Through sickness and fire: Pittsfield firefighters honor retired colleague with ALS

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PITTSFIELD — Longtime firefighter Mike Polidoro said his team was always ready to head down a dark hallway with him, as he was for them.

Now, fellow firefighters stand by his side as he lives with Lou Gehrig's disease, which is slowly eating away at his ability to control muscle function.

"They have done so much for me over the years," said Polidoro, former deputy chief of the Pittsfield Fire Department. "They've made my journey so much easier — giving me the peace of mind, knowing they're there if I ever need them."

Dozens of firefighters past and present, as well as members of Polidoro's family, packed the garage at the Columbus Avenue station Monday as the department dedicated its new fire engine to Polidoro, 62. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis about five years ago, and retired in 2016 after 28 years with the department.

The crowd of faces reflected in the new engine's spotless sheen as Pittsfield Fire and Rescue Engine No. 6 was dedicated in his honor. "Poly's Pride," they call it.

Securing the new engine was one of Polidoro's last big projects before the disease forced his retirement. Under his leadership, the department acquired the engine in 2016 at a price of $550,000. The city allotted less for the overdue engine than some might have wanted, he said, but "you make do with what you've got."

"Fire alarm, engine one," blared over the loudspeaker as the Rev. Peter Gregory gave the benediction. Though a disease threatens to imprison Polidoro, Gregory said, he confronts it "with trust and faith."

"And he shared with me many times: You don't give up," Gregory said.

Polidoro leaned on the podium as Mayor Linda Tyer delivered a proclamation in his honor.

"I am in awe of the contribution you have made to this department, and to this community," she told him.

His mustache danced and his eyes squinted as he thanked the crowd. It's been an emotional time, he told them, and while he misses the department dearly, reminders of their brotherhood come often.

"I only hope I can return it in some way," he said, "because I love you all."

His son, Jay Polidoro, a film executive for Universal Pictures, made a surprise trip from California for the occasion. Meeting your heroes can be disappointing, he told the crowd, but he never had that experience.

"I had already met my hero, and I grew up with him," he said, thanking his dad with a hug. "Thanks for being my hero," he told him, as the senior Polidoro reached for his tissue.

Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said it's been an emotional time, too, for the department.

"We're happy to continue the battle with you ," Czerwinski said to close the ceremony, "and we're proud to call you our friend."

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To hell and back

Following the ceremony, firefighters past and present spilled around Polidoro, who beamed as he leaned against the glistening engine.

Czerwinski said the team often checks in on Polidoro's family in their spare time, doing yard work and house repairs to spare him the physical maneuvering. His wife, Donna Polidoro, said about 30 of the guys showed up last summer and re-roofed the house in two days.

"We'd go to hell and back for this guy," Czerwinski said.

Polidoro also served the community on the Urban Search and Rescue Team, and as part of the Hazard Materials Response Team.

Referred to by friends and family as a humble guy, Polidoro said the whole ceremony was "way overboard." He said he's the one who feels indebted to the department.

The bond he shares with the brotherhood of firefighters is one not easily broken, Polidoro said. "When [all is] said and done, they would have traveled down that dark hallway with me," he said. "And I would have done the same."

The job came with dark moments, he said, recalling the times he and his colleagues carried the dead from a fire. "Those are the ones that stay in your mind forever," he said.

But those moments were overshadowed by all the good that came with the life of a firefighter.

"The only regret is I couldn't have given more time to it," Polidoro said.

ALS is "such an insidious disease," his son said, "because there's nothing to gauge the decline. ... It affects different people differently."

His father's health has held up well, and for that the family is "very, very fortunate and happy." That said, it's hard to know what the coming years have in store.

For now, Polidoro remains busy around the house. "He just won't stop," his son said.

There was a sad irony in the diagnosis, said Polidoro's daughter, Tonia Depson, because her father was always so busy training and helping people. He volunteered to sort through the rubble in 2001 at the World Trade Center, friends and family recalled, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"ALS is a terrible disease, but for it to happen to him," Depson said, looking over her shoulder toward her father, "is just devastating."

Still, she said, he smiles through it all: "He smiles even when he's struggling."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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