A Final Salute For the Fallen

By noon on Friday, Oct. 5, the

sun had finally cleared the apartment buildings facing St. Ignatius Loyola

Church on Park Avenue. It was a summer sun, bright and hot, and if you were

standing on the steps of the church or lingering on the sidewalk, you found

yourself moving toward the street, where it was shady. There was no traffic in

the southbound lanes. Cars were being diverted at East 85th Street so the

avenue would be clear when the family of Firefighter Thomas Cullen III stepped

from the cool darkness of the church into the sunshine.

There were 15 funerals or memorial services for fallen

firefighters on Oct. 5. Had there been just one or two, there would have been

many more blue uniforms inside the church or lingering in the street, waiting

to perform rituals now so terribly familiar: the honor guard, the final salute,

the bagpipers’ laments. The Fire Department is so drained of men and material

that it asked colleagues from Paramus and Englewood, N.J., to bring their

ladder truck

into Manhattan to help salute Firefighter

Cullen. The yellow Englewood rig was parked near the sidewalk, the Paramus

truck on the far side of the southbound lanes, and from their raised towers

hung an American flag.

“They don’t have enough trucks

to cover all the funerals,” one of the Englewood firefighters said. Underneath

the flag was Squad 41’s rig, which in other times would receive the

firefighter’s flag-draped casket. On this day, at this service, there was no

casket.

The memorial mass was long and sad. A few hundred firefighters

were in the pews, along with Firefighter Cullen’s family and friends-so young,

those friends. Cullen was just a month into his 31st year on Sept. 11. His

colleagues, in dress uniforms, clutched his memorial card as they knelt to

pray. On the front was a picture of Cullen in full battle dress; on the back

was a heartbreaking farewell from his wife, Susan: “When I was young, I dreamed

of finding someone really special who would come into my life …. When I grew older, I found that person …. “

Outside, some of Cullen’s colleagues gathered in small groups in

the shade. Many had duties to perform once mass was over. Four bagpipers sat

under a tree on the Park Avenue median. A fireman with a bugle paced nearby. An

officer in a white hat drew a line in the street with a piece of chalk. Men

from Engine Companies 22 and 44 wandered about in their bunker pants, boots and

work shirts. They were on call.

Through it all, life as the

Upper East Side knows it went on almost as if nothing else were going on. Two

young blondes dressed in the black of fashion and not of mourning strolled by,

each attached to a cell phone. A young father in shorts and a T-shirt hurried

by, his young son on his shoulders. Under the young father’s right arm was a

copy of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of

Brothers . He passed groups of firefighters from Boston, Mineola, Larchmont

and Elizabeth, N.J., chatting quietly with their NYFD brethren. A little boy,

no more than 3, pointed as an honor guard stepped into the street. “Why do they

have flags?” he asked his nanny. “For the fireman who died,” she replied. He

grabbed her hand and started to pull her away. “I don’t want to be here,” he

said. “Where’s mommy?” The nanny gathered the child into her arms and whispered

comfort.

The small talk and the waiting

stopped around noon, when applause from inside the church signaled the end of

the mass and the beginning of one last ritual. Firemen in heavy blue jackets,

blue shirts, blue ties and white gloves streamed from the church and deployed

on the street in three rows, to the left of the chalk mark. As Cullen’s widow

and family emerged from the church, the firefighters came to attention and

saluted. They all looked straight ahead; some of the men in the front row were

crying; some shoulders sagged forward. The bagpipers played “Going Home.” The

bugler played “Taps” and missed the high note. The pipers sounded again, this

time with “America the Beautiful,” and Thomas Cullen’s widow and family and

friends walked slowly past the lines of saluting firemen. They disappeared into

an anteroom in the church’s basement. An officer shouted “Dismissed,” and the

firefighters broke ranks and hugged each other and lit their cigarettes with

little Bic lighters.

Fifteen times on this lovely October day, the lines of

firefighters saluted and wept. They will continue these terrible and beautiful

rituals until each of the 350 fallen have been prayed for and saluted for their

extraordinary sacrifice.

Seeing them weep, seeing them embrace, seeing them struggle to

straighten their shoulders, you wonder how they will get through this terrible

time. But then you remember the pride they take in being called “The Bravest.”

A Final Salute For the Fallen