Free Spirit Found a Calling
Stephen E. Belson, 51, had different nicknames from different stages of his life. At Rockaway Beach, where he worked after college as a lifeguard, he was known as Bells. But at the fire station on West 31st Street in Manhattan where he spent most of his career as a firefighter, he was given the title "Mr. Ladder 24."
"He was our ambassador, so to speak," said John Montani, another firefighter in Ladder Company 24. Firefighter Belson attended all the functions, was always available for holiday duty and could back a fire engine into a station in five seconds flat. His last job was as a driver for one of the battalion chiefs, Orio J. Palmer. Both rushed to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11; neither returned.
Before he joined the department, Firefighter Belson was something of a beach bum, a surfer, a devotee of the Grateful Dead and Hot Tuna, or as one friend said, a free spirit. Then, one day, he and his lifeguard buddies decided to get real jobs. "We took the Fire Department tests on a lark, and found a calling," said John Maguire, who is now chief of Battalion 54.
Firefighter Belson who grew up in Flushing, Queens, moved to Rockaway Beach, bought a house and fit right into the tightknit community of firefighters and police officers. Unlike many of his neighbors, he wasn't Irish or Roman Catholic. But that made no difference. "While he was Jewish, he was considered one of them," said his mother, Madeline Brandstadter. "They even named a beach after him: Bells's Beach."
Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on December 5, 2001.