By Harvey Cohen
It was September 11, 2001, and David Guilford was at his desk in downtown Manhattan working for Goldman Sachs. He was preparing for another typical day — arranging video, audio and PowerPoint presentations for the masters of the universe whom he served.
It was a job he liked but as the son of a life-long New York City cop and with other relatives who served in the New York Fire Department, he always felt something was missing.
Was he really doing anything to help his fellow citizens? Did his job have any real meaning? Was there more he could do? Somehow deep inside, he always knew the answers.
But then that day on 9/11, his life changed. From his office he could see the destruction, the chaos, the death caused by the two planes that hit the World Trade Center. That’s when he heard his true calling.
He took the test to become a New York City firefighter and also took tests to become a cop in both Nassau and Suffolk counties. He passed them all. But the decision was really very easy.
Nothing could match the courage and dedication of those firefighters on 9/11. They put their lives at risk and so many of them had made the ultimate sacrifice to save others. How could anyone serve any way greater than that?
Guilford began his training in the FDNY probie training program. But no matter how difficult that training became, he never gave up. He lifted weights to gain strength. He ran and ran to increase his endurance. And he practiced and practiced with the tools of the firefighting trade. He learned how to climb up to roofs, he carried dummies on stretchers and most of all, he stretched his own abilities.
And it felt good. He preferred the discipline, the order and the precision of a military style operation. It was good to be away from the constraints of an office, and most of all to know he would be helping people and saving lives.
On his first day at a firehouse, Guilford was out on a call within the very first hour. And though he recognized the danger that was possible, he really wasn’t afraid because he trusted his training and his fellow firefighters. Reflecting on that, he says: “You trust your life every day to your fellow firefighters. How many people at other jobs have that kind of trust.”
Every firefighter knows that very little matches the dangers of blindly walking through smoke filled halls. “You enter a burning building,” Guilford says, “you can’t see anything, all you have are your hands to feel where you’re going. But you just keep moving forward.”
And he never really does know what he’ll be facing in the next few feet or in the next room. It could be a ceiling that’s about to collapse, a wall that’s about to fall or a child desperately gasping for their last breaths.
He remembers being called one time to a church on East 68th Street where a small child had suffered a seizure. Dave performed CPR in the middle of the street and then continued working on the child in the ambulance all the way to the hospital. The child survived. “I became a firefighter to help people,” Guilford says. “It’s a great feeling knowing that’s what I can do every day.”
Superstorm Sandy also offered another chance to show his love of service. Though the area around his firehouse on East 85th Street wasn’t hit hard by the storm, Guilford was moved and affected by the devastation and ruin caused in other parts of the New York area.
So he contacted the manager of a local bar on the corner of his firehouse and he put together a drive to collect food, merchandise and clothing and store it on the sidewalk in front of the bar. Initially he expected to collect just enough to fill up his own car. But goods kept coming and coming. The first night he actually slept on the street to watch over and protect what had been collected.
After two more weekends of collections, it all added up to a total of 28 truckloads of canned food, batteries, cloths, toys and even supplies for pets. It meant a lot for Guilford, but even more for those people who had been flooded from their homes and separated from their families and jobs.
When Guilford is not fighting fires, he likes to swim at a local Upper East Side pool and run and exercise in Carl Schurz Park. He also co-leads the FDNY Triathlon team and spends many weekends training with the rest of the team by running and cycling in Central Park.
One can only wonder how many lives have been saved and helped because on the day of New York’s worst tragedy, David Guilford found the best way to serve.