‘Every firefighter in the world will think it could have been one of us’: fire choir marks 9/11

On the 15th anniversary of the twin tower attack, members of Cheshire’s Fire Choir are singing their hearts out on a charity single

 The firefighters from Cheshire singing in New York earlier this year. Photograph: Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service

The firefighters from Cheshire singing in New York earlier this year. Photograph: Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service

Until three years ago, the only singing Cheshire fire service area manager Gus O’Rourke had ever done was in the pub with a pint.

“In my 26 years with the fire service, I never imagined I’d be in a choir,” says O’Rourke. But when professional conductor Gareth Malone set up the Cheshire Fire Choir in 2013 for the BBC series The Choir: Sing While you Work, O’Rourke, a former rugby player from Warrington, signed up to encourage the rest of his team to do the same. He is now one of a 26-strong ensemble of firefighters and other staff from the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service.

“I certainly never imagined we’d perform at the Ground Zero Memorial Plaza in New York, or in front of firefighters who’d lost their friends in the 9/11 attack,” says O’Rourke, But that’s exactly what the fire choir did in February, in tribute to the 342 firefighters killed on that day, 15 years ago.

Standing in the rain, the choir performed Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, a song that tells the story of a firefighter who was inside one of the twin towers and realises he isn’t going to survive. It’s a song that resonates with all firefighters, whether in Macclesfield or New York City, says O’Rourke.

“Firefighters are firefighters. All the men and women who work in the fire service, wherever they are in the world, they know what they’re putting on the line when there is a fire in a building,” he says. “When you hear of a firefighter’s death, every firefighter in the world will think it could have been any one of us – there but for the grace of God.”

The last firefighter to die in action in the UK was 38-year-old Stephen Hunt in 2013, just across the border in Manchester. The choir is now releasing its rendition of the Springsteen song as a charity single, to mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and raise money for the Fire Fighters Charity, which supports people in the fire and rescue community who are in need.

Collegiate bond

It was an impromptu performance for the firefighters at Ladder 10, Engine 10 – the nearest fire station to Ground Zero – that the Cheshire choir members will remember the most from their trip to New York. “They were our smallest audience, but by far our most important,” says O’Rourke. Six fire fighters from that station were killed during the 9/11 attacks. When O’Rourke looked up nervously, halfway through singing, two of the firefighters had tears in their eyes.

“There is a collegial spirit and bond among firefighters throughout the world,” says O’Rourke. “It’s an incredible family, you can go into any station in the world and you’ll be invited inside for a drink, and within minutes it will be like you’ve known each other for years.”

 Members of the Cheshire Fire Choir meet the Engine 10 team in New York in February. Photograph: Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service

Members of the Cheshire Fire Choir meet the Engine 10 team in New York in February. Photograph: Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service

Cheshire firefighter Matt Lloyd, a tenor in the choir who sings the solo at the opening of the song, was also there in February. “The guys thought it was amazing,” he says. “It got very emotional and felt very poignant.” Lloyd convinced his watch manager, Phil Marke, to join the choir with him when it was first advertised on the station’s intranet. “No matter how rough your day has been, singing completely takes you out of yourself and makes you feel good,” says Marke. “Being part of a choir requires a lot of concentration and it gives you a real buzz – there are definite health benefits.”

Like other fire services, Cheshire has seen its share of cuts, but choir practice is a chance to escape that. “We have issues with cuts – some are forced upon us, and we have had to downgrade a few of our stations – but even that doesn’t dint our spirit,” says O’Rourke.

Three years since it first began, the choir is still going strong and has set its sights on repeating the success of the Lewisham NHS Trust choir whose own charity single beat Justin Bieber to Christmas Number 1 last year.

Visit the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service website for more information on the charity single.