At Ground Zero, a Call for Heroes

September 14, 2001

When Jimmy Boyle, retired city firefighter, first heard on Tuesday morning that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, he knew his son, Michael, a city firefighter, was supposed to be off-duty.

Michael, 37, loved politics almost as much as the fire department, and he was planning to go out to Queens from Manhattan to work on a City Council primary campaign.

But his father also knew that many firefighters look on their occupation as more than a job, and he remembered what happened when Michael fought his first fire six years ago.

He stayed at his post in the fur vault of a burning department store even though the heat got so intense it left burns all around his face mask.

"He came out exhausted, beaten," said his father, who lives in Westbury. "He said, 'It was hot, but I couldn't leave, Dad, because I wasn't supposed to.' I said, 'Mike, you did a great job.'"

Jimmy Boyle, head of the firefighters' union during the 1980s and '90s, was in Brooklyn on Tuesday, and what he knew about his son and his son's colleagues made him very worried. He set off on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge toward the World Trade Center, hoping not to find Michael.

He was right to be worried. Michael Boyle was among the 300 New York City firefighters still missing yesterday. Among them were two other firefighters - and probably many others - who also didn't really have to be there, but wound up inside the doomed towers because of their sense of duty.

One of them was David Arce, 36, who grew up in Westbury with Michael Boyle. The two had been best friends since childhood, served in the same fire company and worked together on political campaigns. Arce, also off-duty on Tuesday, had planned to go to Queens with Michael.

Marjorie Ginobbi, who lives next door to the Arce family and watched the two boys grow up, wasn't surprised David wound up in a job that involves helping people.

"Anything I needed help with, he was always there. Cutting the grass, painting, anything that needed to be carried - he was just a wonderful kid."

When he grew up, she said, "It was like he had been born to be a firefighter. He loved the work - always smiling." Arce's father, Dr. A.G. Arce, died of diabetes in February. His mother, Margaret, a geriatric nurse, said her son and Michael Boyle "were like twin brothers."

"David grew up playing with fire engines, and the desire to be a firefighter never went away," she said. "It's a typical fireman story. It was the love of his life. There's such a closeness with firefighters, a beautiful thing to watch, and the families have to accept whatever is dealt."

Perhaps the best-known firefighter who didn't have to be in the World Trade Center was Capt. Timothy Stackpole of Brooklyn. He was fighting a fire in a city-owned building in 1998 when the floor collapsed, dropping him and two firemen 10 feet into a roaring blaze. The flames burned more than 30 percent of his body.

The city agreed to pay the three $4.2 million after their lawyers argued that the city hadn't heeded warnings about the building's structural flaws. Court records don't specify the individual payments, but it was clear Stackpole could have retired with a large nest egg and a lucrative disability pension.

Instead, after two months in a hospital, he spent many painful hours in the gym rebuilding his body and went back to work as soon as he could pass a physical.

"He came back when someone else would have retired happily," Msgr. Thomas Brady, a former fire department chaplain, said. At his church, Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Church in Marine Park, Brooklyn, Stackpole taught children and counseled couples about to marry. "He was a very religious man in the best sense," Brady said.

So far this week, the monsignor said, he has heard of about eight or 10 missing firefighters whose fathers were also firefighters. "Every day I hear of more - it's in the blood."

As Jimmy Boyle searched for his son on Tuesday, he reached the World Trade Center just as one of the towers collapsed, showering the street with debris and temporarily blinding him with dust. He narrowly escaped injury by groping his way into a doorway. Finding out nothing at the scene, he went to his son's firehouse nearby and opened Michael's locker.

He found what he hoped wouldn't be there - Michael's car keys and wallet.

Later, he learned that Michael and David had jumped on a fire engine at the last minute in their civilian clothes. "If they had to die, it was fitting that they died together," Boyle's father said yesterday.

As Michael Boyle and his friend rode toward the World Trade Center on Tuesday, the burn marks from Michael's first fire six years ago were still visible on his face. --Brian Donovan