a bit of Chapter 3 – No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family and the FDNY.

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Chapter 3

Manhattan, Meetings and Memorials –  first draft (unedited)

Tuesday September 18 was the first time I ventured into the city since the attacks.  Squad 41 notified me of a FDNY meeting and their offer to pick me up and take me to one of the various gathering spots from where I would be moved to the actual meeting. It was all quite mysterious. I supposed the intention was two-fold – one keep the media away and to protect the identity and privacy of the family members. I decided that we would get ourselves into the city. Manhattan had been my stomping grounds during my teens and twenties. In recent years trips into the city were for Christmas decoration viewing or museum trips with my girls. I didn’t see the need for a FDNY escort so Tony, Carol’s husband, drove me, Christine and Emily in. Meghan stayed at “Auntie” Carol’s house.

As much as I didn’t feel I needed a FDNY escort, I felt the need to represent my firefighter husband in an honoring way. I carefully choose my attire to show respect for the importance of a meeting that would be attended by the governor, mayor and other city officials. I was shocked when we arrived and there were people wearing t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.

The drive into the city was surreal. Men in full military garb with the biggest guns I had ever seen were guarding the George Washington Bridge. I felt like I had been transported to another country.  We don’t have military on our bridges. This is the United States of America.  Looking at the skyline, I had no idea where the towers had stood. They were south of the Empire State Building but where?

Christine commented “I thought I would know where they had been. Like there would be a cardboard cut-out or something?”

We chose the Fire Zone at Rockefeller Center as our meeting spot. We were met by concerned faces, offered cups of water, cookies, restrooms and assurances the buses would be arrive shortly. Plain clothes police or security or whomever directed us to the buses as they received instructions in their earpieces and spoke into their sleeves.

As we crossed the closed off street, Emily said “Mom, I think we are in a bad movie.”

“Me, too.”

Boarding the bus, I saw faces with the same dazed look I am sure my face had. Most people had family or friends with them, my heart was deeply saddened at the sight of a young man who was all alone. Is he representing his dad? He is too young to have to be the man of the family.

The bus drove a few blocks to a large hotel where we were directed to a ballroom. We found four seats at a table and introduced ourselves. The one young woman was the fiancé of a firefighter. The other three people were the wife and grown children of an FDNY officer.

I glanced around the room to see if I knew anyone. Since my interactions with the other wives from Squad 41 was only at the yearly Christmas party and annual dinner dance, I didn’t think I would recognize anyone. Over the past few days, I had spoken to one of the other Squad 41 wives whose husband was also listed as missing.  I had promised her if/when the time came to declare them dead I would take that first step. I would take the lead.

Mayor Giuliana, Governor Pataki, Chief Thomas Von Essen from the FDNY and the Medical Examiner spoke. The purpose of the meeting was to inform us that the mission was going from rescue to recovery. They had found no one alive in days so it was time to change the focus. The heavy equipment was going to be brought in to move the debris. There was discussion about DNA samples and opportunity to give DNA before you left. In the years since that meeting, some FDNY widows have come to call it “the leave your DNA at the door meeting.” The formal meeting part was followed by a question and answer time during which time many people myself included wandered around looking for familiar faces.

I eventually saw the other wives from Squad 41. I didn’t really know these women as personal friends. Our husbands worked together but I didn’t know them. So here we were navigating this terrible event together but not together. I remember hugs, brief conversations and the promise to pray for each other. At one point, I said “why don’t we pray right now.” Did I just say that out loud?

I found Tony while the other wives gathered their families. The scene is so vivid in my mind. I’m standing in this large ballroom, the noise level was high, there were people all around, the commissioner of the FDNY was onstage answering someone’s question and we are holding hands in a circle. And for a moment the other voices in the room fade away and there was only this circle of people and Tony’s voice offering a prayer of hope. More hugs and promises to stay in touch.

The next morning, I informed Christine that it was time to have a memorial service. It was time to pronounce Bruce dead. I decided that there were three groups of people that I needed to know were okay with the idea before I made plans – my daughters, my mother-in-law and the Squad 41 firefighters. In a phone conversation with my sister-in-law, I realized my mother-in-law had scheduled a meeting with her lawyer to change her will. I took that as a sign that she assumed Bruce was dead. I mentioned to Charlie that I wanted to have a memorial service. He assured me that it is up to me when and where but that the fire department hadn’t given up hope of finding the guys.

That evening, Christine and I sat on the living room floor with Emily and Meghan.

“Where do you think Daddy is right now?”

“Heaven.”

“Then it is time we plan a memorial service.”

“But what if we are wrong? What if they find Daddy?”

“I would like nothing better than for Daddy to walk into his own service. I don’t          have to be right, but it is time.”

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