Fox on the Beach – Purposeful Moments – Months After 9/11, an October Miracle – October 22, 2021
What was standard, was not anymore. No two memorial services were the same. Few bodies had been recovered. Families had memorial services only, wake services in funeral homes, but without a body. My sister and brother-in-law decided to do that for Michael. My nephew 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, a bit scared. 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 on September 11th, 2001.
The first gathering to remember Michael 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 helmet, and assorted pictures of him displayed. People lined up outside. Most came because they knew Michael. Some came because he was a New York City Firefighter. But all came because in those painful times they wanted to show their love and support to others, however they could.
My friend, NYPD Chief Joe Esposito, came in the afternoon on Friday, the second day. When he left us, he went back to Ground Zero, back to the “pile.” We would be leaving the funeral home in an hour, and twelve hours later, we would be holding 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 the truck traditionally carried. 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, my partner as a rookie cop, and then twenty years later my partner as the Executive Officer of Brooklyn South, got a message to call Chief Esposito. Mike stood behind one of the many floral arrangements, a few feet away from Michael’s table. Joe said to Mike, “I have Michael – tell Joe.” I gathered family members in the director’s office to let them know. 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 whispering to each other – they could tell that something was going on. I decided to address them. 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, they began to applaud. The applause stopped a second later, when they saw the pain in my sister Veronica’s face.
When I got home I sat at my living room table. 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 his 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 homecoming 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 our Michael. I would later learn that Joe temporarily suspended all 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 and headed toward the funeral home to meet me. I decided to put my dress uniform on at 1:00 AM in the morning to drive a few blocks away. I sensed the enormity 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, so it was right for me to be in that uniform.
I parked my car across the street from the entrance, and the driveway leading into the parking lot. The funeral home, a one-story ranch style structure 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. 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 sat in the back seat.
We sat, and waited, no 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 images 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. It reminded me of a presidential motorcade. 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 for him, in Marine Park. Only Joe Esposito would memorialize and honor Michael in his homecoming this way.
As John and I got out of the car, I buttoned my dress uniform 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. The sound of so many car doors opening and closing as the occupants got out broke the silence of the quiet night. Crossing the street and approaching the parking lot, I was 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 was not sure.
In my career, I have been in some challenging and stressful situations, but I was usually comfortable with my role and I knew exactly what I had to do. I 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, frightened. I did not know what I was supposed to do, what my role should be; I had never done this before.
Joe was first to come toward us as we entered the lot. He approached John first, and hugged 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 opened 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. 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 just watched, in respectful silence.
Michael was home.