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The Long Year of Rescue 5

Images From a Staten Island Firehouse That Lost 11 Men in the Attacks of Sept. 11.

September 01, 2002|GARY FRIEDMAN

Last Sept. 13, my newspaper flew me to New York to cover a horror. I didn't expect to find a family. But here I am, weeks later, standing in a Staten Island church, an American flag rippling outside against the brisk October sky, as friends and family remember John Bergin, one of 11 men from the New York Fire Department's Rescue Company 5 unit who perished when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

The shock of those early days is behind us. Realities are now settling in, one eulogy at a time. John Bergin, they say, was a kind and gentle man, a caring father, a brother to fellow firefighters, an imposing figure who seemed likely to start brawls but instead was the guy who stopped them. His casket is empty, as will be those of eight other Rescue 5 firefighters whose remains were never found.

The mourners soon adjourn to the grave site, then to the firehouse. I tag along. How many times in 32 years as a newspaper photographer have I been to other sad events and walked away, as journalists are supposed to do? Firemen have their codes, too. They bond as brothers, suspicious of outsiders, especially those with cameras who might lift the family veil. Yet when the captain arrives at the firehouse, he extends a hand to me and says, in as many words, ''You are welcome here.''

Bergin's good friend Jerry Koenig begins to speak, to recall how the two of them came to the fire company at the same time and developed a close friendship. Koenig felt that Bergin was truly like a brother, one with whom he never argued. "I feel him feeling worse for us down here, suffering for our loss, and I get the feeling we'll know we will be together again. They are smiling down on us and they'll tell us not to worry about us, and we'll see them soon."

During the months ahead, I return to this family of Rescue 5 as often as I can--hanging out in the firehouse kitchen, talking to widows and children, riding the rescue rig to "the pile'' for more searching, joining them at an Italian restaurant as they salute the fallen on the day the World Trade Center recovery officially ends. Each time they let me in, they embrace me. My walls of detachment come crashing down.

As the days tick past, I see them move forward, every day becoming a little easier. Joe Esposito zings me with faux insults, his way of warming up. He lost a brother and a cousin on Sept. 11. Firefighter Bill Spade is flown to Pasadena for honors in the Rose Parade, and six months later to Fargo, N.D., to serve as grand marshal of the city's July 4 parade. He is the only surviving man among the 12 from Rescue 5 who reached the towers that day. He is starting to smile again.

For my part, I have grown to love 11 men I never met--and their brothers who took me into their family. Sometime in late October, a plaque honoring the dead will be unveiled at the firehouse. I hope to make one last photograph.

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