Newark couple's passion extends to firefighting

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on January 28, 2015

Veronica Garay and her husband Cesar Garay are the first husband and wife tandem to be Newark Firefighters who joined the department last week, with a Newark Fire Department ladder in Newark, NJ

 

There was something about seeing firefighters on a rig, especially the guy steering a hook and ladder truck as it roared through Newark streets, sirens screaming.

They had to be on their way to help somebody, Cesar Garay often thought as a kid growing up in the North Ward. What else could be more satisfying?

“There’s a lot of pride in this job,” he says.

His wife, Veronica, however, never gave the occupation a thought – not even after saving a baby from an apartment fire when she was a teenager. She chose to be a teacher.

But then Cesar attended a meeting at which fire officials were encouraging women to join the ranks and he thought his wife would like the work.

“When he said that, it was like a lightbulb went on in my head,” she says.

He passed the test. She did, too, and these high school sweethearts wound up making local history. They graduated from the academy on Jan. 16 and are the first husband and wife to become Newark firefighters.

The road to joining the fire service wasn’t easy and I haven’t even gotten to the physical aspects of the job yet. Cesar had already passed the firefighters exam twice – once in 2001, after graduating from college, and then again in 2007 – but did not get called for a class. The number of candidates the fire department needed for the job scored higher than he did.

Taking it the third time, Cesar had doubts. He had settled into a job as a substitute teacher at Franklin Elementary School, the same pre-K through fourth grade school where Veronica had been a teacher for 10 years. He loved his position, one he took after being laid off from an accounting job. Teaching gave him the chance to serve the community – like a firefighter, his dream job. But the fact that Cesar never had the opportunity to work as a firefighter gnawed at him whenever he drove past a firehouse or saw a fire truck.

“I said, ‘You know what, I’ll give it one more shot,’ ” he says.

He wasn’t alone. Now that Veronica’s interest was piqued, she also decided to take the test. The more she heard about the job, the more excited she became. Remember, she did save that baby when she was just 14-years-old.

“Some people run away from the fire and some people are born to run into the fire,” she says. “It was like it (the job) called me and I wanted it. As much as I loved my students, my heart was already in the fire department.”

They took the written test in 2010 and waited for results. She was picked for the 2013 class, which graduated last year, but deferred to the 2014 class because she was pregnant with their second child, Vanessa. When the list opened up again, Cesar’s name was called and she was ready to enter the academy with him.

“I was jumping up and down,’’ he says when the acceptance letter arrived in August.

“I was crying,’’ she says.

Training was hectic because they both were still teaching. Veronica would leave the house at 4:30 a.m. to practice the obstacle course, a grueling series of agility and speed drills. Try wearing a 40-pound vest, then lugging a 50-pound sack up six steps and down six steps. Not once, but 12 times. And that was just one part of the test that turns the strongest legs into jelly.

When she came home to get ready for work, Cesar would leave for training. They were serious and determined, but none of it would have worked without a big lift from family members. His mother was at the house every morning by 6:30 a.m. to get Victoria, their 5-year-old daughter, ready for school. Her sisters picked up their niece and brought her home when school let out.

They didn’t realize they were making history, nor did they really care. They just wanted to be firefighters, a career that fulfills Cesar's dream and one that challenges Veronica and allows her time to care for her daughters. The shifts they work are 24 hours on the job and three days off. She can be at home while he’s working, and he’ll be at home when she’s on tour.

“We wanted it so bad,’’ she says.

There were three women firefighters in the Newark Fire Department’s history before Veronica and her classmate Aida Villalonga graduated this month. The first woman retired as a captain and the other is now a detective in the arson squad.

“We really have to praise these women for completing the test and ranking high above a lot of men to get employed,” says Fire Director James Stewart. “Men are stronger than women in speed and agility drills, and it’s difficult for women to compete against men.”

Stewart said the Garays did well in the academy and were looked upon highly during their training.

Last week, they started their first shifts.

It was everything they thought it would be.

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