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Father leans on others to cope with loss of N.Y. City firefighter son on 9/11

It's hard to imagine a prouder father than Manny Mojica Sr. or, in the days after 9/11, a more heartbroken one.

Mojica, 72, was a professional tough guy, a former welterweight boxer and retired New York City police officer.

Manny Mojica Jr. was like a bigger, more muscular version of his dad: high school football player, U.S. Marine, bodybuilder, motorcycle rider and New York City firefighter.

He was an elite member of the Fire Department, too, a hazardous materials specialist with a reputation for shielding other firefighters in dangerous situations.

"He was very aggressive," his father said last week. "He always liked a challenge, that kid."

So when his son's squad responded to the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Mojica Jr., 37, naturally charged up a set of stairs, carrying nearly 100 pounds of equipment and fighting a tide of evacuating office workers. He radioed in to report he had made it to the 18th floor of Tower 1 minutes before it collapsed.

The elder Mojica, of Spring Hill, agreed to be interviewed by the Times a week later. Rereading that story recently, I expected that after a decade's worth of 9/11 reports, it wouldn't mean much.

Thankfully, I was wrong. It almost made me tear up.

But Mojica's story isn't just about sadness. It's about getting through it, getting better.

Ten years ago, Mojica still worked as a Hernando school bus driver. His supervisor pulled him off his route on 9/11, a Tuesday, and for three days he numbly watched the news and hoped in vain to hear that his son had been found alive.

Then, on Friday, he summoned the strength to drive to New York, where he was surprised to be treated like a hero.

When he walked down the street, people stopped him, thanked him and promised to pray for him. His son's fellow firefighters hugged him, fed him, told admiring stories about Mojica Jr. and, on the Saturday after the attack, gently broke the news that his body had been found in the rubble.

"You wouldn't believe how great everybody's been up here," the elder Mojica said in that first telephone interview from New York.

All this didn't make the pain go away, of course, especially because three years and two days after 9/11, his wife, Gladys, suddenly died from an infection caused by a kidney stone.

"I was very depressed for several years," he said last week.

But then he went through a more prolonged version of his spirit-lifting trip to New York. He started to get out more in a community that has so many transplants from New York it can seem like a sixth borough — Spring Hill.

Not that his friends mention his loss when he sips an occasional vodka cocktail at VFW Post 10209 or hangs out with other retired New York police officers in the 10-13 Club. "There's no special treatment," he said. But they respect what he and his son sacrificed just as much as those crowds in New York did a decade ago. And it helps a lot.

Mojica looks younger than his age — plenty of hair, just a few pounds over his fighting weight. "I feel pretty good physically and emotionally," he said.

Of course, he hasn't forgotten his son, who besides being a tough guy was a cheerful, respectful and energetic guy, his father said, as well as a good family man. His widow, Anna, and two children, now teenagers, are doing well and living on Long Island.

It's just that his father learned to think less about losing his son and more about how great it was to have him in his life all those years.

"We were buddies until the day he died," Mojica said as he patted his chest. "I've got him imbedded right in here."

Mojica is not as upbeat about the country as a whole. He wasn't that thrilled when Osama bin Laden was killed in May. "They should have killed him years ago," he said.

He's dismayed that people no longer take the threat of another terrorist attack seriously. "I don't think this country learned anything," he said.

And what lesson do I see in Mojica's story and the way he was pulled out of his deep grief by the people of New York and Spring Hill?

Only an old, obvious one, a lesson that applies as much now as it did then: In tough times, we need to stick together.

Father leans on others to cope with loss of N.Y. City firefighter son on 9/11 09/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 10:15pm]
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