Around the firehouse, they call him Ogre. They've been calling him that since they were in the fifth grade together, when Matt Bakersky had an outsized frame and a fearsome reputation on the lacrosse field.
Now he's all grown up at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, and a lieutenant in the Floral Park Fire Department. He pays the bills with part-time jobs, helping at his uncle's masonry business, running an ambulance for the Baldwin Fire Department and tending bar at Charlie Bullfrogs on Jericho Turnpike, a firefighter hangout in Floral Park.
He hates music, isn't big on books and reads Fire Engineering magazine for pleasure.
"You tell Matt, 'Take the window out,' and Matt will take the window out," said Floral Park Deputy Chief Frank Wakely. "Think of an NFL lineman -- they are not in on the glory, but if one screws up their job, the quarterback gets sacked ... He likes to fly under the radar and get things done."
Put right to the test
Last fall, Ogre joined in a delicate, synchronized lifesaving mission as the driver of Floral Park's new aerial platform ladder truck.
"That was my first call driving it," Bakersky, 26, said. "I had just got qualified the week before."
Two construction workers were trapped under a collapsed roof on Vanderbilt Avenue. One man was paralyzed, his spine smashed by a fallen joist. The other was suffering crushing chest pains, struggling to breathe and slipping into shock. Getting them out posed a problem. Plywood barriers surrounded the house. There was no stairway to their floor. Nassau's evacuation helicopter was tied up.
It was the perfect scenario for the newest aerial ladder truck, valued as a stable platform for firefighters to use power tools on a roof or remove victims from tricky spots.
Doing his part
Volunteers need no special license to drive fire trucks. In Floral Park, "chauffeur" candidates with clean driving records take 20 hours of training, starting with an obstacle course in the parking lot at nearby Belmont Park, followed by real-world practice rounding corners on the narrow residential streets.
"Everything is safe driving," Bakersky said. "The truck is 51 feet long, so in geometrics it's a four-foot swing ... You have to make sure no car is next to you when you make the turns, otherwise you will hit it."
On that day last fall, Bakersky smoothly swung the 30-ton truck through the streets and into a spot in front of the house. He went to a console at the truck's rear, extending four outrigger jacks to carefully level the mammoth vehicle, then climbed up to yet another set of controls at the turntable that operates the boom. They were lucky that day: that yard was free of the low-hanging utility lines and tree branches that so often prevent the use of ladder trucks on suburban streets.
Then, like a giant robotic cobra, the articulated steel boom glided up and out with two volunteers in its basket, bringing them to rest beside the injured men. One at a time the victims were lifted carefully and deposited on a neighbor's driveway. Within 48 minutes of the call for help, both were in hospital emergency rooms. They survived, although the man with the spinal injuries remains paralyzed.
In Floral Park, the kind of place where elementary schoolmates grow up to be fire department buddies, Bakersky has been at home at the firehouse since he began training at age 15 under the guidance of his best friend's dad. His own dad died when he was 11. "I believe this community is very supportive of the Fire Department," Bakersky said. "You read in our paper ... people praising us for the rescues we do. If a lady's house goes on fire, she'll write a thank-you for a job well done ...
"It makes you feel better, like it's worth it."