New York's ground zero of grief

Staten Island lost 200 residents Sept. 11. Now the same community values that made its firefighters heroes help the community heal from its loss.

Published November 20, 2001 9:04PM (EST)

When politicians and celebrities visit ground zero to pay tribute to the spirit of New York, they're probably not thinking of the tree-lined streets of northern Staten Island, or the tracts of new row houses that have sprouted up around the infamous Fresh Kills landfill in the island's southwest corner, where World Trade Center debris is being trucked. The city's least-populated and most suburban borough is home to neither the glamour nor the power that the world associates with Manhattan. But it, along with the Rockaways, is the city's ground zero of grief.

Nearly 200 Staten Island residents, in a borough of about 400,000, lost their lives Sept. 11. Of that number, 81 were firefighters. Two months after the terrorist attack, small shrines of flowers and the artwork of school-children decorate the borough's firehouses, and firefighters still are gathering in their dress blue uniforms outside the borough's churches, still saluting widows holding their husbands' helmets, still eulogizing fallen brothers. To add to the horror, the remnants of Staten Island's Rescue Company 5, decimated on Sept. 11, were sent to the Rockaways on Nov. 12 when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed, killing at least 260 people.

If, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, there is a new cultural moment known as blue-collar chic, Staten Island is its epicenter. It is the city's whitest borough and its most Republican. It is heavily Catholic, predominantly Italian, filled with cops, firefighters and other uniformed workers. It is almost aggressively middle-class in its values and cultural interests. It is a place easily dismissed, at least before Sept. 11, as the home of big hair, clunky minivans and brawny do-it-yourselfers.

But there's an infinitely more complex and more human narrative at work in the borough's tidy backyards, thriving public schools and flourishing civic life. The stories of some of the borough's lost firefighters fascinate not only because of the courage they displayed, but the stereotypes they shattered. Lieutenant Charles Margiotta, 44, one of a locally famous athletic family, was on his way home after working the 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. overnight shift when he heard about the terrorist attack Sept. 11. A graduate of Brown University, Margiotta double-majored in English and sociology and played for the school's Ivy League championship football team in 1976. He worked for General Motors for a few years after college, but it offered him little satisfaction, so he joined the Fire Department in 1981. The morning of Sept. 11, driving home, he heard about the attacks and drove to the nearest firehouse, the headquarters of Rescue 5, and jumped aboard a rig headed for downtown Manhattan. He died there, leaving a wife and two children.

Sean Hanley, 35, had grown up hearing stories about his maternal grandfather, who died fighting a fire in Brooklyn in 1939. Undeterred, he followed in his grandfather's footsteps five years ago, and on Sept. 11, he, like Margiotta, had finished up a night tour and was headed home when the planes struck. He drove himself to the World Trade Center, and died.

Even the Fire Department of New York can't teach such selflessness. It springs from family, parish and community, from values that honor courage more than money, sacrifice more than ambition, family more than status. Those same values are helping the borough heal from the Sept. 11 tragedy, but even here, it will be slow going.

If we really want to understand the lives of the Charles Margiottas and Sean Hanleys of our world, we will have to put aside our media-encouraged clichés about narrow working-class life. Staten Island may send Republicans to Congress and the City Council, but the borough's firefighters are old-fashioned union men (even those with college degrees) who haven't forgiven their onetime union leader, Thomas von Essen, for crossing over into management to become Mayor Rudy Giuliani's fire commissioner. The two- and three-car garages may indicate suburban individualism run riot, but many of the borough's two-dozen-plus towns cling fiercely to their collective identities. Tottenville, in the borough's southern tip, prides itself on its little shopping district and small-town values; St. George, just across the harbor from downtown Manhattan, is grittier, more urban and almost -- almost -- chic.

Staten Island can be a parochial place, like so many ethnic or blue-collar enclaves, but the flip side of parochialism is a sense of community that no city of transient careerists can match, or perhaps even comprehend. The obituaries in the local newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, chronicle not just the lives of individuals but the life and heartbreak of a vibrant community. This firefighter coached youth soccer teams; that one ran charity golf outings. One arranged his work schedule around his children; another organized an annual family reunion. Staten Island, it becomes clear, is a place where nobody bowls alone, to use sociologist Robert Putnam's shorthand for modern anomie. It is a place where the firehouse ethic of brotherhood and fraternity rules. Before Sept. 11, that ethos was condemned as ridiculously out of date: patriarchial, clannish and parochial. Now, however, those supposed weaknesses help explain the strength of a community and a profession.

On a sunny weekend in late October, nearly 30 firefighters descended on a century-old house in the island's West Brighton section, where the aging parents of firefighter John Santore have lived for more than 40 years. The house needs a new roof, and Santore, who lived nearby with his wife and kids, had been planning to replace it this fall. Of course, he wasn't going to do it himself -- he was counting on help from his brothers in Engine 24 and Ladder 5 in Manhattan. But on Sept. 11, weeks before he could put the roofing party into action, John Santore and seven co-workers from Ladder 5 scrambled up to the 37th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower. They were evacuating office workers when the tower fell. His body was found in the rubble four days later.

Dennis Taaffe and John Santore both started as firefighters on July 11, 1981, and they worked together in the lower Manhattan fire station that houses Engine 24 and Ladder 5. "We planned to retire together," Taaffe said. With just over two decades on the job, they were closing in on that magical date: Most firefighters retire after 25 years, when they're eligible for a half-pay pension.

Taaffe and another colleague of Santore, Cosmo DiOrio, understood that their friend's parents had lost not only a son, but a protector, a repair man, a nurse, a grocery shopper, a mechanic -- and the man who would repair their roof before winter arrived. So they posted a sign on the firehouse bulletin board asking for volunteers to do the work John Santore left behind. They bought shingles and plywood, loaded ladders onto pickup trucks and got the job done.

DiOrio called this coming together "the firehouse way." More than any other civil service job, and more than most white-collar jobs, firefighters depend on each other, not to meet a deadline, not to maximize a profit, but for simple survival. They work, eat and live together in small units of five or six, much like combat squads. Not surprisingly, then, firehouse friendships don't end at the firehouse doors. DiOrio, for example, owns a small ski house in upstate New York with several firefigher friends.

"We do everything together," said DiOrio's wife, Gerri DiOrio. "Our kids all know each other. We go on vacation together. It's a way of life. My friends are firefighters' wives. We're always there for each other." She turned 40 on Sept. 13, but her husband couldn't join her for a planned celebration. "He was at the World Trade Center site, searching for people," she said, adding, "I didn't expect him to be anyplace else."

"It's not an ordinary co-worker relationship," said Taaffe. "This isn't a 9 to 5 job where everybody goes his separate way at the end of a shift. At the firehouse, it's more personal. We call each other 'brother,' and that's not an accident."

In the cultural moment since Sept. 11, it's not even politically incorrect. The Fire Department of New York has few women -- no more than 50 -- in its 11,000-member force. It also remains a bastion of white ethnic Catholics, particularly the Irish. In the world that no longer exists, it seemed to matter that the survivors of most dead firefighters had names like Liam and Paddy and Bridget and Margaret Mary. Now, with nearly 350 firefighters to bury or memorialize, what matters most is their courage.

The firehouse culture of shared bonds, of astonishing bravery and of extraordinary selflessness no longer seems an anachronism. In fact, it now seems worthy of imitation. "This is one of the last jobs on earth where men rely on each other to stay alive," said novelist Peter Quinn, whose father was a Democratic congressman and judge in the Bronx. "And it reflects something in the Catholic working-class ethic, that life is not all about fame and financial success, that doing something noble and providing for your family was more important. It's a parochial-school worldview that in the past led people to become priests. In fact, joining the Fire Department is about as close as you can get to being in a religious order but still having a wife and kids."

On Staten Island, a borough of old town centers and tacky strip malls, the city of unquenchable ambition and seven-figure bonuses seems much farther than the five miles that separates its northern tip from downtown Manhattan. "Staten Island," DiOrio said, "is one of the last small-town communities. It's a place where people know each other and help each other." They know each other from church -- usually, a Roman Catholic parish -- from a fraternal organization or a Rotary Club or a PTA or a beer-league softball team.

"The nature of the community means that you have a lot more support for these firefighters and their families than you might have for some poor kid who was a junior broker at some stock trading firm," said journalist Chris Franz, political editor of the borough's weekly newspaper, the Staten Island Register. Ultimately, then, the firehouse way is, in fact, the Staten Island way. Which came first is an issue left for others to ponder.

About a dozen miles away from the Santore house, St. Clare's Roman Catholic Church in the island's Great Kills section is preparing for one last memorial mass for a parish firefighter. St. Clare's lost 11 firefighters and 19 civilians on Sept. 11, a total of 30 parishioners leaving behind parents, children, spouses and grieving friends and families. The church is about a quarter-mile from the local firehouse, an aging brick building draped in mournful purple bunting and seemingly sagging from the weight of grief and loss. Monsignor Joseph Murphy has presided over the funerals and memorial masses. These have been, he said, the most sorrowful weeks of his life. "I've been a priest for 48 years, and I've never experienced so much personal grief," he said. "It has been the most painful period of my life."

The Fire Department masses and funerals have an added poignancy. Most of the firefighters were young, with young families, and many were active parishioners, rather than occasional churchgoers. As he presided over these terrible rituals, Monsignor Murphy says he has borne witness to the unwavering courage of the Fire Department of New York and its extended family. "It is a privilege to see how much these men wish to honor their brothers," he said. "Sometimes tears come to my eyes to see the sorrow."

To help his grief-stricken flock, Monsignor Murphy asked parishioners to help their friends and neighbors cope with their sorrow. The response, he said, was extraordinary. "Hundreds of people volunteered to provide financial assistance or other kinds of help," he said. "We set up six support groups for different categories of people affected by Sept. 11. The response has just been remarkable."

No doubt the opinion-makers and taste-enforcers in faraway Manhattan will soon grow weary of firefighter chic, of the travails of St. Clare's Parish. But long after the magazine writers and camera crews have left, this borough of small towns will remember the wounds inflicted on neighbors -- wounds that will never fully heal. Only those reared on irony and detachment can speak of closure. The firefighting families of Staten Island, who vacation together and pray together and grieve together, know that the pain of losing a child, a spouse, a parent never goes away. There will be no closure for the hundred-plus children Staten Island's firefighters left behind.

But just as nobody mourned by themselves on Staten Island, nobody will be left to heal by themselves. Firefighter Taaffe, after helping to replace the roof on the house of his dead friend's parents, said he'd be back in springtime to help with other chores. "They won't ask for help," he said of John Santore's parents, "but we'll hear about it, and we'll be there for them."

By Terry Golway

Terry Golway is the city editor of the New York Observer and is a former Staten Island resident. The son, son-in-law and godson of New York firefighters, he is writing a history of the Fire Department of New York for Basic Books.

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