Twenty years ago, I recited a eulogy for the firefighters of New York who died on 9/11 at a memorial in Battery Park in New Castle. With this being the 20th anniversary of that tragedy, I would like to reflect on three of those firefighters, whose memories I have connected with since that time.
The first is David Fontana, Squad 1, 788 Union St., Brooklyn. In those days, there were seven squads, five heavy rescue units and a hazmat group assigned to the Special Operations Command under Chief Ray Downey, who also died in the towers.
Sept. 11 was Dave’s eighth wedding anniversary. He was scheduled to work that day but switched to the overnight shift, so he and his wife, Marian, could spend the day in the city celebrating their anniversary. When Dave went to college, he studied sculpture. He wanted to visit one of his favorite museums that day and go out to dinner with Marian.
That morning, Marian got up, made breakfast for their son, Aidan, and took him to his second day of kindergarten. After that, Dave and Marian were going to meet at Connecticut Muffin on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, then head out into the city. Connecticut Muffin is a coffee shop much like Starbucks. On the way there, Marian called Dave at Squad 1 to make sure his relief was in and he was free to leave. Dave told her he just finished his shower, his relief was in, and he would meet her at the restaurant in 10 minutes.
As Marina arrived at Connecticut Muffin, she noticed some black smoke in the sky. She never talked to Dave again. Even though Dave was off, he jumped on Squad 1 engines and responded to the World Trade Center.
Twelve men from Squad 1 died that day in the towers.
Next, Paul John Gill, who went by Paulie. He was assigned to Engine 54, 723 Eighth Ave., Manhattan. Engine 54, Ladder 4 and Battalion 9 were assigned to the same house on Eighth Avenue. In March 2001, six months before the attack on the World Trade Center, I was in New York City. My wife, daughter and I stayed at the Millennium Hilton, directly across from the towers. We toured the World Trade Center that weekend and visited the mall under the buildings. I remember The Sphere, a distinctive gold sculpture in the courtyard.
That afternoon, we were in Times Square, waiting to cross the street, when Engine 54 stopped at the red light directly in front of me. I remember it because the slogan for the firehouse was written on the side, “Pride of Midtown, Never Missed a Performance.” You see, they were in the Theater District of New York, in the heart of Midtown.
As irony has it, in October 2001, I was with a busload of Delaware firefighters who attended funerals for two New York firefighters who died Sept. 11. Paul Gill of Engine 54 was one of them.
Paulie was a firefighter, carpenter, artist, loving father, son, brother and hero. He will always be remembered as a person who would lend a hand to anyone in need. No favor was too big of a commitment for Paul. When he said he’d be there to lend a helping hand, you could count on him. It was only fitting that he pursued a career as a firefighter. Paulie had the genuine desire to reach out to people in need. He had two sons, Aaron and Joshua. At 34 years of age, Paulie was more like a big brother to his sons. Paulie was an artist who inherited his skills from his grandfather.
Paulie’s funeral was at the Evangel Church, 27th Street, in Queens. It was a very sunny afternoon. We stood on the street with a couple hundred firefighters from all over the United States and Canada. There were two reserve ladder trucks holding the American flag. As the procession approached and we came to present arms, a Mack firetruck from a volunteer fire company in Long Island, New York, led the way. It had FDNY stickers on its side and front.
We entered the church for the service. It was a big church with singers and musicians. His father, the members of his company and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke at his service, but the speech I remember the most was Paul’s sister’s. She gave a very reflective talk about her brother and the kind of person he was.
Fifteen members of Engine 54, Ladder 4 and Battalion 9 were killed on 9/11. They were in the only firehouse to have an entire shift killed that day. In all, they left 28 children behind.
Lastly is Michael D’Auria, Engine 40, 131 Amsterdam Ave., in the Lincoln Square area of Manhattan. Engine 40 and Ladder 35 were housed in that station. They were called “The Cavemen” because a 60-story high-rise building was built around and over the station.
Michael was a rookie, 25 years old, and one of nine firefighters on his mother’s side of the family. He always wanted to be a firefighter. After high school, he went to culinary school and became a chef, biding his time until he could take the fire department test. He was a chef at various restaurants in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
He was also known for his tattoos, which included St. Michael the Archangel. After earning 100% on his written and physical tests, he was sworn in to the department. He had been on the job just nine weeks. The World Trade Center was his second working alarm.
Michael’s funeral was at a very small Catholic Church in Staten Island. It was in the morning of our trip to New York. We stood in formation on the street outside the church, with about 100 other firefighters and police officers from all over the country. The ladder trucks and the engine were from Jersey City, New Jersey. The engine was draped with black and purple, and it had FDNY signs on it. Like many of the funerals, there was no body. It wasn’t until the end of the excavation of ground zero that they found Michael’s remains.
Engine 40 and Ladder 35 lost 11 firefighters that day.
Of all the things that have been written or said about Michael D’Auria, it is the one quote I read from his sister, Christina, that strikes me the most: “He (said) that when he dies, it’s going to be in a big way and it’s going to change the world.” Michael was so right!
I have spent a lot of time reading about the events of Sept. 11. I’ve been to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum twice, and I remember the dedication of it. What I remember the most about the dedication was the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, which sang, “There’s a Place For Us.” Their beautiful young voices echoed off the slurry walls and the last beam, giving meaning to the fact that, yes, this is the place for those who died that day. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” a quote by Virgil, is embossed on the wall of the museum. Let us never erase the events of that day from our memory.
The world we live is not the same as before that day. The three stories I just told you are reflective of the other 340 firefighters who died in those towers. Please take a moment to reflect on what happened Sept. 11, 2001, and remember them always. Thank you.
Warren Jones is executive manager of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighter’s Association, as well as a firefighter and vice president at Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Co.