A Legend's Family Keeps Hope for Him Alive

by: Elizabeth Moore, newsday.com, 09/13/01

Among the elite rescue firefighters who served under him, Ray Downey was held in awe for his uncanny ability to arrive at a major disaster and size up the mayhem with little more than a glance. In a quiet voice, with no discussion, he would start doling out instructions and assignments and call for equipment no one had thought of. Somehow, miraculously, the chaos would transform itself into a smooth and orderly rescue operation.

That's why his fellow New York City firefighters called him "God." And one of the reasons his family believes the mayor of New York and leading media organizations spoke too soon when they listed him as dead.

While CNN and The Associated Press ran stories yesterday listing the nationally renowned special operations chief as killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center, his two firefighter sons searched the rubble in hopes of finding him alive. The rest of his family lobbied their congressman, led prayers in church and called newspapers to keep him on the list of the living.

"My father is not dead," his third son, teacher Ray Downey, insisted early yesterday morning, after reading the morning papers. "They have not found him. People are going to stop praying for him. He's still in there. We're still praying, and I still want everyone else to pray."

The Twin Towers fell down over and over on the big TV screen in his daughter Marie Tortorici's Deer Park living room yesterday morning as friends and family milled in and out of the house, waiting for word from her brothers Chuck and Joe Downey. Chuck, a fire lieutenant, and Joe, a captain, were following up on tips from firefighters who thought they were the last to see him alive. So far, none of the sightings had panned out.

But the reports have given the family hope, another daughter, Kathy Ugalde, said Tuesday night, recalling one promising lead from a firefighter who had seen Downey running from the billowing dust of the falling second tower.

Ugalde said Chuck called her mother, Rosalie, and said, "We're going to get him, Mom, we're going to get him. We know where he is."

But a few hours later, the family was taken by surprise when Giuliani held a televised press conference listing Downey among the dead. Ray Downey had just phoned a reporter to say his father might still be alive. "My brother went to two morgues and it was not him, so there is still hope he's under the rubble, breathing." New York City firefighters know they are viewed as the nation's toughest, but they drop their swagger when Downey's name is mentioned. The operations chief led an FDNY emergency rescue team to Oklahoma City and directed recovery work after the first bombing at the World Trade Center in 1993.

He was honored by the mayor at a dinner at Gracie Mansion just last month. Friends say he planned to retire next year at age 64. After years as captain of the busiest rescue squad in Brooklyn, Downey helped pioneer a national network of eight search and rescue teams under the federal Emergency Management Agency. Many of the members of the eight FEMA teams now searching for him were his trainees. And in his spare time, he traveled across the country preaching the need to prepare for terrorism, said Hal Bruno, chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

"The general consensus in the current atmosphere is that the next war we fight will be in an urban area," Downey told Newsday in 1997.

Downey also helped teach some of his techniques to senior commanders of the Marine Corps and the Navy, running combat scenarios in high-rise buildings and sewers, some of them in the trade center neighborhood, in 1997.

"It's ironic, he's an expert in collapses and now he's in one," Ugalde said Tuesday night. "I just feel like my dad saved so many people this way, I just want someone to save him."

Ugalde said her brother Joe learned his father's nickname after joining the department, when fellow firefighters kept teasingly calling him "Jesus."

But by yesterday morning, after seven members of Joe Downey's squad were lost and his father remained missing, the religious kidding turned into real novenas and a stubborn refusal to lose faith.

Giuliani's announcement was "a miscommunication," Ugalde said, as she stood on the driveway outside the Deer Park high ranch she shared with her parents. A few feet away on the lawn, a handpainted wooden sign promised "Grandma and Grandpa: Hugs and Kisses. Sleepovers. Milk and Cookies." An American flag was planted on the other side of the driveway.

As Ugalde talked, her daughter, Gina, chimed in that she had been facing a similar miscommunication problem at John F. Kennedy Intermediate School in Deer Park. She said her third-grade class was summoned to an assembly at which her grandfather's name was mentioned as among those killed in the attack.

"I told them it wasn't true," she said, fingering the two rosaries her mother had given her that morning.

"He's not dead!" repeated a woman serving at the 12:15 Mass at St. Cyril and St. Methodius Roman Catholic Church, where the firefighter's family joined with 150 other congregants to pray for him and others missing in the attack.

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) picked up the mantra yesterday evening after receiving two calls from the family. He went to the floor of Congress to insist that it was too early to pronounce Ray Downey dead. Israel said a Downey family member told him that Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating called yesterday to convey his condolences, but the family asked for his prayers instead.

As the hours ground on last night, there still was no good news for the Downey family.

"Nothing yet," Tortorici said as she waited by the phone.