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"One year later, we're still burying our dead."
By Helen O'Neill, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Sitting on a beach in Cape Cod midsummer, the memories washed over him, jolting him, without warning, back to the horror.
For a moment, he imagined he was back on the pile, perched in all his fraility amongst the wretched panorama of smoke and smells and mangled steel, everything reaching skyward, everything scorched by hopelessness and death.
And he thought of the dead and how their ghosts haunt the firehouse, sometimes inspiring, sometimes unnerving, always there.
And he thought of all the eulogies he has delivered, all the widows he has comforted, all the wrenching decisions he has made trying to guide his men.
And he fingered the copper bracelet on his wrist that once belonged to Carl Asaro -- handsome, talented Carl -- his driver, his confidante, whom he loved like a son.
Alone among the dunes, the veteran fire chief wept.
And this is what he concluded and what he tells his men: It will always be with us, wherever we go, this terrible scar, these terrible memories, this terrible time.
"Where are we now?" Battalion 9 Chief Joseph Nardone asks, back at the firehouse at the end of the summer. He gives a huge, weary sigh.
"Who knows where we are. One year later, we're still burying our dead."
The tiny park across the street from the firehouse is a serene, shaded place with newly planted saplings, silver picnic tables and a cool gray cobblestone court.
In the center, a black granite fountain is engraved with the names of 15 firefighters.
Edward Geraghty. David Wooley. Daniel O'Callaghan.
A year ago they raced, with the others, from the little brown-brick firehouse at the corner of 8th Avenue and 48th Street to the World Trade Center. They never returned.
The park was created in their honor, a place for their families to leave flowers, for the public to pay tribute, for their "brothers" in Engine 54 and Ladder 4 and Battalion 9 to pause and remember and reflect.
Many of the firefighters do just that, stopping by the park when their busy shifts are over, to bow their heads, to ponder the past year, to say a prayer -- often for the living as much as the dead.
In the park, says the chief, you get a break from the grief.
There's an old saying among firefighters that the best way to bring a firehouse closer is to experience a lot of fires -- or one death. The "Broadway firehouse," as this theater district station is known, is considered one of the busiest in the city, possibly the world. It averages 14,000 runs a year, alarms ringing so often that some firefighters don't bother getting out of their turnout gear. Their motto is Never Missed a Performance.
But, until a year ago, they hadn't had much practice with death.
On Sept. 11 the firehouse suffered one of the worst losses of any in the city. Fifteen men -- an entire shift -- perished.
"I guess that makes us really close," says firefighter Jimmy Cooney with a sardonic smile. "But the reality is I don't think we could have been much closer."
Closeness is what the firehouse is all about, these men who eat together and bunk together, who cook and clean and shop together, who run into burning buildings together with a sense of duty and fearlessness and pride. And when they leave the firehouse and head home, they socialize together, helping each other build basements, fix roofs, work jobs on the side. Brothers, they call each other, and in every sense they are.
Sons have followed fathers and grandfathers into this firehouse. Wives joke that the men are so close, their babies all arrive around the same time. There's a photograph, taken a few years ago, of eight of the guys holding newborns. One of the new fathers perished in the towers.
Those who survived will never be the same.
Some have taken mental health leave, or are getting counseling for the first time in their lives. Others acknowledge they should be.
Weighing heavier than the grief, say some, is the guilt, especially among men who traded shifts with those who died.
And so, even one year later, no one in the firehouse talks of moving on. And "healing" seems an altogether inadequate word for the creeping sense of normalcy that is finally taking hold.
Gone are the mountains of flowers and candles and cakes and cards that piled up in front of the firehouse in those first days and weeks.
Gone are the celebrities -- John Travolta, who taught dance moves in the kitchen, Liz Taylor, who slipped in and graciously signed autographs, Don King, who swaggered in with so many cameras that some of the guys walked out in disgust.
Even the widows don't visit as often.
But the ghosts are everywhere, tugging at emotions and memories, smiling from the flag-draped photographs on the wall, their names still scrawled on the roster boards, untouched since Sept. 11.
Today new rosters hang beneath them, one for Engine 54, one for Ladder 4, listing the daily duties of the living. The juxtaposition seems especially jarring some days, when the guys are too exhausted and the reminders are too painful and the guilt too overwhelming. And other days it feels just right.
"They are still such a strong presence in this firehouse," says firefighter Billy Dunigan. "We still think about them and talk about them every day."
But, he adds, "there's more grinning than crying when we remember them these days."
And yet tears are never far away.
Some of the men say they can't bear to go to any more funerals, which are still being held throughout the department as DNA analysis painstakingly confirms the identity of more remains.
Some say they can't bear an anniversary either.
"How can you think about an anniversary," asks firefighter Pat Parrot, "when it's not over, when we haven't brought all our brothers home."
The remains of only eight of the 15 lost from this firehouse have been identified.
And yet much of the hurly burly of firehouse life remains the same, if only because it is so busy. In the kitchen the jokes fly back and forth the way they always did, hamburgers still get burnt on the grill, the groans are just as loud when the alarm sounds at lunchtime and the men leap onto their rigs leaving yet another meal to get cold.
The rigs are new, replacing those lost at the towers. There are new faces too, like 25-year-old Marc Dore, whose first day on the job, first day hauling a hose, first day in his new firefighting gear and helmet, was on Sept. 11.
A few days earlier Captain David Wooley had welcomed Dore into the firehouse, his quiet authority making the nervous young "probie" feel immediately at ease. Brawny Mike Brennan, with his mischievous eyes and pierced tongue (Brennan's way of getting around department regulations prohibiting "facial adornments") had shown Dore his locker. Lenny "Rags" Ragaglia had shown him the rigs.
Dore went home that night thrilled. Over the phone he told his parents he had met the greatest bunch of guys in the world.
A year later Dore has been to their funerals, fought fires in their place, sat in their spots at the kitchen table, heard so many stories that sometimes he feels he knows the dead better than the living. "They inspire me," he says.
The living inspire him too.
Men like Chief Charlie Williams, who spent three relentless months on duty at ground zero, who identified and carried out the bodies of friends, who didn't realize how much he had suffered until he came home and couldn't function and couldn't sleep and couldn't bring himself to talk about the horrors he had witnessed at "the saddest place on earth."
And yet there were moments in the pit that Williams wouldn't have traded with anyone. In early March, on his watch, firefighters found the remains of six men from Ladder 4: Daniel O'Callaghan, Joe Angelini, Michael Haub, Sam Otice, Mike Brennan and John Tipping. They were buried beneath the rubble of the south tower.
It was an honor, Williams says, to carry Danny home.
In the firehouse too, men discovered an inner strength that sometimes surprised them.
Lieutenant Bob Jackson, burly, blustery LBJ as he is called, who tears through the firehouse like a tornado -- bellowing orders, making decisions, wisecracking all the while -- became a rock for the widows and children. Early on, Jackson and three others, Joe Cerevolo, Keith Kern and Joe Polisino, were taken off regular duty to act as liaison for the families. They organized memorials and funerals, bulldozed through red tape to help with identification and death certificates, broke the news to the children, and stood by the widows during some of their most painful moments -- like last pilgrimages to the firehouse to clean out the lockers of the dead.
"We circled the wagons for the widows," Jackson says. "And we still do."
And on days when they felt they had nothing more to give, when they thought their hearts would break under the strain, something always seemed to happen to give them a renewed sense of purpose.
Like the day a woman walked into the firehouse, nervous and thankful, to meet the widows of the men she believed had saved her life.
Trapped in an elevator in the south tower, she had fallen into a shaft when the building shook. A group of firefighters found her and, lowering one man down by his ankles, pulled her to safety. She escaped from the building moments before it collapsed
In the firehouse kitchen, the widows showed her pictures, begged her to remember details, anything, however small. What did the men look like? What were their last words?
The remains of their husbands had been found near the elevators. Had this stranger been the last person to see their men alive?
But the woman only shook her head and sobbed. She couldn't be sure of anything, she said. She wished she could give them more.
The widows cried too. But they took enormous comfort from her story. And when they went home they told their children about the woman whose life their fathers had saved.
There have been other moments of comfort, other little victories over grief.
One brisk, sunny morning last spring, firefighters held a ceremony to dedicate the park across the street. Some celebrities were invited: Broadway stars who had been good to the firehouse, the governor's wife, some fire department brass.
But the politicians didn't speak, and the stars didn't sing -- much as they wanted to.
Instead, a fireman's wife sang, "Where Eagles Dare."
And Chief Nardone gave the speech of his life -- an eloquent, moving tribute to the men who had died. In tender, vivid vignettes he remembered each one: Paul Gill painting the Maltese cross on the sidewalk outside the firehouse, "Big Mike" Lynch scrambling to get his gear during late-night alarms and looking so frantic they called him "the midnight prancer," Al Feinberg joking about how lucky the firehouse was to have a good Jewish firefighter to run things at Christmas and Easter.
Choking back tears, Nardone vowed that their memories would endure "as long as we live and longer."
One year later Nardone is surprised at the rawness of the memories and the readiness of tears. One year later he is surprised at being ambushed by grief at the strangest of times -- like alone on the beach in midsummer. Many in the firehouse feel the same.
And so, the chief cannot even begin to answer the question he is asked all the time: How is the firehouse surviving, how are the men doing?
"Who knows where we are," Nardone says, sitting at his desk in the firehouse, beneath a chart that lists the names of those who bodies have been found, and those who have not.
"We're still here," the chief says. "We're still struggling through."
One year later, they are still burying their dead.