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WILMINGTON, NC (NEW YORK TIMES) — When Engine 5 pulled up to a burning house on Woodlawn Avenue early on March 19, the firefighters were told that a man might be trapped in the back left bedroom. As two firemen trained a hose toward that corner, Capt. Don Ragavage crawled through smoke and flames to search for the missing resident.

It was an inopportune moment for the water pressure to plummet. But that is what happened when Engine 5’s motor, strained to the limit by 16 years and more than 100,000 miles of hard service, abruptly sputtered and died.

Only a month earlier, the fire chief, Buddy Martinette, had lobbied the City Council to replace the cantankerous engine at a session devoted to the latest of Wilmington’s six consecutive budget gaps.

“The mechanics really don’t think it will make it,” the chief warned at the time.

“You need another mechanic,” shot back Charlie Rivenbark, the Council’s foremost fiscal curmudgeon.

Mr. Rivenbark was not smiling, and once the scattered snickers quieted, none of his colleagues took issue. The fire truck fell off the table for the fifth year in a row.

Wilmington, N.C., is not Camden, N.J., which laid off half its police force this year. It is not Detroit, which is closing half of its public schools.

But like local governments across the country, the City of Wilmington has been demonstrably diminished by five years of unyielding economic despair. That a place like Wilmington, until recently a real estate boom town, would defer a purchase as essential as a fire truck for even one year, much less five, speaks to the withering toll.

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