Remember the FDNY At Ground Zero

The idea has been circulating, quietly, for several months now, and soon it’s likely to find its way into the public debate over the future of Ground Zero: a separate memorial for the 343 members of the Fire Department of New York killed in the line of duty on Sept. 11, 2001.

One of those pushing the idea is a retired firefighter named John Finucane, who has been off the job for more than a decade but, like so many retired firefighters, still has strong ties to the men and women in today’s FDNY. Mr. Finucane is not looking for a confrontation with planners, architects and politicians; he and his allies are relying on gentle persuasion and quiet lobbying. Still, there’s no mistaking his determination and his passion. He believes a proper memorial at Ground Zero must recognize the special sacrifice of the 343 FDNY members who have been hailed the world over as heroes. And while he believes the same should be true for city police, Port Authority police and other emergency workers who died on 9/11, he is quick to add that he speaks only for a growing movement of active and retired FDNY members who wish to see their fallen comrades formally recognized at the site where they risked, and lost, their lives.

“We haven’t developed anything more than the idea,” Mr. Finucane said. “We don’t have a design plan at the moment. But we know we want something that will list their names, ranks, badge numbers and companies. We want them together, because they gave their lives together. And we want it at the site, because that’s where they died.”

At the moment, there are no plans for a separate firefighters’ memorial at the site. The names of the fallen 343 could be included with the names of all the nearly 3,000 men and women who died that day. In making the case for a separate firefighters’ memorial, Mr. Finucane and his allies are being very careful to point out that they are not minimizing the deaths of civilians or the grief and suffering of their survivors.

“Every life lost on that day is equally precious,” Mr. Finucane said. “We understand that.”

What Mr. Finucane and others also understand is that the New York City firefighter became, on that terrible day, a symbol of courage, selflessness and love when barbarism, cowardice and hate seemed triumphant. Other rescue workers lost their lives on that day, and within those mortally wounded towers, men and women in civilian clothes performed acts of heroism and sacrifice that have been lost to history. The firefighters, however, because of the magnitude of their horrifying loss, became the symbols of our suffering, our grief and our defiance.

The Fire Department does have a memorial of its own in Riverside Park, and every year active and retired members gather there for medal ceremonies, and to hear the words of the great Chief Edward Croker read aloud: “I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman,” said Croker, who served as Chief of Department in the early 20th century. “[Our] proudest endeavor is to save the lives of people – the work of God Himself. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even at the supreme sacrifice.” The Firefighters’ Memorial is dedicated to all those firefighters who have made the supreme sacrifice in New York.

But again, nothing in the history of New York or its fire service comes close to the atrocity of Sept. 11, which is why Mr. Finucane and others believe there should be a separate memorial for the heroes of that day-and that it should be at Ground Zero and not, as one official suggested to Mr. Finucane, in Battery Park. The fledgling campaign’s Web site (www.fdnyfirefighters.com) encourages firefighters and civilians alike to contact Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg-who, the memorial’s supporters believe, are more likely to be responsive than the bureaucrats in charge of downtown redevelopment.

“Here’s what we want,” Mr. Finucane said. “When people 10, 50 and 100 years from now go to that site, we want them to understand the magnitude of the Fire Department’s sacrifice on that day. And we don’t want that message lost in some corner of the site.”

Eighteen months after the attack, we haven’t forgotten our firefighter heroes (even if we don’t pay them as such). History, however, has a less-than-perfect memory. A memorial at the site of their greatest sacrifice would remind future generations of a time and a place when New York’s firefighters showed the world the power of bravery and love-even in the face of terror.