On Sept. 11, 2001, Catherine Lewis sat in her fourth-grade class at Our Lady Queen of Peace School on Staten Island, watching TV images of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center.
As a 9-year-old, she had only scant knowledge of what was happening, but she was terrified. “Teachers were running around the hall,” she recalled last week. Soon she was picked up by a relative and taken home.
But the images of the firefighters running toward, not away from, the burning twin towers have stayed with her ever since. So much so, she said, that she decided to become a firefighter.
On March 16, Lewis, 28, was sworn in as the first female paid firefighter in the 111-year history of the Long Beach Fire Department. She was joined by two other recruits, both men, bringing the number of paid firefighters in the 150-member department to 17.
“I grew up in New York City, after 9/11,” Lewis said. “The firefighters and the first responders became the heart and soul of the city. That day has always stuck with me.”
A number of times, Lewis has run in the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation 5K Race/Walk, held each September, retracing the steps of the New York City firefighter for whom the event is named, from Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan. On Sept. 11, Siller, 34, raced across the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel on foot, carrying 65 pounds of firefighting gear, and later died when the towers collapsed.
As a young girl, Lewis mentioned to her parents, Mary and Francis Lewis, that she wanted to be a firefighter. They nodded, thinking she might change her mind. She never did.
She kept in shape, earning a degree in sociology from Colgate University in upstate Madison County, where she played basketball, and earned a master’s in education from Hunter College.
After graduating from Hunter, Lewis taught for a while, still thinking about becoming a firefighter. A friend who was a fire chief with the FDNY told her he had heard about openings in Long Beach.
She scored 100 on the civil-service test, and passed the rigorous physical. She was hired, and is now assigned to an 18-week training program at the Westchester County Fire Training Center in Valhalla, just north of White Plains. Training consists of class work and physical activities. She commutes from her home in Glendale, Queens, and hopes to move to Long Beach after completing her training.
“Being a firefighter is a very cerebral career,” Lewis said. “You have to love to read and write.” The job requires, among other things, extensive knowledge of the chemicals needed to extinguish a blaze.
Long Beach’s volunteer Fire Department has several women, according to city officials. But Lewis is the first paid female in the department. In 1982, the FDNY swore in its first female firefighters, when 42 women took the oath. A spokesman said the department’s 10,770 members now include 126 women.
Long Beach is the only municipality on Long Island with a paid Fire Department. In 2018, Garden City shut down its paid department, and now relies solely on volunteers.
A decade ago, the Long Beach paid department had 33 members, but the ranks have been thinned by retirements and resignations. Fire officials said they needed to replace some of the positions. The city and the union representing the paid firefighters reached an agreement last week that allowed for the hiring of Lewis and two others.
The agreement also called for caps, for new members, on separation pay and career sick leave. Union officials said the agreement would mean significant savings for the city while preserving firefighting capabilities.
The question of why it took so long for the city to hire a female paid firefighter elicits different responses from different people. Some suggested that the LBFD had for decades been a “men’s club” that discouraged women from applying; others said that the paid department is small and has done little hiring over the years.
But what is widely agreed on is the pride that city and fire officials express about the hiring of a woman.
“This administration places a high priority on diversity and having the city’s workforce reflect Long Beach’s population,” City Manager Donna Gayden said. “From my hire in February 2020 as the first female and first African-American city manager, to promoting the first Latina sergeant in the police department, and now to the hiring of recruit Lewis, we have a lot of work yet to do, but are making meaningful progress and are proud of it.”
Sam Pinto, president of the firefighters union, said of Lewis, “She is motivated, dedicated and capable.”
Louis Alfasi, executive officer of the paid department, agreed. “She was an outstanding candidate, and I look forward to her being on the force,” he said.
Nassau County Legislator Denise Ford, who lives in Long Beach, said she believed Lewis would be a great role model for women who want to be firefighters. Ford’s husband, Harry, was an FDNY firefighter who died in what is known as the Father’s Day Fire. It occurred on Father’s Day 2001, when a business in Astoria, Queens, where hazardous material was stored exploded.
Lewis’s parents say they are proud of their daughter. “This was her decision,” Mary said. “She was very affected by 9/11. She always thought they were heroes.”
Lewis admitted to being apprehensive about her daughter’s career choice. “It only takes one incident,” she said. “But that being said, this is Catherine.”
Lewis herself is focused on the future. “I’m excited to be the first [paid] female firefighter in Long Beach and to have broken that barrier,” she said. “I want to prove that females can do the job, but most of all, my goal is to be the best firefighter I can be.”