CALL OF DUTY
THESE FAMILY MEMBERS OF EMERGENCY WORKERS WHO ANSWERED THE CALL OF DUTY ON SEPTEMBER 11 HAVE DEDICATED THEIR LIVES TO PAY TRIBUTE TO THEIR LOVED ONES
How the families of September 11 emergency workers are following in their loved ones’ footsteps.
When a fire starts in New York City, emergency radios break out in gravelly chatter. In between the crackle is the detail: what, where, who’s there, what they need.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, at 8.46am, as this static blared into a sunny autumn morning, firefighters across the city turned as one towards downtown. In the next hour, with communication systems down, the scene turned to chaos as the Twin Towers collapsed.
Of the 2977 victims that morning, 411 were “first responders” from the fire department, NYPD, paramedics and the Port Authority. Each left someone behind. While some of those family members have just survived, a handful of them have dedicated their lives and changed their paths to pay tribute to their loved ones by following in their footsteps.
Meet the legacies.
Chief Jim Riches,
FORMER FIRE CHIEF Jim Riches is a passionate advocate for the victims of 9/11 and is battling respiratory distress syndrome, which he believes comes from the toxic dust that blanketed Ground Zero for months and has now killed more firefighters than died in 2001.
His eldest son, Jim Riches Jnr, 29, was killed in the North Tower collapse, and now Jimmy’s three younger brothers, Timmy, Tommy and Danny, have followed him into the fire department.
Jim and his sons searched for months for Jimmy’s body, finally finding him the following March.
“We were down there every day with rakes and shovels, just picking up piece after piece,” he says. “The cranes would move it all and drop it and we would look through it. We just smelt death every day and that’s the way it was.
“When we found him, he was 50 feet [15m] below street level, and he had been on the sixth, seventh floor. That’s how far they were pushed down.”
The grief is still very raw for Jim and his wife Rita, who says she has lost count of the number of funerals they have been to for young men who died like their son, before their parents, “upsetting the natural order of things”.
“It’s exhausting,” she says. “You could cry every day.”
Louis Torres, RESCUE 4 IN QUEENS Danny Torres, LADDER 124 IN CROWN HEIGHTS
LIEUTENANT LOUIS TORRES, 53, likes to say he was disappointed when his son Danny quit his Wall Street job to join the fire department, but he’s actually pretty chuffed.
“He didn’t give me any signs until about a week before he was to go into the probational school, then he told me. I was surprised. I was a bit upset with him, but I am proud of him,” says Louis.
“I told him to take it real serious. This is not Wall Street – it can be dangerous and you need to take this occupation as a serious, serious job.”
As a child, Danny liked to ride in his father’s fire truck, but when he was 11 he watched him come home a little quieter each day for eight months after 9/11, as he worked the recovery zone. “During those days and months, I didn’t get to see him much,” says the 25-year-old. “He was tired coming home and he wasn’t really the same. He kept to himself more and was always tired.
“It was watching him throughout my life that told me I wanted to do this. I was in finance for three years and it was fast-paced, but it was a bit boring.
“But every day was a different day for my father. One day at work was never the same as the last.
“I think my father is happy that I have followed him, and it’s a privilege for me to have him to follow.”
ENGINE 39 ON NEW YORK’S UPPER EAST SIDE
WHEN JOSEPHINE SMITH was young, the little girl who became the first female legacy in New York’s fire department would marvel at her dad, the hero, counting the days until she could join him on the job. After working with hazardous materials for about 20 years, Kevin Smith, 47, perished after rushing to the World Trade Centre and has never been accounted for.
For Josephine, 36, there was never any question about what she would do when she grew up.
“My dad was definitely my hero. Seeing the type of person that he was, I wanted to be like him. Not even just at work – how he was in his life, with our family and friends, he was the guy who helped out,” she says. “He was there for everybody; everybody knew that and he was
“MY DAD WAS DEFINITELY MY HERO. I HAVE BIG SHOES TO FILL”
the guy that you would call. So it wasn’t so much the job that I wanted to follow; it was him as a person, that’s who I wanted to be. I have really big shoes to fill.
“It’s an honour to follow in my father’s footsteps. Every day I am here, I try to make my family proud, and my dad’s friends as well.
“There are still guys on the job who knew my father and who knew me, as well, growing up. Some of these guys I have known since I was a baby, so seeing them on the job, that’s pretty cool. I like to think he would be very proud of me.”
NYPD, 33RD PRECINCT IN WASHINGTON HEIGHTS
A FORMER TEACHER, Erin, 31, is the NYPD’S only female legacy, having four years ago inherited the badge number of her father, Sgt John Coughlin, who died on the 20th floor of the South Tower. She now frames decisions at work by questioning how he would have handled each situation, and feels a renewed connection to her father through their shared experience.
“My father was a giant man, both in stature and personality. He was a huge teddy bear,” says Erin.
“I keep a photo of him in my hat and we keep our hats with us all the time, no matter if we are in the car or on the street.
“He stays in there, so at any time he is always with me. Every now and then, the hat might move in the back seat and I like to think that it’s him letting me know I need to slow down or I need to be careful.
“Now that I’m on the job, I know there are some things he didn’t bring home, to protect us. He definitely told us all the exciting things – the kids he might have saved, that sort of thing. But I know now there are parts of the job he didn’t talk about, because we go from seeing the best of humanity to the worst, and it can tear your heart out. And there are jobs where you can’t believe that people can do such things.
“Everything I have done, he is the first thing in my mind. Every decision I have made, I keep in mind what he taught me. I know he is sitting up there beaming that I am here doing this.”
Matt Allen, BROOKLYN LADDER 147 Luke Allen, BROOKLYN LADDER 105
AMONG THE MOST junior firefighters to die in 9/11, Richie Allen was one of six probationary officers who hadn’t yet been assigned to a station. The 31-yearold was also one of the first to arrive that morning, and perished in the North Tower. The oldest of six brothers, he was followed into service by Matt, now 31, and Luke, 35.
Luke, a former teacher and lifeguard, says signing up was a natural progression: “I always knew I wanted to do something noble, that if I was going to spend a lot of hours in a day
working, I wanted to do something that was for the greater good.
“I never would have considered myself a fire buff, but now my younger brother has also joined we’re constantly shooting stories back and forth about different runs and different fires we have been to. My older brother, he would have loved all of that. He would have loved being in on all that, showing me the way.
“To have all three of us on the job would have been amazing. Obviously that wasn’t the universe’s plan, but sometimes I do feel him smiling down on me, definitely.”
The youngest of six, Matt was a senior in high school in 2001 and had several jobs before becoming a firefighter two years ago in tribute to his brother.
“He was the first of all of us,” says Matt. “So, pretty much anything and everything that I remember about him is that he shaped me. Everything I did: music; when I got my hair cut like a little punk-rock kid; you know, skateboarding. Growing up, everything you want to do is [because] you want to please him; you want to hang out with your older brother.
“I remember when I was six or seven years old, playing football, and I would try to tackle my other siblings just so he would recognise it.
“He shaped and set the stage for a lot of the things I do today. I wanted to be just like him, I really did. I know he is proud of me. Where I am at today, and who I have become since the loss of my brother, is something I know he is looking at me and just smiling on.” Michael Stack,
BROOKLYN LADDER 176 Brian Stack, RESCUE 4 IN QUEENS
LIKE ALMOST HALF of those who perished in 9/11, Battalion Chief Lawrence Stack’s body was never found in the wasteland of Ground Zero, and it was only this year that his family was able to hold a memorial service for him. With no remains identified, they instead recovered a blood sample the 58-year-old donated shortly before his death and it was buried with full honours in June.
Back in 2001, his eldest son, Michael, was a junior firefighter. He spent months combing the wreckage alongside his younger brother, Brian, who was a corrections officer at Rikers Island. It was during this search that Brian was recruited to the fire department.
“I have been a firefighter since 2002,” says Brian, 44.
“My father was a fireman, my grandfather was a fireman and I had a lot of uncles and cousins who were on the job. It was never forced on me. My father would never say to me, ‘You have to be a fireman.’
“But I was down at Ground Zero for a couple of months. We started digging and then I spent all that time with the fire department and it was a natural transition. I was down there digging and one day they said, ‘That’s it, you’re coming to the department,’ and then that was it. “I think he would be very proud.” Michael, 46, says his father died doing what he loved, having raced to Ground Zero after seeing the second plane crash into the South Tower.
“They were in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and they went up to the roof level and [saw] the second plane hit, and my father puts his binoculars down, turns to his guys and says, ‘I think they are going to need us,’” explains Michael.
“He was caught in the first collapse and he helped get a couple of people out. My father was actually pinned to a wall and he couldn’t get out after the South Tower came down. He was caught in this wall and he had to wiggle out of his coat, and he left his coat behind. So the only thing we did find was his coat.
“As he was getting everyone out, he came across a large man who had a severed Achilles tendon and was lying on the ground.
“My father stayed [with him] and then the [North] Tower came down, and that’s the story. He would never have left that guy there, never.”
“THE ONLY THING WE DID FIND WAS MY FATHER’S COAT”