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Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Reporter's viewpoint: My brother, a New York firefighter, has little to say about September 11 Reporter's viewpoint: My brother, a New York firefighter, has little to say about September 11 (September 11, 2002)

By Sharon Driscoll

Almanac Staff Writer

I was in New York this summer visiting my family, and news of the approaching one-year anniversary of September 11 was everywhere.

But two news stories struck me. One was about a man caught in the falling debris who apparently lost his memory, spent months in the hospital and had, at last, been reunited with his family. After grieving for her loss, his mother was suddenly presented with what can only be described as a miracle. She told the reporter that her prayers had been answered.

But so many more had not.

The other story was about a memorial service for a firefighter, lost on September 11 and presumed dead. His body was never found, and his family had finally given into that grim reality. There was a photo of his sad wife and children, clearly still in the midst of their grieving.

I didn't want to write about the one-year anniversary of September 11. But marking a year after the death of a loved one is significant. In the Jewish faith it's called the "unveiling," when the tombstone is set and friends and family gather to reflect on their loss.

Sometimes just marking the passing of time is all we can do to get through such devastation.

And whether directly or indirectly, we all lost someone or something last year.

I talked to my dad, a retired New York City fire chief, and my brother, a New York City firefighter, about how they'd been getting on.

My brother was on duty at both terrorists' attacks -- the 1993 bombing and the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Towers. My dad went in and volunteered his services last September 11 for the search-and-rescue operation.

Our conversations were cryptic, especially with my brother. And rather than going into Manhattan to see the hole in the ground where those grand structures once stood, we went sailing off Long Island.

My brother is an avid sailor, and usually takes the summer off in his boat, traveling up and down the Atlantic coast. But he said this year he didn't leave New York, didn't want to deal with people asking questions, preferred to stay close to home. And that's all he said on the subject. We enjoyed the sea breeze and sun.

"A lot of firefighters just don't want to think about it anymore," my dad said. "These guys were there on the day, and spent days, weeks, and months digging for survivors. There's a lot of disappointment that so few were found."

He said that it's been a very emotional year for New York City's fire department, with so many funerals. He guessed that he's attended 50 himself, and said that's what retired firefighters do. Though he never dreamed there could be so many in one short year.

He said he's talked to some guys who just made it out of the collapsing towers, just survived. And they don't want to talk about it anymore, either. It's a private nightmare. And most of them are back on duty now.

It makes me wonder how they can keep doing the jobs they do.

"I've been to thousands of fires, and some horrific ones, but I've never had anyone lose their nerve," he said. "Maybe afterwards, they'll say it was awful, but never when they're on the job. It's called discipline."

I asked about the fear of another terrorist attack. Surely that's at the back of everyone's mind.

He explained that to save lives, every firefighter knows it will cost lives eventually, and they can't dwell on it.

I guess none of us can.

Sharon Driscoll is an Almanac staff writer who covers Portola Valley.


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