Absent Friends excerpt

Absent Friends



July 4, 1976

Absent Friends

Absent Friends

Four boys, three girls, high and soaring, skin sizzling, tingling under the dizzying stars. Everything open and opening: the ragtop to the sky, the sky endlessly to the huge summer night. This night to their limitless lives.
Everything opening: In the black sky tight bright bursts eclipse the luminous moon, explode as fiery streaks, fountains of scarlet, rockets of silver, purple blooms and sprays of green. On the radio rising swells of tinny music; from the car shouts and applause.
Everything opening: The girls to the boys, not for the first time, but with a new, laughing heat. The boys to each other, grunts and shrugs and grins their fiercely-sworn oaths, beer cans their glittering tokens of fealty.
Everything, everything opening: Surprisingly, newly, the boys to the girls.
The boys? One is quiet, and one sure; one eager; and one flying, as always, too near the sun. The girls are royalty to these boys, have been since their memories began; and now, as the boys turn into men, the girls are knowing, wise and real to them in ways they are not yet, to themselves.
All would tell you.
And on this patriotic night, this celebration of association, when people all around them are reveling in the sheer staggering luck of being born into the community they would most, given a choice, want to be part of — what are they feeling, the boys and the girls? Not fear, not on a night like this, when together they could conquer invading intergalactic armies, with grace and ease they could defeat rock-blind, howling swamp men burning with destruction. Not fear, but the hope of an anchor. The need for each other’s weight in the whirlwind. “You Are Here” marked on a mental map. You are here right now, today. One of the boys leaving in the morning, everyone else to stay. All have been told by men and women, older and more tired, that the marked spot shrinks to nothing, that no ballast can hold, that the buoy above the anchor disappears in the bobbling waves.
Not one of the seven believes it.

It can be said that here the story begins, though it has been going on for some time. No story has a true beginning, and none has an ending, either.

From the New York Tribune, October 16th, 2001

by Harry Randall
Third in a series of profiles of the lost heroes of Sept. 11th

Note to readers: September 11th produced countless heroes. Many are still with us; others perished. Some final acts of bravery and sacrifice will never be known. The New York Tribune joins a grateful city in saluting all the unsung heroes.

There are others among the lost whose final deeds stand out in memory. In this series the Tribune profiles of some of these heroes, as a testimony to their courage and to the character and pride of all New Yorkers.

“First in, last out.”
With these words, spoken by a surviving member of Ladder Co. 62, Capt. James McCaffery was eulogized before a crowd of 2,500 at a memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Monday, Oct. 15. McCaffery, 46, one of the most decorated firefighters in the history of the New York City Fire Department and the focus of a Memorial Fund, was remembered by speakers including the Mayor, the Fire Commissioner, the Governor’s Chief of Staff, and firefighters who had served with McCaffery or under his command. Firefighters from nearly every state in the union stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the cathedral aisles, ceding the pews to members of the FDNY and to McCaffery’s family and friends.
Because of his long and distinguished career — and, paradoxically, his lifelong distaste for publicity — James McCaffery’s story has captured the imagination, and the hearts, of New Yorkers. He has been cited as a example of the courage and character of the FDNY on the day of the worst terrorist attacks in American history.
Ladder 62, housed in a landmark firehouse on West 11th Street, was one of the first companies to respond to reports that a plane had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. Commanded by Capt. McCaffery, Ladder 62 arrived at the scene minutes before the second plane struck. Multiple eyewitness accounts from survivors credit McCaffery’s organization of their evacuation with saving hundreds of lives. Repeatedly noted was McCaffery’s “calm, in-control” demeanor and a sense he conveyed that “the situation was in hand.” One survivor spoke of McCaffery’s smile. “He didn’t say anything,” said Baz Woods, a law firm clerk. “But he made me feel like things weren’t so bad. Like someone was in charge, taking care of things.”
“That was definitely Jimmy,” Thomas Molloy, a prominent Staten Island businessman, childhood friend of McCaffery’s, and founder of the McCaffery Memorial Fund, told the Tribune. “You always felt like Jimmy could take care of things.”
McCaffery grew up in the Pleasant Hills neighborhood on Staten Island. He left over two decades ago, but is still regarded as a local hero.
“Oh, no question,” said Father Dennis Connor, pastor of St. Ann’s Church in Pleasant Hills. “Through all these years, we’d read in the papers about him, some brave thing he’d done, and we’d all be thinking, that’s our Jimmy.”
As far back as anyone can remember, Jimmy McCaffery wanted to be a firefighter. “He had a red plastic helmet someone gave him when he was three,” said Thomas Molloy’s ex-wife, Victoria. “He wore it all the time. When it got too small he still kept squashing it on. His father finally had to buy him another one.”
McCaffery is remembered as a quiet boy who captained the varsity baseball team at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School. “Jimmy never talked much,” said Mike Pidhirny, retired head coach. “It all went into his game. I never remember him riding anyone. But when a pitcher was in trouble there was Jimmy out on the mound, saying something, just something quiet. He’d call team meetings, the coaches would leave the room. He didn’t need us. Jimmy expected a lot from himself, and he made the other guys want to give as much as he did. We made the playoffs every season he played. We won two division titles.”
McCaffery entered the FDNY Academy in 1976 at the age of 21. His first assignment was to Engine 168, in Pleasant Hills.
“We watched him grow up,” recalled Owen McCardle, a firefighter retired from Engine 168, who has been digging at Ground Zero since Sept. 11th. “It was all Jimmy ever wanted, to be a fireman at 168. Used to come around all the time when he was a kid, try to help out, wash down the truck, stuff like that. Did well at the Academy. Could have got assigned anywhere, put in for here. Once he was in, we couldn’t shake him. Go out on a run, come back and this probie, not even on duty but he’s frying up bacon, ready to scramble eggs soon as we washed off. Superman, we called him. Because that’s who he wanted to be. Save everyone, that’s what Jimmy wanted.”
In a move that surprised people in Pleasant Hills, McCaffery applied for a transfer in 1980, and was assigned to Ladder 10 in Manhattan. He moved to a basement apartment in lower Manahttan and never returned to live or work on Staten Island.
“He lost two friends within a year,” said Marian Gallagher, the director of the More Art, New York! Foundation. Ms. Gallagher grew up with McCaffery and now heads the McCaffery Memorial Fund, whose mission is to aid the Fire Department’s outreach and recruitment efforts. “I think he just felt a need to start over.” She smiled; talking about him, McCaffery’s friends all smile. “But he never forgot where he came from. He was there when he was needed. One of the friends who died left a son. Jimmy helped raise him.”
“Definitely, I joined the Department because of Uncle Jimmy,” said Kevin Keegan, 24, the son of Mark Keegan, a close childhood friend of McCaffery’s, who died at the age of 23. Kevin Keegan is a probationary firefighter at Engine 168 who had been on the job just three months on September 11th. His right leg and arm were badly burned by falling debris as he and other firefighters prepared to enter the north tower. Keegan, first hospitalized at the NYU Burns Unit, is currently in rehabilitation at the Burke Center in Westchester.
“Uncle Jimmy was there the whole time I was growing up,” Keegan said. “Ever since I was a kid, if I was in trouble, or had a problem or something, he’d be on the phone, he’d show up at our door. I could count on him.”
Kevin Keegan, the Tribune has learned, is the beneficiary of McCaffery’s FDNY life insurance policy. “That’s Jimmy. Still taking care of us,” said Keegan’s mother, Sally, who also grew up with McCaffery. “No matter where he was, if Kevin or I needed anything, we could always go to Jimmy. It was so good to know he was always there.”
After Ladder 10, McCaffery served next with Engine 235 in Brooklyn and then in three other Manhattan fire companies, including three years with Rescue Co. 1, before being given the command of Ladder Co. 62. From his probationary days at Engine 168, McCaffery’s fearlessness stood out. “He wasn’t reckless,” said Owen McCardle, who mentored McCaffery. “Jimmy never made a move until he took the situation in. But sometimes we had to pull him back all the same. One thing you learn on this job: sometimes you have to let something burn. Let something go to save something else. Jimmy never wanted to believe that.”
As McCaffery’s twenty-five year career progressed he repeatedly performed daring acts that brought him fame. In a Pulitzer Prize- winning photograph from 1984, McCaffery is in mid-air, leaping the gap from one rooftop to another, silhouetted against smoke and flame. Another picture, taken in 1988, shows him being lowered on a rope to rescue a baby held out the window of a burning third-floor apartment. According to the story, McCaffery brought the baby up and was lowered a second time to save the mother. Instead of lifting her out, he tied the rope around her, signaled the firefighters on the roof to pull her up, then disappeared into the building in search of another missing child. He found her crouching in a closet with the family cat. As the fire went to three alarms, McCaffery staggered from the building, his ankle badly twisted from a fall down a collapsing staircase and with deep, parallel lines of scratches on his face and hands. EMS workers rushed forward and took from him a blanket-wrapped, unhurt child clutching her terrified cat.
There are other stories: a dive into the Hudson in a rainstorm to pull a man from a sinking boat. Using his turnout coat to smother the flames on a man whose own clothes were burning. Many stories. And after each act of heroism, James McCaffery — most often smiling widely — thanked well-wishers, returned to his firehouse, and refused all requests for interviews.
Three times McCaffery was admitted to NYU Hospital, twice to the Burns Unit, with injuries which would have made him eligible for retirement, but each time was back on the job within months. Aleck Wagman, Assistant FDNY Chief of Operations, acknowledges McCaffery to have been a source of “institutional knowledge.” “Men were anxious to serve under him,” Chief Wagman said. “Not just the new guys, everyone. Anyone could learn something from Jimmy McCaffery. He’ll be badly missed.”
“At the other houses he worked, he wouldn’t let them call him Superman,” Owen McCardle recalls. “Like it embarrassed him. But tell you the truth, it was always who he wanted to be.”
McCaffery lived alone in a small, spare apartment on West 12th Street, and never married. “He was married to the Job,” said Ted Fitzgerald, retired captain of Engine 235. “That was his family. There’s always guys like that, every generation. They’re the backbone of this Department, and on 9/11 we lost way too many of them.”
McCaffery’s heroism on September 11 is now legendary. Elizabeth Murray, an attorney, made the trip down 28 flights of stairs with others from her firm. Murray, her firm’s fire warden, was among the last to evacuate her floor. She spoke of McCaffery’s “swift and total” understanding of the situation. “There was fire on our floor from the elevator shaft,” she told the Tribune. “People were burned and some had been hit by the debris that exploded out when the shaft doors blew open. There was a lot of smoke and we were cut off from our stairs.” The men of Ladder 62 directed the crowds away from the fire to a stairwell that was open, assisting the injured and, in the words of another survivor, “defusing the hysteria, everyone all screaming and running around, not knowing what to do.”
“He seemed to know exactly how much time we had to get out,” Ms. Murray said of Capt. McCaffery. “He said if we didn’t panic and just kept going, we’d be all right. He could have come out with us. We just barely made it, and I really got the feeling that he knew, that captain did, that the tower was going to come down. None of us remotely thought it would, at that time.”
McCaffery was last seen by Murray heading another way. “He went up,” she said. “He told his men, ‘Get control of this, take these people out of here.’ He meant the panic, the confusion. And they started to do what he said. Then he looked around. Just stood there, like he was taking it all in. Then said something like, ‘The job’s up there.’ There were people on the floors above us, where the worst fires were. One of the others, the other firefighters, said, ‘If you’re going, Captain, I’m going with you.’ Some of them went.” Murray paused in her account. “He was smiling when he pulled open that staircase door. I’ll never forget it. All the way down those stairs, I wondered what made him smile like that. As if someone said something, as if he thought something was funny. I remember thinking, Well, when this is over, I’ll look him up and ask him.”
FDNY Assistant Chief Gino Aiello, who was manning the north tower command station, was one of the chiefs who issued the order to evacuate the north tower after the south tower fell. “Some of the companies didn’t respond,” Aiello said in an interview. “A lot of the radios were out, so we don’t know if they ever got the evacuation order. But Ladder 62 heard us. Capt. McCaffery responded. He was on 44. He said he had injured up there, and he was bringing them out. He had three men with him. ‘We’ll be down as soon as we can, Chief. There’s a lot of injured.’ That’s what he said. I don’t know how he was planning to bring a lot of injured down 44 flights with three men, but if anyone could talk the injured into getting up and walking – the injured, maybe even the dead — it was Jimmy McCaffery.”
Ladder 62 lost four men on that day. Funerals and memorial services for the other three — Derrick Jones, Martin Connelly, and Probationary Firefighter John Adams, just three months on the job — have already been held. “This is how Jimmy would have wanted it,” Owen McCardle said. “He would have expected the other men to be taken care of first. He was their captain. First in, last out.”



October 30, 2001

Harry Randall’s death broke over Laura Stone like a thunderstorm out of a clear blue sky. That was even one of her stupid thoughts, one of the notions that floated by as Georgie who’d brought her the news hovered, ready to catch her if she fainted or to fetch water, a sweater, whatever she wanted. Georgie who’d always loved her. I should have known, Laura thought, rubbing her thin arms with her newly cold hands, seeing not Georgie but the Hudson flowing splendidly through the glorious afternoon in the window behind him: it’s such a perfect, beautiful day.
In New York now, beautiful days were suspect, clear blue skies tainted with an invisible acid etch. “Lovely weather,” neighbors greeted one another, smiling under the generous golden sunlight of an Indian summer still unrolling into late October. Then their smiles would falter. They’d nod and walk hastily on, to avoid acknowledging the likeness, to escape seeing, in each other’s eyes, how stunningly beautiful that day in mid-September had been, too.
The next equally meaningless thought that passed through Laura’s mind as she stood staring down at the river: how long had Georgie known? Had he stood watching, waiting for her to leave her desk to go stand by the conference room window — a thing she could be counted on to do half a dozen times a day, to come here to watch the Hudson flowing to the sea while a sentence composed itself in her head — so he could be the only one near, the one to comfort her?
No, she told herself impatiently, as you might scold a child for making a claim he knows is false: I can fly, or My dog ate a car. No, not Georgie. I’d do that. I’d deliver bad news to Harry that way. But kind, lovesick Georgie wouldn’t do that to me.

Bad news, or good news. It was Laura who’d pinned yesterday’s front, the front that carried the third Jimmy McCaffery story, to Harry’s corkboard. Not where everyone could see it (though of course they’d all seen it when the paper came out, all seen Harry Randall on the front again after a five-year drought, not just the front but right-side and above the fold, they’d all seen that). She’d tucked it in the corner, folded small, just the head and sub-head left to shout privately to Harry how proud of him she was. It was still there, still shouting:

Questions Surround Hero Firefighter’s
Dealings with Crime Figures
by Harry Randall

Surprising her, Harry had left it up all day yesterday. But he was sure to take it down today. No, but — twisting stomach, ice on her skin — according to Georgie, Harry wouldn’t be here today, wouldn’t be here again, wasn’t here, was gone.

But — swept away suddenly, losing her footing to a rogue wave of hope — Georgie must be wrong! It wasn’t Harry. Someone else took Harry’s car. Who? What was the difference? It was someone else’s body. She’d go, she’d go now over to the morgue, past the tent and the refrigerated trucks where all the unidentified bodies were and this would be just another one, just someone else no one knew. She’d tell them it wasn’t Harry, and later, back at home, she and Harry —
Georgie was shaking his head, reaching for her. Laura heard, horrified, her own voice, high and shrill, speaking these thoughts aloud. Suddenly shivering, she spun away from Georgie, turned to the river, willing Georgie to stay back: if he touched her, she would splinter and crack, like ice in warm water.
The river blurred, her face felt steamy: oh God, she was crying, with Georgie there. Her knees wobbled. Despising herself, she dropped onto a chair. It was the one with the coffee stain on the arm, from the morning meeting, soon after Laura had come to the Tribune, when Leo had complained about something — toothlessness, Leo’s word — in a story of Harry’s. Harry, to the mortal eye unperturbed, offered a smiling, insolent reply. Leo tossed the pile of copy and a disgusted snort in Harry’s direction. The gods clashing on Olympus: Laura had been thrilled. The papers had upended someone’s coffee, not Harry’s, she remembered, but someone else’s.
“Who has the story?” Confused, Laura heard an imitation of her own voice demand this of Georgie. Oh, she thought: Reporter-Laura, that’s who’s speaking. She who went to a hospital groundbreaking to give the donor a chance to comment on the rumor that the multi-million dollar windfall was profit from his drug operation in Mexico. She who pushed herself into the face of a mother to ask how she felt now that a fire had killed her children.
Georgie, weakly and after a moment: “What?”
“Laura, what’s the difference?” Georgie had damp brown eyes and a mouth eternally open, eager to speak the right words, of comfort, of explanation, if only he could find them. He preferred to be called George, or, better, to be abruptly summoned by his last name — “Holzer!” the way you’d hear “Randall!” or “Stone!” echo through the newsroom — but no one ever did that. His beat was technology, science. Half the Tribune staff held he was a virgin; the rest, that he visited a Korean whorehouse on 38th Street twice a week.
Laura, who never gazed long upon Georgie, looked angrily past him now, through the blue sky’s reflection in the conference room glass, into the newsroom.
It was everyday chaos there, the regular thing. The attacks had not forced the Tribune’s offices closed, but the rhythm, the urgent fast and steady beat of newsgathering, had been smashed and jangled. Throw a rock in water, orderly rings pulse in all directions; throw many, and the world is anarchy, confusion. It took time for the Tribune’s tempo to re-assert, but finally it had. Keyboards clicked. Men with their polished shoes on their desks leaned dangerously back in chairs asking pointed questions into phones. Women with sharp elbows leaned forward over theirs, desks and phones, listening darkly. Someone came, someone went.
Laura turned to Georgie. “They don’t know yet.” It was an accusation.
“Leo’s about to call us together. I asked him if I could tell you first.” It was an admission of guilt.
“First? So you could — ? I have to — ?”
On top of her words: “Laura, you know — ”
But Laura was refusing to know. A wave of fury threw her out of her chair, fury at Georgie for the news he’d brought and the way he’d brought it, at the river for flowing and the sun for shining and the leaves for falling from the trees.
Before she could scream and tear Georgie apart — he would have permitted this — a change in the tenor of the newsroom froze her. A ripple in the force field: Leo was stepping from his office. He planted himself just over his threshold and when he stood there and roared, “People!” everything stopped.
Square-headed, white-haired, rough-faced and bulky, Leo waited, not long, for phone calls to end and documents to be saved-as. Laura and Georgie, after a motionless moment, stumbled unthinking through the conference room door: rage, shock and sorrow could not, even combined, begin to overcome the autoresponse triggered in a reporter by Leo’s bellow from the doorway.
So Leo delivered the news, and Laura had to hear it again.
This time it was ornamented with details. If she’d been listening as a reporter these would have been important to her. Fascinating even, as they clearly were to the colleagues around her who, though unable any longer to be impressed by death, could still be surprised by the personal nature of one like this; but not enough to keep them from scribbling notes on pads, in case Leo assigned them the story, or from stealing glances away from Leo to send them Laura’s way when they thought she wasn’t looking.
But she was looking, though for their glances she was determined to have nothing but scorn, and she didn’t hear the news as a reporter, though she was one. She heard it as a student, as an acolyte, apologist, and lover, and the word Georgie hadn’t used but Leo did, the dam-break that swept her into wordless disbelief and powerless fury, was “suicide.”