Credit Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Michael J. Fahy became a New York City firefighter in 1999, and he climbed the ranks of the department in the years after Sept. 11, when the terrorist attacks and a wave of retirements that followed stirred concern about a drain of experience and institutional memory.
He was seen as someone who could fill the void.
He had grown up in the Fire Department; his father retired as a battalion chief in November 2001, after 33 years on the job. But he had also graduated from law school, passed the bar exams in New York and New Jersey and had earned a master’s degree in homeland security from the Naval Postgraduate School. His colleagues said he was focused and analytical, and had a genuine dedication to public service.
The fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro, called him a “rising star.” At 44, he had already become a battalion chief, commanding some people who were a decade older than him.
“I guarantee you, this guy is going to be a staff chief,” Lt. Joseph Beltrani, who had worked for Chief Fahy, said on Wednesday sitting at the kitchen table of Battalion 20 in the Bronx, recalling what he and others thought about him when he arrived at the firehouse a few years ago.
“Mike did the job,” Lieutenant Beltrani added. “He knew the job. He knew why something did happen or why it didn’t happen.”
On Tuesday morning, Chief Fahy was the incident commander of the fire units responding to a call of a gas odor emanating from a two-story house on West 234th Street in the Bronx. The house exploded, and he was struck by the debris and killed, making Chief Fahy the 1,145th member of the Fire Department to die in the line of duty in its 150-year history.
Credit Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Since his death, Chief Fahy has been mourned as a family man dedicated to his wife, Fiona, and his three children, and also as someone who was expected to move up in the Fire Department.
“When he got here, we knew his potential, and he proved himself to be right up there with anybody else,” said Brian Fink, the commander of Battalion 19, who handpicked Chief Fahy to work for him. “He was cool, calm, collected at fires. He did a great job. He kept the guys safe. He’s what you want every chief to be.”
Chief Fahy graduated from New York Law School in 1998, and worked for about nine months as a lawyer before deciding that he wanted to join the Fire Department. “The reason was his sense of duty,” said Lt. JonPaul Augier, who befriended Chief Fahy when they were both new firefighters.
Credit Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
Lieutenant Beltrani knew about Chief Fahy’s background but never asked him why he chose firefighting over the law. “He grew up in it,” Lieutenant Beltrani said. “It would have been more of a question of ‘Why was he a lawyer and not a firefighter?’”
Chief Fahy was first assigned to Harlem, where he worked for several years, before he was promoted to lieutenant in 2004 and moved to Battalion 3 in the Bronx. He was promoted to captain in 2012 and assigned to Lower Manhattan. Then he was elevated again, to one of 371 battalion chiefs in the department, serving at Battalion 20 in the Bronx before transferring to his most recent assignment, as one of four battalion chiefs at Battalion 19, also in the Bronx.
But the higher rank did not separate him from the people he commanded. He cooked with them and ate with them in the firehouse. And he responded to scenes with them, just as he did on Tuesday, facing the same dangers they did as he made decisions on how to handle fast-moving, chaotic situations.
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“He was quiet, unassuming, but the guys knew, he was the boss when he came in,” Commander Fink said. “He took care of the guys, and the guys took care of him.”
Lieutenant Augier and Capt. Brendan Deehan became friends with Chief Fahy when they started out in the department. They would travel together and got married around the same time, and they spent hours together at the firehouse. They cooked meals, and, in slow moments, Chief Fahy would pick up his guitar. The other firefighters would search the internet for the sheet music for random songs and ask him to play them.
“He was sharp, he was witty,” Captain Deehan said. “He was a great guy to have around the kitchen table.”
Credit Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
In recent years, as he married and had two boys and a girl, his family became more of a priority. Chief Fahy lived in Yonkers, where he coached his children’s basketball and soccer teams and attended Mass every Sunday, where the priest noticed that he was “a man of deep faith” and had a “very pleasant smile and a very warm, engaging personality.”
“He just loved to be of service, to the community, certainly the Fire Department, to his family,” said the priest, the Rev. Robert Grippo, the pastor of Annunciation-Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Yonkers. “Whatever opportunities that were there for service, he was there and very willing to do whatever he could.”
Firefighters visited the family’s home on Wednesday, bringing food and offering condolences, as Chief Fahy’s relatives made arrangements for his funeral service, which is scheduled for Saturday.
Firefighters and police officers also gathered outside the firehouse as some placed black and purple bunting over the building’s towering dark red doors. The sound of bagpipes resounded through the neighborhood, and residents poked their heads out of their windows and assembled along the edges of the service.
Chief Fahy was the first member of the department killed since 2014, and for his colleagues, his death came as a “gut check,” Lieutenant Beltrani said, reminding them of the dangers of the job — the routine gas-smell calls they had responded to — but also why they continued to do it.
“It’s pretty devastating when you go out the door and expect to come back, and one of your brothers doesn’t come back,” Commander Fink said shortly after the bunting had been hung. “That affects everyone — everyone who was at the fire, everyone who’s assigned to the house. It affects us all, because tomorrow it could be one of us.”