After 43 years of service in the same Forest Hills firehouse on Queens Boulevard -- Engine Company 305 Hook and Ladder 151 -- longest-serving FDNY firefighter John DePierro of Middle Village will retire next week.
Like the 90-year-old firehouse, DePierro has witnessed much through the decades -- from arson fires that swept the city in the 1970s to department cutbacks in the '80s and '90s, to 9/11 when the FDNY had the greatest number of fatalities in its history.
DePierro will leave his engine company just weeks after superstorm Sandy devastated the region -- another moment in which the wits and generosity of the FDNY are being tested, he said.
"There hasn't been a day off for these guys," he said of his firefighter colleagues, whom he calls part of his family. "I don't think people realize that at least 1,000 members have lost their homes. We definitely took a double hit here.
"They can't get away from the situation. It's crazy. We dig out other people's homes and then go home and dig out our houses and then the houses of our neighbors," DePierro said. He says this desire "to help people get out of trouble" is the most fulfilling part of the job.
He said his company has been working in Queens' Rockaways and Belle Harbor and sections of Brooklyn that were hard-hit by Sandy. "It looks like 9/11. It's that kind of devastation. I wonder how people are going to get out of this one."
As DePierro reminisces about his decades in the department, he says with a hearty chuckle: "No one day has ever been the same even though I have been in the same firehouse. It's definitely not a monotonous job. There is always something new that happens, and you never know what each call will bring. You just roll up."
A modest assessment, said his son, FDNY Lt. Patrick DePierro, 37, who joined the department in 2002.
"He doesn't talk about this, but there were times when we worked the same fire. Here I am on the job because of him and I would be going into a fire while he was working the pump to make sure we had water. I can only imagine how he felt watching me go into harm's way. It must have been scary for him," his son said.
At 65, DePierro reluctantly says goodbye to his post. "This is definitely a young guy's job," DePierro said.
He has pondered what he will do now that he no longer has to answer a fire alarm. He said he plans to baby-sit his grandchildren and go on a Florida trip with Mary DePierro, his wife and high school sweetheart.
"That's about it for now," he said. "I like to stay close to home," which means being several blocks away from his Queens Boulevard firehouse in Forest Hills.