like I could hear her voice: “You have to come to dinner at 8. You have to come to dinner at 8.”
[Lizzy]: Maybe that was so present in his mind because they had argued earlier that day, even though it wasn’t about anything too important. Kenny decided to call her and he said…
[Kenny]: “I’m going to go to an emergency and come back,” you know? I left, I remember I opened my locker to get my equipment and get in the truck and change in there.
[Lizzy]: Kenny has a picture of his graduation with his parents in his locker…
[Kenny]: I looked at it and…and said: “I don’t know… I’d better not go.” I felt like I shouldn’t go. Something was telling me, like this little voice, like this little guarding angel, telling me: “Don’t go. Don’t go.” And in the end I closed my locker and watched the truck pull out.
[Lizzy]: Kenny went home to Charo and later went to bed. At 2 in morning Kenny got a call from another firefighter.
[Kenny]: “We can’t find Alonso. We can’t Eduardo. We can’t find Raúl.”
[Lizzy]: They were 3 of his closest fellow firefighters at the station. His friends. He had seen them leave in the truck. Charo was woken up by the call.
[Charo]: I hear the concern in his voice. So I say to him: “But they wouldn’t have left, right? Just up and leave?” because at that point it still hadn’t even occurred to me that something could have happened to them, you know?
[Lizzy]: But Kenny already had experience with that kind of thing.
[Kenny]: I mean, it was 2 in the morning. They had left at 8, so you expect the worst, definitely.
[Lizzy]: Kenny sat in silence on the bed next to Charo. And well…
[Kenny]: There’s a moment you understand that the situation is lost and you break down, you know?
[Charo]: He started to cry. I had practically never seen him cry… He wasn’t saying anything to me, you know. I didn’t want to force him to talk either. No. I just held him, you know? I held him.
[Kenny]: And she held me, you know? And she told me to be calm. She was giving me emotional support that way, you know? And she tells me: “Go to sleep and you can go tomorrow.”
No, I couldn’t sleep. At 5:30 I took a shower and at 6 I was there with a few buddies who had also arranged to come. And we went to the fire to look for them.
[Lizzy]: To look for the bodies.
Charo’s brother called her as soon as he heard about the fire. It was about 5:30 in the morning. He wanted to know if Kenny was alright. All he knew was that 3 firefighters had disappeared.
[Charo]: I told him “yeah, Kenny’s fine,” I told him. “Kenny’s fine.” “Ok,” he said and I started to cry.
[Lizzy]: Kenny had already told Charo that he was sure his friends had died. And Charo told her brother…
[Charo]: “No, but 3, 3 of his friends died.” I was letting loose a little with my brother because I was… I had been holding back a lot that night, so I was letting loose, I cried and he told me to calm down…
[Kenny]: Then my…my brother-in-law calls me on the way, when I’m in the taxi and says: “What happened Kenny?” he asks. “I called Charo and Charo is crying,” he tells me. “She’s crying.” And I say: “No. That’s weird because she knows that I was at home.” “No, she’s crying, call her to help her calm down.” And in that moment, I realized that it hadn’t just had an impact on me, but on her too, you know?
[Lizzy]: They found their bodies that day at 9 in the morning. Firefighters from every company helped at the fire and they formed two rows of ambulances along off the side who turned on their sirens as they carried out the deceased firefighters.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWSBITE)
[Journalist]: Firefighters continue to sound their sirens as a tribute to their comrades. Amid the applause, even among the firefighters, who appear to be weeping over the loss of their friends…
[Lizzy]: Kenny was devastated.
[Kenny]: I didn’t want to go to the funeral. It seemed too hard for me. I saw Alonso’s mom and at that moment I thought about my mom. I saw Eduardo’s wife, Raúl’s wife and I saw Charo. I saw her.
[Lizzy]: And with these deaths, the mystique of the firefighter who dies as a hero sacrificing everything started to vanish. All of the members of Roma were hurt. A great deal of them were sad and disheartened.
[Kenny]: Before I thought more about the excitement of going and thinking “we’re going to do this, we’re going to put this out,” you know?
[Lizzy]: But now…
[Kenny]: I think about…about going home, about going to the station and then going home, you know?
When I’m in the truck, believe me when I tell you now I think about…about my wife. About how if something should happen to me I want it to be quick so she doesn’t suffer and so I don’t suffer, you know?
I think about…what would happen if something did happen. So the…the perception you have about everything, about heroism, about service, is totally different.
[Lizzy]: And this is the problem. Being a firefighter anywhere is difficult. It’s dangerous. It’s emotionally exhausting.
But in Lima it’s even harder. It’s expensive. It’s practically a full-time responsibility. We’re talking about a city of 9 million people where firefighters respond to close to 15 fires a day. We barely have 7 thousand fire fighters, almost most all of them working or studying somewhere else to earn a living. It should be a profession.
After his friends’ deaths, it’s clear to Kenny that something has to change…
[Kenny]: Look. Everyone needs to live somehow. Right? So I think that at some point the firefighters will be paid, because there are people who, well, need to support their families. So there will be 12 hour or 24 hour shifts, with adequate schools where you specialize in certain issues. Yes, I think that’ll happen someday.
[Lizzy]: I agree with Kenny. I wonder if we’re playing with reality. In other words: What does Lima need: a mystique to excite us, or a corps of firefighters that meets the demands of a safe and modern city? I think it’s clear that in order to keep excellent, dedicated fire fighters like Kenny serving the country, it’s necessary to take this step: professionalizing firefighting. And paying them.
They won’t be any less heroic because of it.
[Daniel]: On August 18th, shortly after we finished this script, the government of Peru launched the “I’m a firefighter too” campaign.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWSCAST)
[Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, President of Peru]: We will need to provide much more support, much more material and physical support to our firefighters.
[Daniel]: This is President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. He said that the 2018 budget would increase funding to renovate working equipment and improve the stations. The budget is still being debated so we still don’t have an exact number.
Also, the government proposed the idea of making a pension for firefighters in the event that they are no longer able to work because of an accident, and a law to fine up individuals who make false emergency calls up to $600.
On the other hand, they spoke again about creating a national fire academy, a project that had been announced by several other administrations already.
However, for the moment, the firefighters are still volunteers.
Lizzy Cantú is a Mexican journalist and professor. She lives in Lima.
Thank you to Eduardo García Peña and Artisan Studios.
This story was produced by Luis Fernando Vargas and edited by Camila Segura and myself. Mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Barbara Sawhill, Ryan Sweikert, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Silvia Viñas. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern and Andrea Betanzos is the program coordinator. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American I’m Daniel Alarcón, thanks for listening.