By Stephen McKinley
A week later, and for New York’s bravest and finest, the mourning continues – but so does the call of duty.
In lower Manhattan at ‘ground zero,’ firefighters, police officers and rescue workers continued to comb through the rubble for survivors and the remains of the dead. And at fire houses and precincts all over the five boroughs, their comrades remained at their posts and their families and friends ministered to them as best they could.
The incalculable loss of more than 300 FDNY personnel still unaccounted for, did not however stop the Fire Department from holding a promotion ceremony last Sunday, where 168 firefighters were promoted to take the place of those missing and to make sure the Department continued at full strength. Over 50 police officers are also said to be missing.
On that occasion, presided over by the Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, the Mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani and other city dignataries, Von Essen said that the ceremony at the Department’s Brooklyn headquarters showed something of the bravest’s enduring spirit of duty and bravery.
“We need structure. We need leadership. We need you out in the field as fast as possible, and that’s why we brought you here today,” he told those gathered.
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Mayor Giuliani said, “the New York City Fire Dept. is being re-formed today. It reminds me of battlefield commissions during a time of war.”
DanielA. Nigro from Whitestone, Queens, was promoted to chief of department, to replace Peter J. Ganci, killed on Tuesday in the collapse of the WTC’s north tower. And six battalion chiefs were promoted to the rank of deputy chief, amongst other appointments.
This was an occasion for the Department to show its mettle as never before. There is no doubting the steel at the Department’s core.
However, at firehouses around the city, it was difficult for many firefighters to contain their sense of horror and distress.
In Queens, at Rescue Company 4, the scene was typical: candles, flowers in abundance, the stars and stripes and occasional photographs of the missing in action.
Firefighter Peter Coyle stood simply, in his own words, “dazed.” He described the rescue and recovery mission at the site of the tragedy in some detail.
“A bucket brigade goes in. We fill up the buckets, pass them down to the bottom. We dig into the rubble. The buckets are dumped and they pass the empty buckets back up again.”
“Sometimes there’s a yell to be quiet because someone wants to listen for a sound.”
“I think we’re just in shock,” Coyle said. “For a moment he reflected on the Father’s Day tragedy, when three Irish American firefighters were killed in the Astoria explosion in June.
“You didn’t think it could get any worse,” Coyle said quietly. He declined to make specific comments about the losses from each of the firehouses in the neighborhood. But again, he mentioned that appalling number of firefighters who remain unaccounted for in this closest-of-knit family of heros: “we’re talking in excess of 300 still unaccounted for.”