When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter. 

I want to rush into buildings on the verge of collapse, where people are hanging for dear life from window ledges and hoping rescuers will see them and bring them safely down. 

I want to submerge in my subconscious the acrid stench of unidentified dust and melting steel -- or worse -- as I listen for the tap, tap, tap of fingers beneath rubble telegraphing:  "Over here! I'm over here!" 

And then, when I find a moment to myself, I will collapse in a heap of emotions beneath my helmet, convulse and with dirty hands wipe away my sooty tears. 

Then I will return to confront the horrible sight of people with no place to turn except to me. I get no bonuses, no  commissions, for each life saved. 

When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter. 

I want to be like Kirk Pritchard. The New York firefighter, along with countless others, risked his life in the rescue effort at the World Trade Center after its twin towers sustained aerial assaults. 

Armed only with hoses, ladders and pickaxes, firefighters faced the world's most diabolical foes: terrorists who had hijacked two commercial jets and used them as guided missiles to kill thousands of people. 

According to The New York Times, Pritchard's spine was  fractured after he was hit by falling debris. And yet -- and yet-- Pritchard managed to walk for hours trying to find others,  including fellow firefighters, who were trapped in the tangleof steel and concrete. 

He called out to them by name. Some answered. Some didn't. 

Whoever said our heroes wear Spandex or have phenomenal batting averages or hawk expensive athletic shoes and make six-figure salaries was wrong. 

Heroes look like Pritchard, bald and paralyzed and doped up on painkillers as they try to fathom, between slipping in and out of consciousness, whether they dreamed the whole gawd-awful mess. 

For Pritchard and others, their constant nightmare is worse than ours. The scenes on television that we can dismiss with a single channel change play over and again in their heads. It is constant and unrelenting. Every sense -- sight, taste, smell, touch and hearing -- is hauntingly fine-tuned to Sept. 11. 

Our heroes walk into burning buildings and carry out strangers. They never get the key to the city. But they sometimes get the kid hiding in a closet in a bedroom engulfed in flames. Or they get the once-steely office worker who clings fearfully to a handrail on a stairwell blocked by fire and smoke. 

Our heroes wear heavy coats, not red capes. They don't leap tall buildings in a single bound; they walk into towering infernos 100-plus stories high. They have singed mustaches and smudged faces. They have meat on their bones, and some have paunch over their belts. Sometimes they drink too much and sleep too little. Our heroes make mistakes. They are not perfect. 

When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter. 

I want to be like Mike Fitzpatrick. The New York firefighter told reporters about how he and others agonized over the  firefighter they had to leave behind. 

They had just begun to cut him free of the first tower's heap  when the second tower showed signs of giving way. They had to leave him. They lost sight of him in the mushroom of dust and smoke that followed. 

"We were trying to dig him out. We were trying to dig him out," Fitzpatrick repeated, as if trying to reconcile his narrow escape with his conscience. 

Our heroes are in constant turmoil about whether they did the  right thing, whether they acted quickly enough, whether they  could have done more. 

When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter, like the ones who worked with the Rev. Mychal Judge. Judge, the New York Fire Department chaplain, was administering last rites to a firefighter trapped by the first tower collapse. 

In reverence, Judge removed his fire helmet. Something struck his head and killed him. At his funeral Saturday, a fire  helmet was beside him in the casket. 

When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter. 

To reach Rhonda Chriss Lokeman, call (816) 234-4475 or send e-mail to lokeman@kcstar.com