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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede