It seems so recent, so planted near the surface of the psyche, that it is hard to acknowledge that almost four hundred days have passed. The city's skyscrapers seem to shake as I study them through the sheets of early morning rain. Perhaps they are nervous and uncertain like I am, like any one of us in the fire service might be today. The day of ceremony and memory has arrived. It is an important day.
We are in bumper-grating traffic on Seventh Avenue. I think of the numerous times I have been on this same road, bumping south on Fashion Avenue, heading for Madison Square Garden, tickets in hand for basketball or hockey games, for circuses or rodeos, ice spectaculars or bagpipe competitions. But, the gray pallor of the wet city redounds on any sense of joy that normally comes with visiting the Garden. This is not a normal day with normal expectations, but a day of remembering the worst day in our history. I can feel the gravity of purpose with every drop of rain and every gust of wind.
"It won't be easy getting to thirty-forth Street,"" the cab driver says.
The blasts and screeches of the car horns are as annoying as the stalled traffic.
"Get as close as you can," I answer, "and I'll walk.""
It is a Saturday. There are no racks of designer clothes being pushed by truckers along the side streets of the garment center, and the weather has swept the sidewalks of the usual end of summer midtown hordes. But the Avenue is jammed with cars and cabs, and there are limousines seen in every direction - the Hollywood stretch types, white and as long as the front of a movie marquee, and the smaller ones, black and conservative. The limos are lined as far as I can see down the Avenue, one for every family, three hundred and fifty six in all.
I think of the firefighters, more than fifty thousand of them from every state in the union and some from Europe, many mustering at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, just four blocks west from where twelve firefighters fell through a floor and into the fire in 1966 - until now the worst disaster in New York's firefighting history. The rest are huddled at 14th Street, waiting to be marched through the wind and the rain. An honor band of bagpipers from fire departments throughout the country will follow the lead of the Emerald Society pipers of FDNY. Behind them will be a contingent of American flag bearers, 356 flags borne by America's Bravest from across the land. They have traveled to stand straight, rain or shine, to carry an American flag that will represent a valorous life given in the line of duty. Each flag bearer knows the name of the person the flag honors - three hundred and forty three active firefighters, three retired firefighters, and one member of the Fire Patrol (the insurance underwriters� salvage corps) who died that fateful day of September 11th, 2001, and nine firefighters who have died in the line of duty in the previous months of 2001, or in the eleven months since. Three hundred and fifty six flag bearers - each one thinking of a hero�s name as the rain soaks through the wool of his or her uniform.
The image brings me back to Boston where I attended the funerals of eight firefighters who died at the Vendome Building fire in 1972, and the rain that fell on that sad day. Thousands of firefighters were quickly passed a clear plastic raincoat and a pair of white gloves, donated by an unnamed citizen to keep them a little dry, and to present a sense of white gloved uniformity. On this day, though, no one has thought of providing raincoats, and the chill of the constant curtain of rain and wind is taken as a badge of what will be a proud memory, for no inconvenience can compare to the loss that moves us today.
The cab gets to 33rd Street, and I dash to dry safety beneath the entryway of the Garden. There is a bobbing wave of men and women in blue uniforms, and I fall naturally into its movement, exchanging greetings to the many I know, and nodding "How ya doing?" to those I don't.
"Hey Dennis," one calls to me, "I haven't seen you since the 149th Street job, on that roof, remember, with Buddy Croce, when it caved."
"I just got a letter from Buddy," I answer. "He's in Virginia living the good life"
There is something to remember about every fire, I think, and when this man and I and Buddy were together in the 70's we responded from fire to fire, sometimes never getting back to the firehouse for dinner. There were so many fires, and so many memories. I don't remember the fire he cites, but I suppose no one died and no one was hospitalized, for I never forget those fires.
I make my way through the maze of corridors to my gate, and then my section, and then my row. Another man calls my name. It is Dan Potter who comes from my old firehouse on Intervale Avenue. He was caught by the collapse of the South Building, and then again by the collapse of the North Building, as he sought to find his wife who was on the 81st floor of the North Tower, just a hundred feet from the plane as it hit. He injured enough bones in his body from the fall of those buildings that the department would not let him back to full duty.
"How's retirement Dan?" I ask.
"Okay. I'm teaching rescue procedures to the volunteer firefighters on Long Island." It is reassuring that Dan has found a way to keep something of a career that was cut short by the fall of the twin towers. So many lives have been lost, and so many lives have been changed so thoroughly.
The Garden has a dull, echoless sound as I move around it. As the 2500 firefighters and families arrive, this quiet sound slowly changes to chatter, like in a lobby at a musical's intermission. The firefighters are not mourning, for they have already been through a few hundred funerals and memorial services. They have held the widows by the elbows and the children by the hands, and they have left tears on the backs of pews. They seem positive and resolute, but not sad. This is a day to pay homage to our history, to show the families of our heroes that the heroism for which they have so dearly paid will never be forgotten.
Looking across the Garden's main floor I can see many friends. Joe Pfeifer who lost his brother Kevin is there, and Jim Boyle who lost his son Michael, and Lee Ielpi who lost his son Jonathan. And, hundreds of others, each family joined by a department escort who will present the honors.
Rimming the ceiling are oil portraits by Peter Max of the fallen firefighters. Below them the stage is set in blue, centered by an inscribed bronze plaque. There is a wreath of 356 red and white roses set between two groups of sitting officials. On the left are the 17 uniformed fire chiefs, the power and intelligence of the department, and on the right there are 17 civilian dignitaries. No one is introduced, for this day is not about dignitaries. The plaque symbolizes all the plaques that will today be dedicated in the firehouse throughout the city, and this one bears the name of the first recorded loss of the World Trade Center, Father Mychal Judge.
The city's Fire Chief, Frank Cruthers, arrives at the podium, and the crowd comes immediately to silence as anticipation turns to expectation. The Chief speaks of Athens, how we all defend our civilization, and how duty is determined by character.
A gospel group sings of the homeless, and we are reminded of a larger world of suffering. Harold Schaitberger, the president of the international firefighters' union, speaks of General McArthur, the poetry of dedication, and workers in arms. Former Mayor Giuliani speaks of lost leaders, of Bill Feehan, Ray Downey, and Father Judge. On the television screens above we can see the 50,000 firefighters, the pipes and the flags waving, marching briskly through the rain.
Mayor Bloomberg speaks so certainly of preparedness and future and change, the change that we must all understand is on the horizon. We are left with the thought of a new world order, and then Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta speaks of the tradition of firefighting.
A Battalion Chief begins to call the roll of honor, and a huge photo of each firefighter appears on the Garden screens. In the background four horns play a slow fanfare, and it reminds me of the music of royalty. The names are heard, recognized, and remembered, each one, for what they did and what they gave, 356 strong. It takes nearly forty minutes, a pause after each name for remembrance. Never before had so many made an active, on the scene choice to so forthrightly risk their lives and the futures of their families and friends. They knew the danger, and yet they went in, and climbed the stairs to reach those thousands of fellow human beings who needed them.
A string quartet plays "The Wearin' O' the Green" in a dirge tempo, and as the music ends, the names end. The Battalion Chief calls for the 356 department escorts to rise, and to present the satin lined box of medals to the families. I see Joe Pfeifer present the mahogany box to his parents. The box is open, and holds four medals of Honor. I can see the Tiffany medal in 22k vermeille, The Medal of Valor, struck especially for those who perished in the line of duty on September 11, 2001. And for all the fallen firefighters there are the department's Medal of Supreme Sacrifice, the Uniformed Firefighter's Association's and the International Association of Fire Fighter's medals of honor. Mr. and Mrs. Pfeifer take the box in their four hands, and I wonder what it is they are thinking, just as I look about the Garden and wonder what are the thoughts of the other 255 families? Most of the families are young. There are so many children, and so many tears.
A spontaneous burst of applause begins. It is loud and forceful, and it has the energy of 25,000 people, men, women and children. This force lingers for a while, and then undulates. Suddenly, as if everyone in Madison SquareGarden has come to realize that this applause has a meaning that goes much beyond mere applause, that it is a voice of despair and yearning and anguish, the Garden erupts into a wild cheer. People are yelling at the top of their lungs, and it is sustained, on and on, until it diminishes by just a decibel or two. And then the clapping rises again, and the yelling, and it begins to be supported by a rising whistling. The whistling grows and grows like a brush stroke around the arena, and it is loud and shrill and sustained, like the whistle of a huge steam engine, forcing the sound through the ears and the mind and the body. I can feel the vibrations rushing through my body, and I suddenly feel so connected to every person around me as each claps and whistles and yells, a manifestation now of something bigger than appreciation and honor, this acclamation has become an act of love and pride. It continues through the first minute and then the second. I can tell it will not end, not until these firefighters release the 397 days of pain and grief and anger they have internalized, the profound sorrow they carry within themselves every waking moment and most of their angst-filled nights.
The roar continues on and on, for four minutes, and then for five. The Battalion Chief holds his hands up momentarily, but the crowd cheers louder in response. Mayor Bloomberg moves to the front of the stage, and I feel for him. His natural inclination is to take charge, to focus and direct the energy of others, but here in this din he reconsiders, and steps back. Six minutes. The whistling begins again, sharply. It goes up and down, musical to shrill, louder and louder. Eight minutes. I can feel the blood rushing through the veins of my neck as I continue the clapping, and I can sense a joy in this room among the firefighters as they realize that they are letting these families know how much their fallen loved ones were loved by all, that the love will continue and be sustained, and that this moment will carry our children forward proudly in their remembrance. This is a moment of recognizing the magnificence of lives well lived, of celebrating the heroism that has grown from the pureness of heart.
At nine minutes the applause ebbs slowly and then, satisfied, accepts an end. Madison Square Garden is again silent, and the Memorial Celebration is over.
On the way out I meet Charlie McCarthy, a man I worked with for many years in a South Bronx firehouse. He is now a retired Lieutenant, and in the midst of the throng in the section corridor of the Garden, he presents his son. I can hear the pride in his voice, as he says, "Say hello to Jim."
Jim McCarthy is wearing the uniform of a New York firefighter, and to see these two men together brings me to understand why the New York Fire Department will transcend this mortal injury it has suffered, and flourish in good deeds long into the future.