It is unsettling at midnight to look down from a seventh- floor apartment and see an ambulance being consumed by fire in the middle of the street.

That was two months ago in New York, and the three of us stood all suddenly alert at the window (one of us with her phone set to video mode), and then we agreed we had better get on our clothes and shoes and get down to street level pronto.

When we reached the sidewalk we were closer to the flames, which now were leaping as high as the fourth floor of the adjacent buildings. Faces appeared behind many apartment windows, well illuminated. Surprisingly bright also was the thin rope of burning oil that shot along the curb past our building, faster than any person could run.

We were moved down the street to a safer spot by some cops, already on the scene, guns on their hips, some in street clothes.

We heard some explosions and thought it must be the oxygen stored in the ambulance, but later a fire officer told our daughter it was the tires exploding. Dangerous enough, but he told her that if the oxygen tanks on board had exploded (they never did) it could have been much worse, and might have set the nearest buildings on fire.

“Thank goodness,” we all said when we heard that the ambulance was empty. We agreed it would be pretty bad luck indeed to suffer a heart attack and have the ambulance catch fire before you got to the hospital. We heard in the crowd that the driver had escaped without being burned, and he had called 911 on his own.

Dozens of firemen, grappling with hoses in their heavy gear, weighed down by air tanks, used their axes to break the back windows of cars parked too close and beginning to catch fire as well. They aimed jets of water at the burning ambulance and the cars and soon the flames gave way to clouds of steam.

By the next morning there was no sign of the ambulance or the damaged cars. Tow trucks had towed them all away. People flowed along the morning sidewalk towards their habitual coffee shops and subway stops, past a patch of scorched tar and broken glass where something dangerous had occurred just hours before.

In New York we hear sirens all the time. Sometimes we cover our ears from the din as fire trucks and ambulances and police cars make their way to somebody else’s emergency, in somebody else’s neighborhood.

A century ago, Rudyard Kipling had something to say about those among us whom we expect to be “on call,” “on the job,” or “on duty,” sometimes in the dead of night, or in the rain or the cold, somehow keeping our unheavenly cities functioning.

People such as engineers on the subways, bus drivers, tow truck drivers, delivery people, snow plow crews, road crews, cable repair crews, sanitation workers, air traffic controllers, radio dispatchers, cops and firemen, doctors and nurses and medical technicians, and ambulance crews.

Kipling knew the biblical story of the two sisters who were called to entertain an important visitor. One sister sat spellbound before the visitor’s words. Meanwhile, the sister named Martha was run off her feet, “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” And so Martha appealed to the visitor, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” In the story at least, he doesn’t.

Kipling dedicated some lines to those “Sons of Martha” as he called them — the people who are always there to get the job done:

As in the thronged and the lighted ways / so in the dark and the desert they stand /

Wary and watchful all their days / that their brethren’s days may be long in the land …

Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven / not as a witness to any creed /

But simple service simply given / to their own kind in their common need.

The Strand in Rockland last week was showing a film about the children’s TV show we used to call “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Toward the end of this moving and thought-provoking film, Fred Rogers (who once trained to be a minister but found instead his calling to address the common need of children for simple language about serious things) says quietly to the camera, and to all who would listen:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”