Saturday, December 16, 2017
News Roundup

Vinny Coakley, who sought to honor son killed on Sept. 11, dies at age 78

MADEIRA BEACH

To Vinny Coakley, watching the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 was bad enough. Mr. Coakley, a New York native who lived on Long Island then, stared at the television screen as the broken first tower exhaled smoke and flames.

He was watching when another plane bit into the second tower and exploded, but even then did not suspect the worst.

Mr. Coakley thought his son, New York City firefighter Steven Coakley, was not working that day. He was wrong.

Sept. 11 would remain a line of demarcation for the rest of his life, casting a shadow over even the most joyous occasions. Before that day, Mr. Coakley had achieved most of his ambitions, drunk deeply of quiet pleasures, such as the loving restoration of old cars, and savored his children's success.

His bond with his son Steven stood apart from all other relationships. For years he had spent his free time in Madeira Beach, helping Steven restore a salmon-colored waterfront home he bought in the mid 1990s.

The younger Coakley had an unusual living arrangement, working double and triple shifts for the New York City Fire Department to maximize his time in Madeira Beach, where he worked on the home he planned to inhabit permanently after he retired.

Toward that dream, father and son stockpiled time and companionship — caulking windows, spreading stucco and tacking 16-penny nails into joists.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Steven flew back to New York for the last time. He was ending his shift the next morning at Firehouse 217, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, when a call came in about an emergency at the World Trade Center.

"He was finishing his shift at 9 a.m.," Mr. Coakley wrote to the Madeira Beach Communicator Newsletter upon the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy, "but they say he jumped on the last truck out of the station to help his buddies. About 10 a.m. I got a call from the station that Steven was missing."

He later learned that Engine 217, Steven's truck, had arrived at the South Tower when both buildings were aflame. Steven Coakley was last seen in the lobby of the South Tower, shoving people clear of falling debris.

Months later, DNA from a bone fragment finally confirmed his death. His father began the restoration project of his life — that of his own soul.

Vincent Coakley was born in Queens and grew up in a tightly knit neighborhood.

"In those days, you dated within the vicinity," said Carol Coakley, his wife. "There were 16 of us who grew up together, and eventually married a girl on the block or a boy on the block."

He enjoyed breathing life into anything old and battered. There was, for example, the 1934 Ford he had adopted — with scurrying mice beneath the rumble seat.

He aimed for authenticity, not candy-apple glitter. "He made it like it was at the time," his wife said.

Over the years he drove a semitrailer truck, then hauled oil. For a while, he and Carol had an antique shop. He gave it up and returned to trucking. He read National Geographic and watched the History Channel.

Simple pleasures like that sufficed — before Sept. 11.

The first couple of years afterward, Mr. Coakley could not bring himself to spend much time at the house in Madeira Beach.

Around the end of 2003, he took a solitary camping trip to Florida. After sightseeing and walking the beach in the Keys, he decided to visit the house.

Before long, he was fixing the place up, landscaping the front yard and repainting Steven's 25-foot boat. "I found out this is exactly where I belong," Mr. Coakley told a reporter in 2004, "because this is Steven. I feel closer to him here. I feel like I am fulfilling his dreams."

Since then, Mr. Coakley finished adding a second story to the home. He and Carol bonded with others who had lost family members Sept. 11. He made a display with the names and photos of the 343 firefighters killed.

He mounted the display in front of his home for Steven's fellow firefighters, who came down every fall to remember him.

Hundreds more photos of Steven, along with his medals and plaques, lined the walls inside the home.

"We never spoke about, 'How bad are you taking this?' said Carol Coakley, 75. "But I think he took it worse than me."

Yet little by little, he was moving forward. He gained approval from the city for a monument honoring Steven and the other firefighters who died. A concrete firefighter stands next to a hydrant and a plaque, dedicated in 2005 on the Bay Point Drive bridge.

That kind of activism, coupled with his support of a new monument on the Tom Stuart Causeway and other beautification projects, earned Mr. Coakley the 2009 award by Madeira Beach as the city's citizen of the year.

In recent years, Mr. Coakley underwent multiple surgeries to combat skin cancer, his wife said. On Jan. 18, a Pinellas Park employee found him in his truck at a park, where he had apparently pulled over on the way to a doctor's appointment.

His family believes he died of heart failure. He was 78.

On Saturday, friends from the Tampa Bay area and New York firefighters gathered at Mohn Funeral Home in Seminole.

This time, they studied photographs of Vinny Coakley, a man who had done much to memorialize others and to make his city a better place.

Times photographer Cherie Diez contributed to this report.

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