Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Vito Maggiolo pushes a tape into the VCR, sits down, and adjusts his prized black baseball cap. A gift from the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department’s Lt. Walter Webb, the hat has “Rescue Squad 1, Washington, D.C.” written across the front and “DA BUFF” embroidered on the back. It doesn’t really help the 50-year-old filmmaker look more like a fireman: He’s short and more than stocky, with a salt-and-pepper beard and black-framed glasses with thick lenses. But for the small, attentive crowd of firefighters, he’s one of the guys.
The film he’s showing in this second-floor room of Squad 1’s firehouse at 6th and F Streets NW is Capital Blazes 7, a 95-minute account of 15 fires that smoldered in the District this year, with bonus coverage of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. As the flames roll by, Maggiolo reels off an exhaustive, jargony blow-by-blow of each fire in his high-pitched, Bronx-inflected lilt.
The two-alarmer in a church at 22nd and Jackson Streets NE is, he says, a “surround-and-drown” job. As ladder pipes soak the exterior of the building’s white tower, the frame fills with thick gray smoke. A slow zoom reveals the source of the dark cloud: orange flames tucked away inside pinched oval windows near the roof.
“I try to frame my shots to show the fire and the firefighters, to try to compress as much activity as I can into one shot,” explains Maggiolo, who has served as D.C. Fire and EMS’s unofficial videographer for the past 12 years. “A lot of people go to a fire and they take pictures of flames coming out windows, and you can look at flames coming out windows for 10 seconds and it becomes boring. For me, it’s showing the firefighters at work, showing the juxtaposition of the firefighting activity with the fire itself.”
As he speaks, he holds the always-chattering department radio to his ear, for fear of missing the chance to document another fire. A few minutes after the last of the Capital Blazes has been put out, Maggiolo’s body tenses: The fluorescent lights in the ceiling of the makeshift screening room start to blink and a telltale chirp comes over the firehouse PA as the radio traffic intensifies. Maggiolo is up and racing for the door in an instant.
“We better hurry,” he shouts, his footsteps echoing as they pound down the first of three flights. He reaches ground level just in time to see the squad’s engine scream away, lights flashing, a firefighter staring at him out the back.
“Come on, we’ll catch up in my car,” he says.
Though this call turns out to be a bust—a basement furnace belching a bit of smoke—in the 24 years he’s lived around the District, Maggiolo has been to hundreds of serious fires, often riding in the back of the truck with Rescue Squad 1. “They sometimes joke about the fact that I’m the senior man on the squad,” he says. “I’ve got more time there than anyone else.”
Ever since growing up in New York, Maggiolo has been a fixture at the local fire station. “My dad died when I was 10, very suddenly and very unexpectedly,” he recalls. “I had already been hanging around the firehouse, but the guys in that house [in the Bronx], who I had sort of grown up with to begin with, they became my role models and my father figures and my surrogate dads. That’s something I’ll always be appreciative of.”
Through his time at the station, the young Maggiolo picked up item after item of fire-department minutiae, which served him well on a trip to the New York City Fire Department Museum. “Right after we walk in, the bell starts ringing,” he remembers. “The off-duty fireman who was working there looks down at me and says, ‘You know what those bells mean?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir. They just special-called Engine 24 to Box 596.’”
His poor eyesight meant that Maggiolo never got his dreams of a career in the fire service off the ground. After graduating from New York’s Lehman College with a degree in mass communications, he hoped to become a print journalist. Instead, he got into television when a friend whose company sold footage of breaking news to local stations asked him to help out. In 1978, Maggiolo moved to the Washington region to work as a technical contractor for the Independent Television News Association. When the fledgling CNN started up two years later, he signed on. He first become familiar with handheld video cameras when he covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and he currently works for CNN as an assignment editor.
Maggiolo started hanging out and riding with Squad 1 soon after moving to the area, becoming the self-proclaimed “buff of the house.” “I think a fire buff is somebody who has an interest in the fire service—and not just a casual, the little-boy ‘I want to look at the big red trucks’ kind of interest,” he explains. “It’s an understanding of the culture of the fire service, the science of firefighting, the history of it.”
Maggiolo suggests that each fire buff has a particular niche. Along with videography, his is the radio. He listens, he says, to “everything I can hear,” which encompasses transmissions from D.C., Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Fairfax County, Arlington, and Alexandria. When he goes to the dinner table, so does his handset. Maggiolo’s 1996 Crown Victoria, which was made to be a police car, is a hi-tech pincushion: Six antennas sprouting from the roof correspond to six different radios that fill the car with the voices of every dispatcher within shrieking distance.
“It’s just kind of given with Vito that if there’s a major fire, he’s gonna go to it,” says Maggiolo’s wife, Colleen Reeks, 52, who works as the assistant manager of the Indian Craft Shop at the Department of the Interior. She says that she was prepared for most of Maggiolo’s fire-born eccentricities, and she even good-naturedly recalls how she and her husband once missed a wedding when Maggiolo darted out of the house to attend to a burning building. But it took her a while to come to terms with the radios.
“I got used to it pretty quickly, but there certainly were nights when I would’ve liked to have thrown them all out the window,” Reeks says. “He would have his scanners just blaring all night long. Then he moved on to getting speakers that you could put under the pillow.”
Maggiolo, who lives with Reeks just over the District line in Silver Spring, prides himself on being able to get to every big fire in the area, so he makes sure to keep his cell phone, two-way radio, and fire-department pager close by at all times. “I just hope they don’t all go off at once,” he jokes. “I’ll vibrate to death.”
At least two days a week, Maggiolo leaves his office near Union Station and heads over to hang out with Squad 1. He eats dinner and bullshits with the guys while they wait around for the next run. Maggiolo gets his share of ribbing—one of his nicknames around the firehouse is “Fat Bastard”—but says he’d be worried if he weren’t the butt of the occasional joke.
Lately, the squad has been calling him “Mr. Fire Prevention”: The District always seems to burst into flames as soon as he heads home. But when there’s a hot streak, Maggiolo is able to place about one of every three calls he shoots into his two ongoing video series: the seven-volume Capital Blazes, and the so-far two-volume Capital Rescues, which records the squad’s non-fire-related derring-do.
Larry Smith, who sells the tapes in the two series for $24.95 apiece through his Kensington, Md., fire-paraphernalia company, Advanced Print and Video, says that Maggiolo’s work is a cut above other fire videographers’. “When he gives me footage to duplicate or edit—usually with others it probably takes three or four hours—with Vito it takes maybe 30 minutes over the actual time,” Smith says. “There’s no sidewalk shots. There’s no sky shots. There’s no crap in the middle. I don’t know—he’s got a knack for it.”
Descriptors of the most popular videos on sale at Advanced enthusiastically promise “The quarters of ENGINE 82 on FIRE!” “All Scenes have HEAVY FIRE!!!!” and “ALL BRONX ACTION!!!” But fire buffs aren’t necessarily flame-obsessed: Smith says that one of his most popular video series is called Riding With FDNY, which features no flames—just a single camera sitting on a fire truck as it drives around.
Smith reports that he’s sold more than 500 of Maggiolo’s tapes over the past five years. But one of the biggest consumers of Maggiolo’s output gets the tapes gratis: D.C. Fire and EMS. Immediately after a job, firefighters will often watch Maggiolo’s video to review their technique. And Maggiolo’s award-winning music video “Holding Out for a Hero,” which features D.C. firefighters working to the strains of Bonnie Tyler, is a fixture at medal presentations. The filmmaker also sends all of his raw footage to the firefighters’ training academy.
“A lot of times, chiefs who are maybe preparing a lecture, or there’s some technique that they want to show,” he says, “they’ll go through my footage and select those shots that can represent what it is they’re trying to teach.”
Some of Maggiolo’s footage ends up on local television stations, too. Maggiolo gives away this work, like the videos he donates to the fire department, for free. When he does earn proceeds from the sale of his videos, he donates a significant portion to the Friendship Fire Association, a group that drives a custom-built field kitchen and a small bus to local fires, providing food and shelter for working firemen.
Maggiolo will soon be heading off to Qatar for a month to cover the potential war with Iraq for CNN, but in the meantime, he’s trying to capture as much fire footage as possible. He doesn’t know when he’ll have enough material for another installment of Capital Blazes—in the fire-video business, there are no set release dates. So for now, Maggiolo’s plans for the future remain modest.
“I’ve been satisfied with seeing my material used in some significant projects,” he says. “I may someday down the road produce a fire-service documentary, but it’s not something I’m particularly obsessed with.” CP