Farewell to the Ladder 7 Can Man

Published April 14, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

They have broken down doors to dive into burning buildings, rescued babies and businessmen from every kind of inferno, jumped off roofs, smelled melting flesh.

They're supposed to be unemotional on duty, they're not supposed to cry. But today some do.

For two blocks, they line both sides of the street, shoulder to shoulder, at least eight deep. More than 2,000 of them, decked out in their dress blues, with black tape across their silver shield badges.

They're at attention, listening to a bagpipe band blow Amazing Grace. They're supposed to be saluting while the rest of the mourners march toward the church. But they keep wiping white-gloved fists into their eyes.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," says Patrick Boylan, who has been a Manhattan firefighter for 13 years. "This is one thing I never thought I would have to do."

They kept hoping they could have a funeral. For seven months now, they've been wishing and praying, digging and sifting, trying to find some fragment of their missing friend.

But the seven-story pile of rubble that used to be the World Trade Center is now barely two stories high. The bulldozers and backhoes and thousand people working 24-hour shifts are scheduled to finish sifting through the debris by summer. They've recovered remains of about half of the 343 New York City firefighters, but they haven't found any sign of the Can Man from Engine 16, Ladder 7.

So they came here Saturday for a memorial service. A Celebration of the Life of Fire Fighter Richard T. Muldowney, Jr., the program says, January 13, 1961 - September 11, 2001.

"We wanted to wait, no matter how long it took. We wanted to wait until we had something to bury," says Richie's youngest brother, Brian.

Brian Muldowney is 32, a Hillsborough County firefighter. He became one because he admired his big brother.

"We're still hoping to find something, of course. But it's getting harder every day," he says. "Having a funeral right now would be like winning the lottery."

For now, they have only this.

+ + +

Firefighters have been to too many of these services. Some have been to more than 50 already, as many as four in a day. Sometimes they go to two services for the same man: a memorial first, then a funeral after they identify some piece of him.

Some men didn't think they had any tears left.

"It's going to be a long, long time before we can stop reliving the past and start looking forward," says Steve Marsar, who worked with Richie. "There are still more than 20,000 body parts waiting to be tested for DNA. That will take at least until September. Then it will be the one-year anniversary. Then that will start all the pain all over again."

About 20 families still haven't scheduled services. They, too, are holding out for something to bury. But with each bucket of debris that gets carried away, each inch the pile at ground zero shrinks, the chances dwindle.

"The families need something to put in a cemetery," says Marsar. "It won't give them closure. But it will give them some place to go to be with him, some place other than a World Trade Center shrine that the whole rest of the country can come to, too.

"I mean, where is Richie right now? Is he still down there? Is he in some landfill on Staten Island? We keep hoping they've already gotten some of him out and we'll hear from the DNA guys. We all need something to put this to rest."

+ + +

Richie Muldowney's dad was a New York detective who volunteered at the firehouse in Freeport on Long Island. On days off, his dad would load Richie, his three brothers and other neighborhood boys into his Cadillac and drive them to the station. They would help wash the rigs (and the Caddy), then he'd take them to 7-Eleven for Slurpees.

When Richie was 9, he and the other boys formed their own fire company. They painted a wooden go-cart red. Whenever the real sirens sounded, the boys ran around borrowing neighbors' garden hoses, putting out their own pretend blazes, flooding the back yard.

"Richie learned about confined-space rescues very early," says Ray Maguire, who grew up on the same block and worked beside Richie as a volunteer at the Freeport station. "I remember he used to take his little sister Mary, who was 3, and put her in the clothes dryer just so he could get her out."

He joined the volunteer company as soon as he turned 18 and became a professional firefighter for New York City at 27. He spent all 13 years of his career in Manhattan, the last 10 at Ladder 7, about 5 miles from the World Trade Center.

"Richie was a natural leader. But he never wanted to be an officer. Never tried," says Boylan, who joined the house about the same time. "He was always happy just being one of the guys."

Fire companies are families, more close-knit, actually, than most real ones. The men fix each other's cars, cheer each other's kids at Little League games and spend hours, days of down time inspecting rigs, washing dishes, watching movies. When the calls come, they follow each other into the flames.

Around the firehouse, they called Richie "Moondog," they're not even sure why. He had green eyes, a red-brown handlebar moustache and a shaved head.

"Oh, he had all sorts of names. But mostly it was Moondog," Boylan says. "We have this picture of him in the kitchen: a cardboard dog body with Richie's head taped on top."

He was known for his meatloaf, his hot sauce, his bark. He built two wooden shelves for the firehouse kitchen and called them a spice rack. He painted a huge red 7 on top of the ladder truck so there would be no doubt which fire company was coming to the rescue. He hooked up an old siren _ the kind he grew up hearing _ so his rig would sound distinct.

"We call it the Richie Siren," Boylan says. "He loved watching people hold their ears when that thing went off."

"Until he got married, he used to spend most of his time at the house," Boylan says. "Then he met Connie. And he had a real reason to go home."

They met at his favorite hangout, O'Brien's in Tampa, where she tended bar. She was a single mom raising two kids. They married in 1998 and Richie moved his new family to Long Island. He coached his new son, John's, baseball team and took his new daughter, Katie, horseback riding.

Richie spent almost all his vacations in Tampa, visiting his mom and baby brother Brian. "He was the only guy I know who could go to Florida and not come home with a tan," Boylan says. "He always said, "When O'Brien's puts in a skylight, I'll come home with a tan.' "

Sept. 11, Richie was supposed to get off at 9 a.m. His relief hadn't shown up by the time the first plane hit, so he hopped on Ladder 7 and headed off.

He was carrying the can that day, a 25-pound cylinder filled with water. As he and the other five guys from his truck headed toward Tower 1, a photographer snapped a photo. It shows the six men _ plus other firefighters _ headed into what looks like a snowstorm. Richie's back is to the camera, the name Muldowney barely discernable on his black turnout coat, the metal can clutched in his left hand.

"He was pulling people out of Tower 1, carrying them into the Marriott Vista next door," says John Wensley, who worked with Richie as a volunteer. "Twice, he pulled people out. Twice he went back in."

All six of the firefighters who went out on that truck lost their lives, six of the station's 50 men. The remains of only three of them have been found.

+ + +

The firefighters who didn't die that day and the family members who mourn are working out their anger and their feelings of guilt in different ways. Some haven't been able to go to ground zero at all. Others can't stay away.

Sal Torcivia was supposed to be working at Richie's station that morning. But he switched shifts so he could take his daughter to her first day at preschool. While he was pulling out of the preschool parking lot, he heard the news on the radio. He drove to the station but arrived after the trucks left.

For the next two months, sometimes for 48 hours straight, Sal dug and searched at ground zero. Breathing in dust he lost half his lung capacity. Bending over the smoldering pile he burned his chin and cheeks and nose.

By Christmas he had gotten so sick, he had to drop back to light duty. When he finally came back to work last week, he signed up for more digging details.

"I don't want to just sit around the station waiting for a call," he says. "I can't. I have to do something. I want to help find these folks who are still missing."

Two days a week, for 24-hour shifts, he laces steel-toed work boots and shoves his hands into plastic gloves. He straps on a face mask and climbs down, over crumbling cement slabs and mangled iron beams, into dust so thick it blankets his arms.

His job is to record anything and everything, every shoe found, every fragment of finger. Catalog the discoveries and the locations. He'd rather be digging.

Workers at the pile are divided into teams, spread out around the 16 acres of destruction. Some stand by a grappler, which scoops part of the pile off the top, dumps it onto the ground. The machine spreads the debris across an area about half the size of a football field, about 3 inches deep. A dozen firefighters rake through the rubble, looking for any piece of bone, anything that might be identifiable.

"After the first guys rake the pile, a front-end loader scoops that up and moves it to another pile, where a second group of guys sort through it," Sal says. "Then that goes into a bulldozer, which transfers it to a barge, which takes it to the landfill on Staten Island."

There, the barge dumps the debis onto a conveyor belt where another team of firefighters sifts through it. In all, that means four groups of firefighters have picked through each scoop of debris taken from the site.

"It's about respect for the dead. And the families of the dead," Sal says. "We don't want to let anything get by."

On his first day back at work last week, Sal helped find a firefighter and three civilians. But most days aren't that rewarding. Many of the bodies were cremated on site, from the jet fuel. Others were pulverized into dust. A few, Sal says, have been found whole: sitting on a chair, waiting to be rescued; curled on a rolledup coat, knowing they would die.

"People who have been here will never feel like this is finished," Sal says. "We'll never be able to forget. We don't want to forget."

+ + +

The duty roster from Sept. 11 still hangs at the firehouse. Richie's name, along with five others, are chalked on a blackboard that was supposed to be erased that night. Now, it's mounted in a wooden frame behind a glass case.

A new, white wipeoff board has been nailed on the opposite wall.

The spice rack Richie made for the firehouse kitchen still sits over the sink. His second set of turn-out gear is somewhere upstairs.

"Oh, he's all over this place. He's everywhere we look," says Lt. Jake Kirwan. "We still sing songs about him, tell stories. He still makes us laugh."

+ + +

After the bagpipers and the drummers and throngs of police officers make their way down the street, two firetrucks slowly roll toward the church. Four other ladder trucks flank the road _ two on each end. Firefighters strung enormous American flags between the buckets, so all the mourners march under Old Glory.

The firetrucks coming now are carrying Richie's co-workers. Plus piles of flowers. There's a wreath made in the shape of a Budweiser can, a brown flounder, a cherry red engine. The lead ladder truck, from Richie's volunteer house in Freeport, has a Notre Dame Fighting Irishman made out of green chrysanthemums attached to the front grill. Beside the passenger door, Richie's name and death date are stenciled in gold paint.

The second truck is Ladder 7 _ Richie's rig from the Manhattan station. Workers recovered it from ground zero on the night of Sept. 11. Firefighters spent six hours cleaning and repairing it and had it back by the toppled towers the next afternoon.

On Friday, they spent the whole day shining it for Richie's service. Usually, that was his job.

The Fire Department of New York seldom lets its ladder trucks leave Manhattan, almost never to Long Island. But Saturday is different.

The whole town of Freeport has shut down. The streets are barricaded. The Little League parade and opening games were canceled.

Five black stretch limos follow the firetrucks. Richie had a huge family, "3,000 Muldowneys," as his friends say. The relatives wear green carnations on their lapels, and buttons with Richie's face pinned below them.

The last limo carries Connie and the kids. Katie is 10. John is 12. He's wearing his dad's dress fire hat and a blue suit. His mom has sewn Fire Department patches on both shoulders, so it looks like an official uniform.

The church, Our Holy Redeemer, where Richie was baptized, seats 900. At least another hundred firefighters and friends are standing along the walls, between the aisles, in the back. Outside, thousands of others listen through loudspeakers.

"What happened to Richie and his friends that day, to his firefighting family and his wife Connie and his children, it was staggering," the priest says. "We grieve for all of the firefighters, all his friends and family and his brothers at the firehouse, all the heroes who never came home from the World Trade Center that day.

"We grieve for them all. But mostly for ourselves. Because we lost someone decent and beautiful and wonderful that day. We will never forget. We are blessed to remember."

Because there is no coffin, the altar looks empty. Only two fire helmets: one from Freeport, one from Ladder 7, sit starkly on a marble table. When the service is over, Richie's children will carry them home.

"I'm so proud of my dad," says Katie. "He was my hero. Now, he's everyone's. I don't know if he died for a reason, really. But I know he wanted to die as a firefighter."

John agrees. "I've never seen so many people," he says, searching the enormous crowd. "But I'm not surprised. Rich knew everyone. Everyone knew him."

"He was everything everyone wanted to be," his boyhood friend Maguire says during the last eulogy. "He had everything he wanted. And everything in the world to look forward to."

Then the 6-foot-6, hulking firefighter tips back his head and talks to the ceiling. "Richie," he says, biting his lower lip. "Richie," he starts again, "I love you, Brother. You've been a major part of my life. And I'll miss you terribly.

"God bless you. God bless the other 342 firefighters we lost that day. God bless Connie and your kids and the rest of your family."

He stops again. Looks out across the packed sanctuary, at the nuns and the babies and the widows and the red-nosed firefighters. "And God bless America."

+ + +

Later that night, at ground zero, two beams of white light shoot into the sky. They've been shining every evening since March 11, six months after the attacks.

Some say they're symbols of hope. Others say they help them remember. Some see them as beams shooting down from Heaven, blessing the bruised city and all its scarred inhabitants.

They shine tonight, for the last time.

By the time you read this, Richie's helmets will be displayed on Connie's coffee table, and ground zero will be dark again.

After the memorial service, Richie Muldowney's helmets were given to his children, 10-year-old Katie and, here, 12-year-old John.

The town of Freeport, Long Island, shut down for the procession before a memorial service for Richie Muldowney at Our Holy Redeemer Church. About 2,000 firefighters and thousands more civilians turned out.

Passersby still light candles and leave flowers at the makeshift shrine at Engine 16/Ladder 7 firehouse. The shrine includes the duty roster board preserving the names of the firefighters who went out on Ladder 7 the morning of Sept. 11.

Katie Muldowney sits in the Freeport Fire Department truck that Richie helped design last summer. It has a gold-lettered memorial to her father and a shield his friends at the station designed for him.

Taps plays for Richie Muldowney. His best friend, Patrick Boylan links arms with Richie's widow, Connie Muldowney, and 10-year-old Katie Muldowney. Behind them are some of Richie's siblings, from left: Tim Muldowney of Tampa, Mary Muldowney of Long Island, whose face is obscured, and Hillsborough County firefighter Brian Muldowney.

After Saturday's service, 14-year-old Timothy Hill salutes the memorial procession to the firehouse. Hundreds of people who never knew Richie Muldowney turned out to honor him.

Close to midnight on Sept. 11, firefighters returned Ladder 7 from the World Trade Center to their station. They worked all night removing the dust and debris and had it back in service by about 4:30 a.m. Sept. 12.