The first thing you notice in the firehouse kitchen at Engine Company 45 is that you can't see the walls.
Every inch, floor to ceiling, is covered by plaques. Commendations for heroism, bravery, valor.
This room, where Lt. Matt LeTourneau sat, ate, and laughed with his crew every working day, is literally wallpapered with stories of the lives they saved.
I know this because on a very special day, May 25, 2016, I ate lunch here with the members of Engine 45, Ladder 14, and Medic 25.
The only smoke and fire on that afternoon spouted from the grill where Firefighter Greg Marshall prepared his legendary chicken recipe. Not wearing his protective gear, Marshall was blasted by a steady stream of insults to his cooking prowess, still producing what even his firefighter-critics conceded was a spectacular chicken sandwich.
If a firehouse were a church, the kitchen would be its altar. It is here — too tired and beaten to even speak — that firefighters gather in silence.
Stories of dangers, suffering, lives saved and lost, seen rather than heard in their bloodshot eyes and soot-blackened faces.
Between calls, this same kitchen echoes with laughter, griping, totally inappropriate jokes, and always plans for tomorrow — that almost mystical "day off" — free and safe for a few hours until the next shift, the next alarm. There is always a next alarm.
Seated side by side, the lieutenant and I dug in.This was, after all, no ordinary lunch. It was my last day as a reporter, ending a 45-year career, 36 with CBS3. Lunch with the lieutenant and his firefighters was my final assignment. And that's just how I planned it.
Weeks earlier, I got a surprise phone call from Engine 45's crew asking if "I'd like to drop by for lunch on my last day."
Understand this: An invitation to "drop by" a firehouse for lunch is among the greatest honors I could imagine. Let others show off their embossed invitations to White House galas or ritzy fund-raisers. When a firefighter says, "Come on in, we just put on some coffee," or "Have you had lunch? Got some chicken soup ready," it is a profound compliment.
I wish I could remember more of my conversation with Lt. LeTourneau that day. I know we spoke about our common experiences as volunteer firefighters — Matt with Station 44 in Springfield, Delaware County, before joining Philadelphia in 2007; my 29 years as a volunteer and life member of Narberth Fire Company.
I do recall, however, looking at those plaques surrounding me. So many stories, so many lives saved. How many entire newscasts might I fill with just these tales of courage?
I knew, however, that could never happen for one simple reason: LeTourneau and his crew were bound by a code of quiet humility. The risks, the triumphs, the pain, stayed here, voiced only around this kitchen table. Read the plaques if you like, but if you expect to hear a single, self-congratulatory syllable from LeTourneau or his firefighters, well, find another firehouse or, better yet, another profession.
Lt. LeTourneau and his fellow firefighters didn't arrive at Engine 45 by accident. It wasn't "luck of the draw." The lieutenant and his crew fought to be assigned among poverty-scarred neighbors and crumbling buildings. They knew it is among the busiest, most dangerous fire battlegrounds in the city, but it is here they are needed most, here that their strength, skills, and raw courage so often make the "life or death" difference.
Slowly, more details will emerge, and we'll know more about what happened during those terrible moments on North Colorado Street where Lt. LeTourneau lost his life Saturday.
But I know this now: Lt. LeTourneau made a commitment to put other lives ahead of his own on the first day he set foot aboard a fire truck. Whatever words you use to describe courage, Matt lived it. Every day, every alarm, including his last.
And I know this, too: All the firefighters I lunched with that day, along with scores of others, instantly reacted, offering their lives hoping to rescue the trapped lieutenant.
I know this because as a young reporter at the Gulf Refinery fire, I told of firefighters diving to certain deaths into a lake of burning gasoline trying to save their trapped brothers.
I know this because at the One Meridian inferno, I reported that nearly a dozen firefighters were minutes from dying as their air supply ran out, but they refused to stop searching for three members of Engine Company 11, trapped and killed in the flames.
I know this because Lt. LeTourneau, his crew, and fellow members are an elite group willing always to give their lives for others. They are firefighters.
Soon, there will be more plaques on that crowded wall of courage inside the kitchen of Engine Company 45. Memorials honoring Lt. Matt LeTourneau.
Thanks again, Matt, for your kindness, for that chicken sandwich, and for the chance to know — for far too short a time — a truly great man and firefighter.