His wife told him she thought there was a fire further down Beacon Street. He went to the front of his house and, yes, he could see some color and smoke. He returned to his bedroom, then went out front again two minutes later, just to check, and the color and smoke had become a blaze. The fire trucks were coming from everywhere; there would be nine alarms in all, and the winds would continue to blow off the Charles River at 35-40 miles per hour on a stormy afternoon, and the water from the hoses would freeze on the neighborhood trees, and a Wednesday in Boston would become incredibly sad.
Two firemen would die from the flames and heat in the basement of that house. Thirteen other first responders would be taken to area hospitals with burns and other injuries. Tom Brady would watch much of it unfold.
"I had gone to the back of the house, from my deck, and could see kind of what they were up against," the New England Patriots quarterback said on Thursday morning on the Dennis and Callahan radio show on WEEI, where he is an occasional contributor. "At that point all the fire engines were coming down the street. I was watching for, obviously, a long time. At one point I saw a pretty big explosion of flames, and a lot of the firemen were coming out of the building. That's when I got really nervous. I felt so badly for them."
The wind made the flames rush through the house. One fireman said it was the fastest-moving fire he had seen in 30 years on the job. The direction and force of the wind into the firemen's faces on Beacon Street made the water from their hoses blow back onto them instead of onto the four-story brownstone house. They were forced to fight the fire from the other side of the house, crammed into a back alley which itself is crammed beside a highway next to the river. It was a tough, tough situation.
Brady was humbled by what he saw.
"Our lives were never in jeopardy at all thanks to those men -- brave men who were fighting that fire for us," he said. "That was a very intense day of weather and wind. You can't imagine all the things that really happened, and how quickly those things can get out of control. I have such a newfound respect for nature and what it's all about and under those conditions for those men...to watch them try to put out the fire in freezing conditions and all the different elements they had to deal with. There's no way to prepare for things like that. They gave everything they had and a few of them paid the ultimate price.
"My respect and sincerity and love and admiration of what they do -- it's hard to put into words."
The two firemen who died were 43-year-old Fire Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and 33-year-old Michael R. Kennedy. Walsh was the father of three kids, all under the age of 10. Kennedy, single, was a Marine Corps veteran, six years a fireman, a motorcycle guy, a free spirit. They were among the first responders on the scene and went straight to the basement, where they were trapped when a first floor window exploded, creating a backdraft.
They died doing what firemen and policemen do. They opened a door and walked into the unknown. They did it so the rest of us don't have to.
"We as athletes think that we're heroes," Brady said, "but when you witness firsthand what I saw yesterday, you realize who the real heroes are in this world. And that's the people that work hard to protect our lives and protect our safety, our freedoms in America. Certainly, the firefighters and the Boston police and the state troopers. I just want to say, 'Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.'"
That theme -- that real heroes come from real life -- can get stale sometimes. Days and weeks and years can pass with no surprises, nothing happening, and the words can sound like a perpetual public service announcement. Distractions arrive: Who's that being carried off the field? Who's that on Sportscenter? Who's that making a few million bucks? Heroes are easier to find when their moments are predicted in a television listing, their exploits shown in slow motion, their achievements rewarded with all the glamorous toys our society can offer.
On a windy Wednesday in March, though -- or any other day that brings instant, tragic, change-of-life moments-- the old truths about heroism arrive again. Games are games. Real life is real life. Heroism is being there when people need help.
The two firemen who perished came from the firehouse on Boylston Street and Hereford Street, a picturesque old station in the middle of Saturday night foot traffic, a place where there is always pleasant conversation with the passing crowd. What could be tough about their job? But this is also the station that was a block away from the second bomb at the Boston Marathon last April. The men of this station also rushed into that situation, opened that door and went into that unknown to save civilian lives.
Brady said he has passed that station a thousand times since he has lived on Beacon Street. No doubt he will never pass it again without thinking about the things he saw on Wednesday. He is a terrific football player, with 14 years on the job, and has been well-rewarded for every success he has had. There is nothing wrong with calling him a hero, because he does a lot of things that a lot of people would like very much to do. He is just a different hero from the real heroes.
The firemen do not play in games.
"It's just a selfless profession," Tom Brady said. "These men who choose that calling in life, it's just something that's in your heart and soul. And I'm grateful."