In a small room at Fire Department headquarters in downtown Brooklyn, the floor plan of Madison Square Garden is balanced on an easel. It has been marked up with purple, turquoise and green highlighters. These colors represent where the families of the 343 firefighters killed on Sept. 11 will sit during the FDNY’s Memorial Day event on Oct. 12.
“Each family will get seven tickets,” said Firefighter Jim Carney, one of nine FDNY members detailed to organize the mammoth event. “This is not a funeral,” he continued. “It’s a memorial service-where we will not forget, but it is time to go forward. On this day, the families will be the most important people.”
Mr. Carney is a florid-faced Irishman, born on the East Side and raised in Queens. At 55, he’s been a firefighter for 23 years, after a tour in Vietnam with the Marines and some time in the bar business. He’s a tall man with warm blue eyes. His daughters say that if Mr. Carney gets the microphone at the memorial ceremony, he’ll tell jokes for hours.
The room in which Mr. Carney works has spreadsheets and notices lining the walls. A young woman firefighter fields phone calls from families of the lost men. Color-coded posters mark the geographic location of the roughly 75 firehouses that suffered casualties. The firefighters banter and troubleshoot: How do you make sure that 2,000 family members are picked up by limo from all over the metropolitan area and brought to midtown? How do you defuse family tensions in the seating arrangements?
Immediately after Sept. 11, Mr. Carney was pulled out of the Harlem Hilton-the firehouse on 143rd Street where Engine Co. 69 is based-by outgoing Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen to organize the hundreds of firefighter funerals. The chiefs at headquarters knew that Mr. Carney ran national trade shows as his second job. Mr. Carney set up contacts at each devastated firehouse to deal with funerals and memorial services.
“I attended about half of the funerals,” Mr. Carney said. He lost his good friend, the legendary Capt. Pat Brown, and his cousin, Lt. Ray Murphy. “When Ray’s body was found, his wife Linda said to me, ‘You brought Ray home.’ I sat with Ray [at the funeral home] for six or seven hours, telling him all the jokes I’d never told him.”
The stress of hundreds of funerals eventually got to Mr. Carney, as well as the carnage and horrible smells at Ground Zero, which brought back some post-traumatic stress from Vietnam. His temper became short and explosive, leading him to seek grief counseling.
The upcoming memorial service will honor not only the 343 hero firefighters, but also three World Trade Center fire marshals and a member of the private-sector Fire Patrol killed in the attacks, as well as nine firefighters killed on the job in the year before Sept. 11.
There’s a handwritten list of the dead and missing on the office wall. The names are unforgettable to anyone who read the long and terrible list of obituaries in the weeks and months following Sept. 11. Among the names were those of Vernon Cherry, an African-American firefighter with a droopy mustache and brilliant smile; Frank Palombo, who left behind 10 kids; and Capt. Vinny Brunton, a handsome and charismatic Brooklyn officer. Thousands of mourners packed a Windsor Terrace high-school auditorium after his funeral. “I was a probationary fireman with Vinny,” said Mr. Carney.
The 25,000 seats of Madison Square Garden and its adjacent theater space will hold the families of the lost firefighters, active-duty and retired FDNY members, and some politicians. Mustered outside on Eighth Avenue will be 50,000 firefighters from around the world, watching the service on giant video screens. The three-and-a-half-hour ceremony has been designed to reflect tradition, but also to handle the unprecedented number of casualties. A Fire Department escort will present each family with a posthumous medal as the firefighter’s name is read. A photograph of the firefighter will be projected on a screen above the stage, and a bell will toll.
Plaques with the names of hero firefighters will be unveiled when the ceremony begins at 9:30 a.m., “so the men’s spirits will be present,” Mr. Carney said. The plaques will eventually be placed in the individual firehouses where they worked.
Mr. Carney admitted that he worries about the firefighters’ families and the intense grief and public exposure over the past year. “I am not going to use the word ‘closure,’ because many people aren’t going to feel closure. We hope that this ceremony can be a stepping stone for people to get on with life.”
Mr. Carney paused. “One of the main goals,” he said, “is that the families will come away with a little less grief and a little less anger.”
(Terry Golway will return to this space in two weeks.)