It’s a calling from the heavens or an innate part of one’s being that makes one join the city’s bravest a testament several thousand family and friends witnessed Wednesday at the New York Fire Department graduation in Queens.
Nine of the 274 graduates are Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans; others come from a family tradition of firefighting, in which loved ones died in the line of duty.
“It’s a calling — something I have to do,” said Robert Wallace Jr., 25, whose father, Lt. Robert Wallace Sr., of Engine 205, died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center.
“I know he’s here. I feel him,” Wallace said after graduation ceremonies in Flushing at Queens College’s Colden Auditorium.
Wallace, of Woodhaven, was 19 when his father died. “I was angry,” he said. But it reinforced his desire to become a firefighter, remembering his childhood visits to the firehouse and the camaraderie inside.
“I always wanted to follow in his footsteps,” said Wallace, who has a 10-month-old son.
Wallace said he focused on his father during the excruciating physical training at the fire academy on Randalls Island. “Every time I was training, I’d think about my father. We use to run and race together.”
Wallace said he wants “a good and happy life and career.” He is assigned to Engine 275 in Jamaica, Queens, and said he is looking forward to working with and being “around some good guys.”
For the Pujdak family in Brooklyn, the graduation of their son, Matthew Pujdak, 24, was bittersweet.
The family lost another son, Daniel Pujdak, 23, during a Brooklyn blaze in June. Pujdak, of Ladder 146, was on the roof in Williamsburg when he fell 60 feet to his death. The fire was sparked by a cigarette in an illegal apartment.
“It’s a celebratory day — a good day,” said Leo Pujdak, his father. “It was a dream come true to watch my son get his dream,” and he added that his Daniel “will always be part of this tradition.”
Pujdak said he will always remember his brother loving the job. “He used to say it was the best job in the world and that I would love it, too. Today is the happiest day of my life,” he said, grinning. Pujdak will work at Engine 50 in the Bronx.
Scott LaPiedra, 22, lost his father when he was 13 in a Brooklyn arson fire. Capt. Scott LaPiedra died in a three-story blaze in 1998 while searching for a woman who had already escaped. Another firefighter also died.
LaPiedra, who is assigned to Engine 80 in Harlem, said his childhood memories of his father were in the firehouse and riding the engine. “I want to follow him. I want to do the job no matter how difficult,” he said.
The graduating probationary firefighters completed the city’s toughest fire department training — a 23-week program with 10 weeks focused on building construction and inspections and hazardous material training.
The lone female graduate, Christine O’Connor, 34, a former office worker who got tired of being inside while working for a contractor, said so far it’s been “a phenomenal experience.” O’Connor is one of 36 women in the department.