Philly firefighter's book details 37 years of blood, pranks and the smell of death | We the People

Robert Marchisello in front of Ladder 19 at Engine 60 in South Philadelphia, where he started his career as a rookie.

Camera icon Lauren Schneiderman / staff photographer
Robert Marchisello at his Springfield home.

Meet: Robert Marchisello, a retired Philadelphia firefighter who kept journal entries of every shift of his 37-year career, from cadet to deputy chief. In December he released a book, A Firefighter’s Journal, based on his writings.

Hot take: Stuffed with curse words, absurd events, detailed descriptions of death and first-hand accounts of major Philly incidents, Marchisello’s book is shockingly honest and surprisingly funny, but it’s not for the faint of heart — or the easily offended.

First review: Philadelphia firefighter Lt. Matthew LeTourneau, who died in the line of duty in January, bought the book the day it was published. He was the first person to get it signed and the first to review it on Amazon.

Robert Marchisello has never been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but he’s sure he has it.

As proof, the retired Philadelphia Fire Department deputy chief points to his impeccably organized work benches and his recently released book, A Firefighter’s Journal, a memoir that’s based on the writings he covertly kept of every shift he worked from 1973 until 2010.

“I felt compelled to document everything,” Marchisello, 69, said. “One of the best-kept secrets of 37 years is that nobody knew.”

In pen and pencil across seven journals, Marchisello wrote about what he saw, smelled, felt and experienced as a Philadelphia firefighter.

Camera icon Lauren Schneiderman / staff photographer
The book Robert Marchisello wrote based on his journals.

The book takes readers up and down familiar Philadelphia streets as Marchisello chases after fire trucks as a kid in South Philly and then as he works his way up the ranks at various stations in South Philly, West Philly and Center City.

He describes what it’s like to be soaked in someone else’s blood, what it’s like to feel flesh sliding off of the bones of charred victims and what it’s like to smell death (hint: there’s “a dash of sharp provolone cheese”).

He writes about recovering victims from auto accidents and from under subway cars; what it’s like to find a dead child inside of a fire; and what it’s like removing a 500-pound decomposing body that’s wedged between a toilet and a sink.

“I wanted the book to be about the different things that firefighters do,” said Marchisello, who now lives in Springfield and works part-time as a hazmat specialist for Delaware County. “We’d be more appropriately called an emergency-services department than a fire department because we get involved in so many things.”

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Marchisello details his participation in major incidents in Philly history, like how he was inside the MOVE house when a 1978 shoot-out began; how he twice responded to the Gulf oil refinery fire in 1975, where the department lost eight firefighters in one day; and how he helped coordinate triage at the scene of the Pier 34 collapse in 2000, when three women drowned.

Camera icon Robert Marchisello
Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Chief Robert Marchisello, who is now retired, on scene at a fire at 58th Street and Elmwood Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia in 2006.

Some of the best stories in his book are ones that never made headlines — the pranks firefighters pull on each other, the absurd incidents that happen on calls and the small-but-meaningful acts of humanity between strangers.

With names like Frankie Rags, Rocky and Hoagie Man, there are classic Philly characters who make Marchisello’s stories come to life. Mayor Kenney’s father, James, a now-retired fire chief, appears in the book, consoling Marchisello after a victim perishes in a fire.

And Marchisello, a married father of two, even writes about how he once dated the niece of a notorious Philly mob boss.

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Every firefighter who died in the line of duty during Marchisello’s career — all 43 of them — are also mentioned by name.

“Part of that is survivor’s guilt, I guess,” said Marchisello, who still gets goosebumps when he hears a firetruck pass by. “It’s not something we dwell on in the firehouse. Nobody ever went in and was worried about losing their lives but it happens and it happened pretty constantly throughout my career.”

Camera icon Robert Marchisello
Robert Marchisello hangs out near the back of Engine 24 in 1980.

As he made his way through the ranks, Marchisello said, he spent more time worrying about losing someone than anything else. When he retired without a line-of-duty death under his command, he said, he felt a wave of relief.

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But on Jan. 6, that relief was shattered when his close friend Lt. Matthew LeTourneau died from injuries he suffered fighting a rowhouse fire in North Philly. It was the first time a city firefighter had died while battling a blaze since 2014.

“I broke down crying on the stairs,” Marchisello said. “I hadn’t put my uniform on since I retired, but I put it on for that funeral.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / staff photographer
The casket of Philadelphia Fire Lt. Matthew LeTourneau is lowered down to his comrades during his funeral procession in January.

Just a month before his death,  LeTourneau was the among the first people to buy Marchisello’s book and ask him to sign it.

LeTourneau’s review on Amazon reads in part: “A great insight into the life of a firefighter around the firehouse and the many entertaining and/or tragic events that many Emergency Responders face throughout their careers.”

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