Magnificent Fire Chief's Last Call to Duty

by: Michael Daly,, 09/13/01

An Air Force F-16 banked overhead, the engine's roar echoing off the surviving buildings, a sound of power and impotence as the rescuers searched for life in the smoking ruins they call the pile.

Firefighters, cops, paramedics and construction workers labored together as they had after the first World Trade Center attack and the bombing at Oklahoma City, only the horror was magnified a thousandfold and the magnificent Fire Chief Ray Downey was not in command.

This time, Downey was himself one of the victims. He had, as always, been right there with his men, once again trying to will away the mortal danger.

"You say to yourself, 'Not me,'" he said three months ago. "But, when the unexpected happens there's nothing you can do about it."

He paused.

"I guess that's the fate we all live with."

Downey spoke these words the day after the Father's Day explosion that killed three firefighters.

"Three families and one big family, the Fire Department," he said.

Looking Back

Downey was sitting in his office at the Special Operation Division on Randalls Island, surrounded by photos and mementos of the World Trade Center and Oklahoman City bombings and a long ago blast at a plumbing supply store in Brooklyn.

He harkened back to a blaze he had fought when he was a new member of that big family. A woman had cried out as he and his comrades dashed into the flame and smoke.

"She said, 'You firemen are crazy. You're running in when we're all running out,'" Downey remembered.

He since had become the world's leading expert in responding to terrorist attacks. He spoke of his work as a member of the Gilmore Commission, a congressional advisory panel that last year issued a report called "Toward a National Strategy for Combating Terrorism." The group had briefed Vice President Cheney in May, recommending a greater priority on intelligence and preventing terrorist attacks before they occur.

"Unfortunately, it's not a question of if, but when the next one comes," he said.

The commission was meeting as Downey sat in his office. He called them to explain he was occupied with the aftermath of an explosion triggered when two kids spilled some gasoline whose fumes were then ignited by the pilot light of a water heater in the basement of a hardware store.

Downey said he had arrived at the scene to find two firefighters dead in the street and a third one trapped. He had employed the same strategy as at Oklahoma City.

"Basically what I do is size it up," he said. "I find out where he was last seen and picture in my mind the force of the explosion."

Too Late

The rescuers had reached the firefighter too late, and now there would be three funerals. The third found Downey wearing and hurting, but unshaken in his resolve.

"Everybody will just go back to work," he said. "They are aware of the dangers we get involved in, but they will go out the door again. It's just not going to stop them."

Even so, three funerals in two days seemed almost too much for even him to bear.

"We always say, hopefully, that's the end of it," Downey said.

The first plane had no sooner struck the World Trade Center on Tuesday morning than Downey was on his way. The hundreds of firefighters who joined him included his golden boy, Capt. Terry Hatton of Rescue 1. The gallant Capt. Pat Brown of Ladder 3 also was there, as was the spiritual heart of the department, the Rev. Mychal Judge. They all proved themselves as crazy as ever by dashing in while everybody was dashing out.

Still Going Ahead

Exactly what transpired is still not clear, but according to one version, Hatton and Brown were inside the first tower when it collapsed. This account has Downey moving toward where he hoped some of those trapped could be rescued.

Then, the second tower collapsed. The smoke was still curling up from the rubble yesterday morning, and with the roar of the powerless powerful jet fighter returned Downey's words after the three firefighters were killed on Father's Day.

"The only thing we can't do is deal with the unexpected," he said.

Now, in the city that almost could not bear three funerals, we face funerals for more than 300 firefighters and 75 cops and so many citizens that we cannot yet even venture a count.