Postcards from New York
On a crisp December morning, more than 1000 firefighters from across the nation lined a half-mile stretch of road leading to a small church in Deer Park, New York. They came to pay their respects to Raymond Downey, the most decorated firefighter in the history of New York City. The 63-year-old Downey was killed September 11, crushed in the collapse of the second World Trade Center tower. Since his body has yet to be recovered, there was no casket for a caisson to carry. Instead there was a procession of fire trucks, the lead engine bearing a bed of red, white, and blue carnations arranged in the shape of an American flag. Atop the flowers rested Downey's battered white helmet.
As the line of fire trucks approached the entrance to the Long Island church, bagpipers and drummers from the fire department's Emerald Society played a mournful rendition of "Danny Boy." With police sharpshooters evident on the church's roof and several neighboring buildings, New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani stood in front of Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church alongside Downey's wife of 40 years, Rosalie, their five children, and seven grandchildren waiting for the procession to arrive.
The memorial mass lasted almost three hours. Renowned Irish tenor Ronan Tynan performed three hymns, including "Ave Maria," and Tony Award-winning actress Christine Ebersole sang "Amazing Grace." Eulogies were presented by Pataki, Guiliani, the city's fire commissioner, two fellow firefighters, all five of Downey's children, and two of his grandchildren.
In the New York Fire Department (FDNY), Downey held the rank of deputy chief and was in charge of an elite agency within the department known as Special Operations, whose members train for the worst disasters. Last June, on Father's Day, when a warehouse fire claimed the lives of three firefighters, Special Operations was given the task of recovering their bodies from the still burning building.
Downey also pioneered what is now commonly referred to as Urban Search and Rescue Teams. Those are the teams dispatched around the world following, for example, a devastating earthquake. Today Miami and Miami-Dade County fire departments have their own urban search and rescue teams modeled on the work Downey did in New York.
It was Downey who took a group of New York firefighters to Oklahoma City in 1995 following Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the federal office building. Downey and his men recovered more bodies from the rubble than any other group brought in to assist.
"I feel everyone has a purpose in life, and Dad's was purely evident on September 11," said Downey's eldest son, Joseph, himself a New York fire captain. Another of Downey's sons, Chuck, is a lieutenant in the FDNY.
"Throughout his life, and especially on that day, he was willing to lead by example and give it all he had," Joseph Downey continued. "After the [first] tower came down, without hesitation he returned to the collapse to help as many people as possible."
It is widely believed that after the first tower collapsed, Downey was trying to make it into the second tower to pull his men out when that building fell as well. "I didn't need September 11 to tell me who my hero was," said Ray Downey, Jr. "As great a fireman as my father was, he was a much better dad."
Although Ray Jr. isn't a firefighter, he donned an extra set of his brother's gear so he could sneak into restricted areas of the site in the days and weeks following the attacks to search for his father. Since he was wearing one of his brother's fire coats, with "Joseph Downey" stenciled on the back, whenever he would hear a firefighter call out his brother's name, he would quickly turn and walk away. He apologized at the mass to all those firefighters who must have thought his brother was being rude.
A letter from President George W. Bush was read during the mass by David Paulison, the former director of the Miami-Dade County Fire Department who was recently sworn in as U.S. fire administrator. Attending Downey's funeral was one of Paulison's first official acts in his new post.
After the mass Downey was given a 21-gun salute by a Marine honor guard, as a group of fire and police department helicopters, flying in the "missing-man formation," passed low over the church. The bagpipers then played "God Bless America."
This was the first memorial mass I had attended for any of the 343 firefighters killed on September 11. I was told that Downey's was the 318th service held. During those first few weeks after the attack, there were upward of five memorial masses or funerals held every day, twice as many on Saturdays.
Funerals are held if there are remains to be buried. If no body has been recovered, then a memorial mass is held. If a body -- or more likely a part of a body -- is later found, then a funeral is conducted. So far rescue workers at the World Trade Center site have recovered more than 11,000 unidentified body parts that await DNA analysis.
Although Downey's memorial service may have been larger than most, I'm told from firefighters and others that it was typical of the memorial services and funerals held for the other firefighters. Nobody comes close to producing a funeral or memorial as well as New York's fire department. There is no rival to the pomp and circumstance, the solemnity, and the tradition. "It's a shame they are so good at it," says Paulison. "Unfortunately they've had a lot of practice."
Downey's memorial in New York was the first chance I'd had to see Paulison since he was selected by President Bush to become the U.S. fire administrator, a senior position with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Although we didn't have a chance to talk after the December 15 service, we did speak last week about Downey, the World Trade Center site, his new job, and his tenure in Miami.
"Everyone knew Ray," says Paulison. "He was a father figure for all of those urban search and rescue guys around the country." Two teams from South Florida went to New York following September 11, and Paulison first visited the site in late fall. "Seeing it in person was unbelievable," he recalls. "The pictures on television don't do it justice, and I have yet to read anybody who can describe it accurately enough to capture the devastation."
The 54-year-old Paulison now oversees the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) in Maryland, which offers specialized training to lieutenants and captains from fire departments around the country on the latest firefighting techniques. The USFA also conducts research to develop new equipment and protective clothing for firefighters. It acts as a clearinghouse for information on fires around the nation and conducts a national fire-safety education campaign aimed at children. In addition the USFA provides more than $100 million in grants every year to poorer fire departments in need of new equipment.
Paulison, who a few years ago was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, had been a critic of the USFA in the past, arguing that it needed to be led by someone with fire-department experience. When the administrator's position opened last year, Paulison submitted his name. "I don't know how I was selected," he maintains, "but I was happy I was." He was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate this past November 30 and sworn in soon afterward.
A firefighter in Miami-Dade County for 30 years, Paulison became director of the department in June 1992, two months before Hurricane Andrew struck. "That was a fine greeting," he remembers. During his tenure as director, Paulison helped rebuild a department that was unable to keep up with the rapid population growth in South Florida. In addition to covering all the unincorporated areas of the county, Miami-Dade also provides fire protection to 25 municipalities. "We didn't have enough fire stations or personnel, and our response times were horrendous," he admits.
In 1994 Paulison, working with the fire department unions and rank-and-file officers, won voter approval for a $59 million bond issue. It was the only bond issue passed that year. As a result nineteen new fire stations have been built. Paulison also sought grants and money from other sources to update equipment. "Our breathing apparatuses were out of date and didn't meet the minimum qualifications for safety," he says.
Seven years ago the county's Office of Emergency Management, formerly run by Kate "Where's the Cavalry" Hale, was folded into the fire department, allowing for greater coordination and service.
Paulison's years as director, however, were not without problems. One major issue centered on who governs the fire department. There is a Miami-Dade County Board of Fire Commissioners, made up of five elected representatives, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you the names of any of them. Based on the stories I've heard and read (see "As the Fire Board Turns," August 12, 1999), they seem like a group of doddering idiots consumed by their sense of self-importance.
While the fire board can hire and fire the head of the department, the county commission is responsible for allocating the fire department its $200 million annual budget. But since the fire department is still considered a department within the county, the director also answers to the county manager and ultimately to the county mayor.
The result is that the fire board, the county commission, the county manager, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, as well as the city managers and mayors of the 25 cities the fire department serves, all believe they have a right to exert some level of control over the department and its director. "Something needs to change," Paulison deadpans. "They can't continue the way they are going, because the way it is set up now is poor public policy. The line of authority is not clear and it needs to be. My preference is that the department be managed under the auspices of the county manager's office. From a government standpoint that would make the most sense."
Unfortunately efforts over the years to abolish the fire board have failed when presented to the voters. The issue has appeared on ballots when there have been exceptionally low turnouts and the questions have been confusing.
Perhaps the greatest controversy surrounding Paulison's fire department came at the very end of his tenure: the post-9/11 debacle surrounding three black firefighters who supposedly refused to ride on a truck bearing the American flag. Paulison placed the three men on paid leave while an investigation of the matter was conducted. He says he does not regret that decision, believing that if the men had stayed on active duty as the incident generated nationwide publicity, their lives could have been in danger. "I felt that if they were on duty," he says, "there could be some hostile developments."
Paulison blames the media for creating the controversy. "The media got carried away without letting us do our investigation," he observes. Although Paulison's statement certainly is true, it is not entirely complete. South Florida media outlets such as WSVN-TV (Channel 7) may have blown the story out of proportion, but there were those within his own administration who incited the media's interest and then fueled it for days with bad information. The men were portrayed as radical Muslims when in fact none was a Muslim.
As Paulison left the department for his new job in Washington, the firefighters were cleared of the more serious charges against them. They did not remove an American flag from their fire truck out of disdain for what the flag represents but rather because it was blocking their line of sight. The department, however, was still trying to find a way to punish the men for, among other things, making imprudent comments to the media.
The attack on these men should be stopped immediately, a sentiment Paulison appears to share. "I wasn't there at the very end of all this, so I don't know what the department is trying to do," he says. "I wish I were there in Miami to help diffuse the situation and try to make things right again. I know those firefighters. I've worked with them a long time and they are good firefighters."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.