Sharing Danger With His Men

November 14, 2001

In the beginning of his 37-year career with the New York City Fire Department, Dennis Cross asked to be transferred to a busy company because he wanted to respond to more fires; in the end, as a battalion chief, he would go into the blazes as far as any man whom he worked with.

Cross, 60, wasn't the type to linger outside a burning building. His wife, JoAnn, knew this. So did his lifelong best friend, Brian O'Flaherty, a fellow battalion chief. When O'Flaherty rushed to the World Trade Center Sept. 11, he knew Cross was already there. When the south tower crumbled around him, O'Flaherty knew Cross was most likely deep in the building.

"When I am in the ambulance and leaving the scene, I had this bad feeling that Dennis did not make it," said O'Flaherty, 59, from his home in Rockville Centre, where he is recovering from his injuries. "He would go in as far as anybody."

Watching television that day at home in Islip Terrace, JoAnn Cross knew too that her husband was lost. "He had a saying that he loved. He'd say, 'Take care of men, and men will take care of you,'" she said. Part of taking care of his men, she said, was to go into the fires with them.

Seven days later, rescue crews pulled Cross' body from the rubble at Ground Zero, something his wife called a "miracle." Cross was buried Sept. 22.

He was among the older men in the department. While some men his age left or considered retiring, Cross spent his free time running, biking and lifting weights to make sure he was fit enough to extend his career as long as possible. "He loved the job, and he was damn good at it," his wife said. "He didn't want to ever retire."

O'Flaherty called Cross "one of the most knowledgeable chiefs in the department," but said Cross never wanted to go for the ********* to deputy chief because that meant fewer chances to charge into burning buildings and less attachment to his men.

"He knew that corner of Bedford Stuyvesant where he worked better than probably anyone in the department," O'Flaherty said. "The department doesn't know what it has lost."

Cross was chief of Battalion 57. He served on a commissioner's committee to draft new firefighting regulations, and trained up-and-coming chiefs in a department mentor program.

Cross and O'Flaherty grew up together in Queens. They used to ski down hills north of Hillside Avenue and camp with the Boy Scouts in Bear Mountain State Park.

And they used to talk about their dads, both firemen, who both died young.

"He wanted to be a fireman since I met him when I was a kid," said JoAnn Cross, who through friends met her future husband when she was 12 and he was 15. Three years later, they started dating.

Cross took the firefighter's exam after high school, then fought in Vietnam with the Army. Upon returning home in 1964, he married JoAnn and was assigned to Engine Co. 2 in Manhattan.

"He really enjoyed it from the start," said O'Flaherty. "I saw how much he liked it, and I started."

The pair worked together 11 years, at Ladder Co. 105 and Ladder Co. 102, both in Brooklyn. Cross was promoted to battalion chief in 1990.

Although they never worked together after 1979, the men stayed close, spending time with each other's family, skiing upstate and sailing in Cross' boat on the Great South Bay.

When he was frustrated with things at work, such as a requirement that all firefighters wear masks (he thought it gave a false sense of security), Cross would unwind on a jog with his wife or by throwing the baseball with his son Brian, 29, a city firefighter.

Cross also is survived by three daughters, Lisa Wylie, 34, of Oakdale; Laura Sheppard, 32, of East Islip, and Denise Cross, 28, of Oakdale.

O'Flaherty likes to think that Cross is in heaven, talking about firefighting with Cross' father, who died from a heart attack after battling a major city fire when Cross was 13.

"He probably told his father all the new tactics they now use in the department," O'Flaherty said. "They probably laugh at it all, because nothing has changed. The fireman still crawls into the building to put out the fire the same way as 50 years ago."

-- Steven Kreytak (Newsday)