Larry Busacca/Getty
Johnny Dodd
September 19, 2013 05:00 PM

In the split second before Detroit firefighter Brendan “Doogie” Milewski’s life went to pieces, he remembers hearing a voice yell, “It’s coming down.”

Milewski dropped his hose and – weighted down by nearly 50-pounds worth of gear – sprinted away as fast as he could from the two-story blaze he’d been fighting to extinguish. But within a couple of steps, as bricks rained down around him, a 300-pound block of limestone plummeted from the crumbling exterior and flattened him.

“I knew I was in trouble,” Milewski, 31, recalls. “I tried to do a pushup and slide my knees up to my chest to get myself out of there. But the only thing that would come off the ground were my shoulders.”

For the past three years, Milewski has been confined to a wheelchair, struggling with the grim news that he’s paralyzed. No longer able to fight fires, these days he s fighting to remind anyone who will listen of the extreme sacrifices firefighters make on a daily basis.

“Even though my legs don’t work, I still have a voice,” says Milewski, whose story – along with that of his former engine company coping with Detroit s fiscal crisis – is told in the award-winning, gritty documentary Burn. Instead of being seen as valued public servants like we were after 9-11, we’ve now become line items in a budget and legacy costs.

Milewski, whose inspiring message has touched countless people who have heard him speak at screenings for Burn, definitely knows what he’s talking about when it comes to bravery in the line of duty. Detroit has one of the highest arson rates in the world (roughly 30 fires each day) and he spent 11 years on the front lines, battling hundreds of man-made blazes – including the fire that ended up confining him to a wheelchair.

“No other place in the world burns like Detroit,” he says. “It’s kind of like the Wild West and no matter how much you train or how many fires you fight, there’s never any guarantee you’re going home in the morning when your shift is up.”

At a time when firefighters are facing salary and healthcare benefit cuts, along with layoffs, Milewski hopes to “put a face” on a profession that most people all too often see as “faceless.”

Brendan "Doogie" Milewski (center) with (from left) C.J. Deliberti and Hannah Cobb at DMC Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan
Matt Pappas

But becoming the poster boy for disabled firefighters hasn’t been easy. “You never hear about firemen who are permanently injured or disabled, partly because of the integrity we have,” he says. “It’s humiliating showing the world that you re not the big, tough fireman you used to be.”

Burn executive producer, actor Denis Leary insists Milewski is plenty tough.

“Doogie’s courage never ceases to amaze me,” says the star of the former FX hit series Rescue Me. “We need people like him protecting us.”


More Heroes Among Us:

New Jersey Girl Raises Money to Help Sick Children and Their Families

South Carolina Woman’s Dining Club Helps Women and Children Worldwide

Know a hero? Send suggestions to For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine

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