My Dad, My Hero
Most kids grow up thinking their dad is their hero. For me that was the case as my Dad was a Chicago fireman. He is now retired. Like most parents though my Dad had flaws, and as I grew older I started to see those flaws in my dad. It got to the point that in the summer of 2001 I told him that while I loved him, I didn’t want to speak to him. As he drove me to college for my Junior year we barely spoke a word on the seven-hour drive, or while he helped me move my stuff into my room. That all changed on a Tuesday morning though.
I had a 7:45 a.m. CST Global Ethics class on the third floor of St. Mary’s Hall. As I always do, I got to class a few minutes early. Class started moments before the first plane hit the first tower. I’ll never forget that class. We were talking about why people in other parts of the world might not like us so much and might try and harm us without a clue as to what was happening.
My next class, a journalism class with maybe nine students in it was right across the hall. I was usually the first person in the classroom, but I noticed a handful of professors were in the room with their backs to the door, lights turned off staring at the TV. I saw the towers and saw the smoke, so I immediately thought they were watching something on the ’93 bombing of the World Trade Center. Those thoughts quickly disappeared as they showed a close-up of the tower.
Other students from my class started showing up, and we just watched from the doorway. It was then that the second plane struck, and there was an audible gasp and some tears. Our professor told us that there would be no class that day, but encouraged us to follow him. He took us, and the faculty gathered in that classroom, to a room most of us students didn’t know existed. It was a multimedia room that allowed us to watch every major feed at once on large projected screens. The president of the university was sitting across the aisle from me, and down two rows. He is a big jovial Christian brother who grew up in New York. Gone was his smile, replaced with a look of fear. His hands were folded in his lap as I am sure he was praying the whole time he watched the events unfold before him.
Sitting next to me was my professor from my Global Issues class. Another New Yorker whose brother I later learned worked in one of the buildings adjacent to the World Trade Center. We were sitting there watching when all of the sudden one of the towers started to disappear. We saw what was happening, but our minds weren’t comprehending what we were seeing. The professor next to my dropped his head into his folded arms and started crying. Unconsciously I placed my hand on his shoulder. He later let us know his brother was OK.
I sat in that room for several hours before making my way to my then fiance, now wife’s room. We sat in her room with her roommate and her boyfriend watching the coverage. At that point in the day, we knew that we were at war. Class was canceled for the rest of the day, except for one class – Theory of Coaching, which I had.
When we got to class one of the students asked the professor, the baseball coach, why we were having class. His response was simple. He said that it appeared the attacks were over, and if we were in our rooms we’d be watching the coverage, feeling scared, sad, angry, and all these other emotions, but if we were in class for an hour talking about coaching our minds would be elsewhere, and we’d maybe be at peace for a few moments in a day we’d all remember for such tragedy. He was right. Those of us that showed up needed that break in our day.
Hockey captain’s practices started almost the moment we got on campus, and my group was supposed to skate later in the evening after I had a phone call with my dad (more on that later). I walked to the rink, got to my stall, and just sat there. One of the captains walked in, looked at me, and asked if I was OK. I said no, I wasn’t. For the first time in my life I didn’t want to skate. My teammates were there for me that day. We say that what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room. What I will say is that day my teammates were my brothers. They saw I was hurting, and they were there for me.
My Dad’s Day
At the time my dad was the head of trench rescue and building collapse for the fire department. He left the house early that day in a department vehicle and headed towards Springfield, IL, the capital for a meeting. It is a three-hour drive. The vehicle he was driving that day didn’t have an AM/FM radio, and he was well outside of Chicago’s radio range when the first plane hit the World Trade Center so he was driving downstate with no idea what was happening.
He told me that there was somebody waiting for him in the parking lot when he got to Springfield to tell him the news. He barely got out of his car before getting back in to head back to Chicago lights and siren. According to him, he made it back in an hour and a half.
As it became clear that the attacks were over, the fire department started assembling a crew of their best. They couldn’t officially command any of the guys to go, but that wasn’t an issue. The guys wanted to go. The only issue was clearing paperwork to cover their shifts, and figuring out how they’d get there. One of the guys had an RV that was affectionately referred to as the Griswold Mobile even though it looked more like the urban assault RV from the movie Stripes. The water department had just gotten some new 12 person vans, so they quickly sent two over to the shops to get CFD striping and lettering on them. There was also a cargo truck that they filled with tools and supplies. According to my dad, the only directive was to bring the vehicles back. They left all the tools for their FDNY brothers.
The morning of September 12th the chosen group assembled at the Chicago Fire Academy with their families and the department Chaplin. News crews were there, but the Chaplin did a nice job making sure the families and firemen had privacy as they said their goodbyes. Goodbyes that they didn’t know if they’d be forever, or for now.
As the group left the fire academy, the Chicago Police gave them a police escort to the Illinois-Indiana state line. The Indiana State Police got wind of what was happening, and meet the caravan at the state line to give them an escort through Indiana my Dad said. According to him, they had a police escort till Pennsylvania. They had an escort in Pennsylvania, but they couldn’t keep up with it because the trooper was driving so fast.
My Dad’s cousin and his wife were stranded in Boston as they were supposed to fly back to Minnesota that morning. They got one of the last rental cars in the city and started driving back on Sept. 12. Somewhere in Indiana heading west they saw a caravan of vehicles with Chicago Fire Department markings on them heading east. His cousin said he looked to his wife and said, “I bet cousin Joe is in there.” Little did he know he was right.
Local Mcdonald’s franchisees gave the caravan vouchers for food, and gas station owners did the same so they didn’t have to pay for food or fuel, but my dad said every time they stopped, they couldn’t pay. People along the way knew where they were going without having to ask, and insisted on picking up the tab.
Firemen have a sense of humor that some call twisted or sick. To them, it’s how they cope with what they see. My dad said the journey to New York was filled with your typical firehouse banter and laughing. The mood was pretty light until they hit the George Washington Bridge. He said as they crossed the bridge things got serious, and they put their game faces on. They didn’t know what they were in for, but they were ready for it.
When they got to New York City they set up camp on the street and joined forces with their brothers and sisters from the FDNY and NYPD.
The Phone Call
Shortly after 7:00 p.m. my phone rang. It was the phone call I had been waiting for since I watched the first tower fall. In fact all day I had been saying my Dad would be going to New York. He was the collapse rescue guy in Chicago, how couldn’t they send him. People kept telling me I was wrong, that they needed him in Chicago.
My phone rang, and it was the unmistakable off-campus double ring. My wife was in the room with me. In college (this is pre everyone having cell phones), I might talk to my parents once a week, and the calls would last 30-45 minutes. Below is the transcript of this phone call.
Dad: I’m going to New York in the morning.
Me: I know.
Dad: I don’t know when…or if I’ll be home. (fighting back tears). I love you.
Me: (Fighting back tears) I love you too.
We simply couldn’t say anything else. Nothing else needed to be said.
After the call I slumped into my wife’s lap and lost it. In my heart I had resigned myself to the fact that I might have just talked to my dad for the last time. He knew how I felt. Sure there was always that chance when he normally went to work, and the thoughts crossed my mind when I’d talk to him on the phone when he was at the firehouse, but this was different.
Ten days later my phone had that unmistakable double-ring again late in the evening after captain’s practice. I answered the phone, and before I could say hello my mom was joyously exclaiming on the other end, “They’re coming home! They’re coming home!”
My Mom didn’t know when they’d be home, but she had just talked to my Dad, and he said they had been relieved of their duty and they were all coming home safe. If I would have had a car on campus I would have driven the seven hours back to Chicago to be there when they arrived home. I went through a few scenarios in my head of cars I could borrow but didn’t act on them. The families and fire department made sure to keep this to themselves as they didn’t want the media there for the reunion. This was a private moment. There would simply be too much emotion that didn’t need to be shared. I didn’t make it home for their return, but I wished I could have. In fact, I didn’t see my dad until November.
After returning, a few weeks later my Dad mentioned that he’d be willing to come to campus and talk to my journalism class about his experience. He talked to my professor, and a date was set. Not wanting my Dad to drive from Chicago just to talk to nine students he asked if my Dad would be OK if the talk was moved from the classroom to an auditorium so other students could attend if they chose. My dad had no objections. The day came and the auditorium was standing room only with some not even able to make it in the door. He shared photos one of the guys took while they were there, talked about what they did, saw, smelt, etc., and answered questions.
After his talk, my professor said he was shocked. Other than the nine of us in my class, not one student was required to attend his talk (as sometimes was the case), and this was the first time the auditorium was filled for a speaker. All those students chose to attend on their own – as well as quite a bit of the faculty.
After his talk we headed over to the ice rink to board a bus for an away game. My coach let my dad ride the bus with us to the game. I don’t remember the outcome of that game, but I remember that day.
The attacks of September 11th shook not just our country, but the world. We saw evil that day, but we saw the absolute best that humanity has to offer emerge. That day we weren’t democrats or republicans, black or white, Blackhawks fans or Blues fans, American or Canadian – we were people. We were people who cared about our neighbors despite their difference. Somehow my dad’s experience in New York repaired our family too.
Firefighters say the fire service is a brotherhood. They are brothers and sisters, but that sense of family doesn’t end with them. They have extended families. I may not be a fireman, but I grew up the son of a fireman so I feel a part of that brotherhood, just as my Mom and sister do. It’s called a brotherhood, but it’s more accurately a family.
What is often overlooked is the families of first responders. When I was a kid I wouldn’t watch the news every third day because Dad was at work. We saw him loaded into the back of an ambulance at a big fire once, and that was all I needed. I had classmates lose their dads to the job. When I think of the 343 FDNY firefighters we lost on September 11, 2001, I think of those firemen, but I think about their kids. My greatest fear as a kid is their reality.
Like most families, the firefighter brotherhood has an extended family that they like to pick on, but when things get serious, they’re in the fight together. Police are that weird cousin the firefighters just can’t get rid of, but wouldn’t want to either. To those close to the fire service the number 343 is almost sacred. It’s on my beer league team’s new jerseys. When we think of 343 we’re not forgetting the 60 police officers (37 Port Authority, 23 NYPD) or 8 paramedics that were taken from us. It’s simply our way of saying we haven’t and never will forget them, or any of the 2,977 that died that day in New York, Washington D.C., or Shanksville, PA.
My wife is binge-watching Gilmore Girls right now and the character Luke has one day each year he calls his ‘Dark Day’. It turns out that day is the anniversary of the day his dad died. September 11 is my Dark Day. I’m flooded with emotions every year, and the feelings are as if it happened yesterday. I make sure our flag is at half-mast every year. I wear one of my fire department shirts. I call my Dad to say hi. He knows why I’m calling, but we don’t talk about it. We talk about what we’re up to, the weather, my kids. We don’t need to talk about it, because we both know – it’s all we can think about. We both know because we will never forget.
thanks for the great post. I’ve got tears in my eyes, but the good kind
Thanks so much for writing this.