Michael’s Homecoming

by Joe Fox

What was standard, was gone. No two memorial services were the same. Very few bodies had been recovered. Some families had memorial services only. Many families had wake services in funeral homes, but without a body. My sister and brother-in-law decided to do that for Michael. 

Michael’s “wake” snuck up on me.  Days before, just when I thought I found balance and the ability to cope with it all, I began to feel very unsettled.  Nervous anticipation, as though a freight train was about to come through my heart, consumed me.  I was anxious and I did not know why.  In a couple of days, it would be me in the front row of the funeral parlor at Michael’s wake, the wake of a New York City Firefighter who died in the line of duty. 

My family and I would stand where Detective Louie Miller’s wife Veronica stood so many years ago, when I lined up with thousands of others to pay my respects to her and “The Commander.”  The first showing was at 2:00 PM on Thursday, October 25th.  In front of the room where a coffin would be, there was the sofa table, with Michael’s Cadet Little League baseball cap and glove, his firefighter’s helmet and assorted pictures of him displayed. 

People lined up outside the funeral home.  Although I knew many, there were so many I did not know.  Most came because they knew Michael.  Some came because he was a New York City Firefighter.  Some came because they knew me or members of my family.  And many more came because in those painful times they wanted to show their love and support to others, however they could. At any given time during the two-day showing, hundreds of friends, firefighters, cops, and auxiliary police officers lined up and down the block of the funeral home waiting to pay their respects. 

My friend, NYPD Chief Joe Esposito came in the afternoon on Friday, the second day.  When he left us, he probably went back to Ground Zero, back to the “pile”.  We would be leaving in an hour, and twelve hours later, we would be attending Michael’s memorial, a funeral without his body.  His helmet would be displayed on the back of an antique fire truck, instead of the flag-draped coffin that the truck traditionally carries.  Often, it’s the last showing of the wake when emotions are at their peak. With the funeral the next morning, I was feeling especially aprehensive.  Feelings of sadness, anxiety and anticipation blended together with great intensity.  Thankfully, the presence of friends and loved ones distracted me from my pain and dulled those feelings.  At one point, Mike Collins got a message to call Chief Esposito, immediately.  Mike excused himself and stood behind one of the many floral arraignments, a few feet away from Michael’s table.  Joe immediately said to Mike Collins, “I have Michael – tell Joe.” 

About two hours before that phone call, the body of a firefighter from the “Nut House,” John Florio, was found at Ground Zero.  John died with Lieutenant Chris Sullivan and Firefighters Carl Bedigian, Kenny Watson and Michael.  As soon as a part John’s body was visible, the digging stopped, so firefighters from their house could get there.  Most of the Firefighters from the “Nut House” were at Michael’s wake at the time, with a few working at the firehouse.  They quickly split into two teams, each with a task of honor.  One group stayed at Michael’s wake, while the other raced to Ground Zero to take John out of the wreckage, and bring him home.  With care and ceremony, in a very dangerous operation, John Florio was brought out of a narrow shaft, in the pile of wreckage.  There were many fire firefighters there, as well as many high-ranking FDNY officers.  As they put John in an ambulance, one of the “Nut House” firefighters, Jimmy Ellson, thought he saw something from where John had been taken.  He went back and shifted some of the debris.  He thought he found a foot.  As he dug deeper, he found a body, and a uniform item that convinced him that he found Michael Roberts.  He got up and walked toward the group of FDNY brass that were huddled a few feet away, but then he walked right past them.  He felt their stares as he walked toward the much smaller huddle of NYPD brass a few feet away.  Since the bodies found were firefighters, the police group stayed respectfully in the background.  Jimmy walked right over to Chief Esposito and said, “You’re friends with Chief Fox?  We have Michael – his nephew.”  Joe initially doubted him, asking how Jimmy knew. Jimmy assured Joe that he knew it was Michael.  Then Joe Esposito moved into high gear, determined to get my nephew home.

In the funeral home, behind the flowers next to Michael’s table, Joe Esposito and Mike Collins ended their phone conversation.  Mike watched as I introduced Joe Dunne, NYPD’s First Deputy Commissioner, to members of my family.  Mike Collins knew he had to get close to me if possible, and let me know that Michael was found.  He walked near us, patiently waiting for an opportunity.  At one point when I was engaged in a conversation with someone, Mike whispered to Joe Dunne that Michael’s body was found.  Then, Joe asked me, “Is there a room that we can use?’  We walked into the funeral director’s office.  Joe asked me to sit down.  He said to me, “Joe, we found Michael.”  I was stunned.  Joe Dunne added, “Joe Esposito is with him.”  I thanked Joe Dunne, and I sent for Veronica and John.  Our whole family packed into that crowded funeral director’s office that seemed so large just a few moments before. 

With no family members in the front of the room to greet them, no one walked past the small table holding Michael’s fire helmet, his Cadet Baseball cap and glove.  There was no one at the table, so the receiving line stopped. After a few moments we left the office, went to the front of the chapel room, and stood in front of Michael’s table, facing the group.  The funeral parlor was even more crowded.  Everyone was looking at us.  Many were whispering to each other – they could tell that something was going on.  I decided to address the group.  The two entrances were packed with people trying to squeeze into the room, straining to hear what I had to say.  I announced that Michael’s body had just been found.  In a spontaneous moment, the crowd began to applaud.  The applause stopped less than a second later, when they saw the pain in my sister Veronica’s face.  The viewing ended, and the funeral home emptied. 

The funeral director was either unwilling or unable to accept the possibility of Michael’s body coming to us in time to get him into a casket and have a funeral less than twelve hours later.  Jack McManus, Mike Collins and Gerry Iucci are true friends.  They could have come to Michael’s wake anytime in those two days, but luckily for me, they were there when Michael was found. They were there for me, right where I needed them, just when I needed them most.  As I was negotiating with the funeral director, Jack said to me, “Joe, you belong with your family – especially now.  Please let us handle this.”  I walked out of the room and had complete trust in my friends, and I knew we’d bury Michael the next day. 

My mother stayed at my home that night, so I could drive her to the funeral of her first-born grandson a few hours later.  I sat at my living room table, with her.  I had two sheets of paper from my Franklin Planner out in front of me, the pages I wrote notes on since September 11th.  I carried those pages with me always, often taking them out to make notes of things I wanted to say about Michael.  This night I would put them all together, so I would have an outline for Michael’s eulogy. 

At about 1:00 AM, my cell phone rang.  It was Joe Esposito.  He said, “I’m bringing Michael home.”  His voice took me by surprise.  I thought Joe had gone home hours before.  I assumed the steps he took to expedite Michael’s ride home did not require his presence.  I asked Joe, “Are you still with him?”  He told me that he was.  In shock and disbelief, I asked him again, “You are bringing Michael back?”  He told me he would be at the funeral home in about a half hour, by 1:30 AM.  I was overwhelmed by this information; overwhelmed by the thought that Joe was still working, still on the pile, still with Michael.  I would later learn that Joe temporarily suspended most of the operations at Ground Zero, so that enough people could work to get Michael home for his funeral. His body was taken off the pile and into an ambulance by fellow firefighters from the Nut House.  At the morgue, on the east side of lower Manhattan, all other operations stopped.  Everyone stood in line when Michael was brought in.  In spite of all of his other responsibilities, Joe Esposito’s world stopped, as he treated Michael as a member of his own family.

As soon as I got off the phone with Joe, I put my eulogy notes away.  I called my sister’s house and told her that Michael was coming home.  My brother-in-law John left his house and headed toward the funeral home to meet me there.  I decided to put my dress uniform on – at 1:00 AM in the morning – to drive a few blocks away.  I sensed the special quality of Michael’s homecoming, but yet in a way I could not fully grasp it.  My thoughts raced.  I quickly finished putting my uniform on, and yet I still wondered whether I should wear it.  But I remembered how proud Michael was of the position I held, and it seemed natural for me to be in that uniform. 

Within ten minutes I was at the funeral home.  I parked my car across the street from the entrance, and the adjacent driveway leading into the parking lot.  The funeral home, a one-story ranch style structure about five times the size of a typical ranch house, was dark.  There were dimly lit yellow street lamps evenly spaced around the funeral parlor and the parking lot.  A large American flag hung from a 25 foot pole near the main entrance, still, not blowing.  The street was empty and quiet.  The night was clear and the temperature was mild, as I waited in the car.  The crowds, who hours before filled the block, coming and going after paying respects to our family, were gone.  I was parked in front of a bar that was still open, with a few customers inside.  I noticed a few firefighters, still wearing parts of their uniform.  Assuming that some of them had worked in the Nut House with Michael, I took a quick look inside to see if there were any I recognized, but I did not.  A few minutes later, my brother-in-law John arrived.  He parked his car behind mine and got into the back of my car. 

We sat in the car, and waited without much conversation.  The night was quiet, still.  Except for an occasional car passing, there was no traffic on the road, and no one walking on the street at that late hour. Not knowing from which direction Joe Esposito would arrive, I kept looking ahead of us, and then behind, through my rear-view mirror. As far as I could see, in either direction, there was nothing.  Nothing but the streetlights, turning green, yellow and then red again.  After a few minutes, in the distance I saw a well-lit vehicle appear on Quentin Road, turning off from Flatbush Avenue, more than a half mile behind us.  As I watched, I saw bright lights, and the flashing of emergency vehicle turret lights.  It was difficult to discern because of the distance and the view of the reflected image in the rearview mirror.  There was a second well-lit vehicle right behind the first, and then another.  The dark street became illuminated by a caravan of emergency vehicles, lights ablaze.  I wondered whether this was Joe Esposito, but I didn’t expect so many vehicles to transport one body.  As the caravan got closer, I realized it was him. There were highway patrol cars, unmarked police cars with emergency lights on constant, and the ambulance, with Michael inside.  Joe Esposito led the caravan.  Joe transported Michael in this procession of honor from Ground Zero to the morgue, then from Manhattan to Brooklyn, right to where we waited in Marine Park.  Only Joe Esposito would have thought to do that.  Only Joe would have the compassion, the depth of understanding and humanity to memorialize Michael’s homecoming this way.

As John and I got out of the car, I buttoned my dress blazer and fixed my hat. The line of cars drove past us, into the funeral home parking lot.  The procession moved swiftly, one car after another, orchestrated like a presidential motorcade.  The sound of so many car doors opening and closing as the occupants exited broke the silence of the quiet night. Crossing the street and approaching the funeral home, I grew a bit anxious.  The scene was almost surreal; so many cars, so many blinding lights. It was so quiet only moments ago. I assumed Michael was in the ambulance, but I did not know.  In my career, I have been in some challenging and stressful situations, but I was usually comfortable with my role and I knew what I had to do.  I physically struggled with gun-toting criminals. I chased people through alleys, sometimes not knowing where I was going or even why I was chasing them.  I had been to many sad funerals, and I knew my purpose at each one.  But that night, as I walked toward that parking lot, I was unsure and a bit frightened.  I did not know what I was supposed to do, what my role would be; I had never done this before. 

Joe was first to come toward us as we entered the lot, approaching John first, hugging him.  Then, some firefighters walked out of the bar, crossed the street and joined us in the parking lot. They were straightening their uniforms and reattaching their clip-on ties to their shirts.  As he fumbled to button his collar, Bobby Austin, one of the firefighters who had worked with Michael said, “Let’s help that man carry his boy home.”  John, Joe Esposito and I went to the back of the ambulance parked about ten feet from the funeral home rear door. The funeral director had it open and ready.  With the help of the guys from the Nut House, we lifted Michael out of the ambulance and carried him into the funeral home.  Inside, John walked over to Michael and we all stepped back.  Michael was wrapped in a dark heavy plastic container, zippered shut.   The outline of his body was apparent through the plastic.  John gently patted Michael’s forehead, and he said, “Welcome home, Mike.”

Those of us standing there watched, in respectful silence.

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