Into the Valley of Death With No Fear

September 20, 2001

In a spontaneous moment, a firefighter reached into his pocket, pulled out a portable camera and snapped a photo of two comrades trudging forward through white smoke toward the remaining tower.

"They're walking back in, and they're just covered with rubble," said Billy Curatolo, a firefighter with Engine Co. 23, describing the photograph. His brother, Robert, is one of the men. "It's just an unbelievable picture. It shows his bravery."

The photo was snapped by firefighter Richard Rattazzi, who with Robert Curatolo and Lt. Ray Murphy had just run for cover after the first tower crumbled. But they were still on the job.

"It's like that saying, 'You walk through the valley of death, but you have no fear,'" Rattazzi said. "That's what we were doing. We were walking back into it, like we do all the time."

Curatolo died when the second tower toppled; Murphy is still missing. The photo has become a symbol for their firehouse on the Upper East Side and Ladder Co. 16 as well as for their families.

"Not only is it a photo of their last moments, but it's also a photo that shows us that they're doing what we were all trained to do," said Lt. Raymond Wick of Engine 39, which shares the same firehouse. "It's proof to us that, in the face of danger, they didn't relent. It's a symbol of what we do."

Curatolo, Murphy and Rattazzi had worked overnight on Sept. 10. Although they were off duty at 9 a.m., they remained at the firehouse watching the calamity unfold on television. At about 9:15, they were recalled to duty, and Curatolo telephoned his wife, Christine, to tell her that he was heading to the disaster. The three caught a ride to the scene with a police officer.

"We were talking about sticking together," Rattazzi said. "We were trying to find our company so we could operate."

The trio picked up masks and tools and started down West Street. When they got near, Tower Two tumbled. Billowing smoke and cascading debris engulfed them and they scrambled for cover.

"We hadn't known it was Tower Two that came down," Rattazzi said. "Everything just got black. You couldn't see. You couldn't breath. The debris just kind of surrounded you."

As a white cloud replaced the black smoke, Rattazzi helped someone to an ambulance and returned to find Curatolo and Murphy. They were about 25 feet ahead when he snapped their picture.

Rattazzi then helped an injured fireman to an ambulance while Curatolo and Murphy kept pushing toward Tower One.

"On my way back, my tools were gone, and they were gone," Rattazzi said. "I came across a chief, and I said I was missing two members from Ladder 16, and we couldn't find them."

He was still looking for Curatolo and Murphy when Tower One, the first tower struck but the second to fall, let loose. "I got knocked off my feet by the wind," Rattazzi said. "It took my helmet flying."

Curatolo, who had been with the department for six years, was found near his company's utility truck by the Financial Plaza parking garage on West Street, directly across the street from where the Twin Towers had stood. "Everything in that street got demolished," Rattazzi said.

Curatolo, 31, was the youngest of eight children and the latest of his relatives to become a civil servant: His father, Anthony, works for the U.S. Post Office; his brother Anthony, 38, is a New York police officer; and in addition to Billy, 32, his brother John, 36, is also a firefighter.

Curatolo is also survived by his mother, Mary Ann; and his sisters, Carolyn, 37; Deena, 40, and Kathy, 41; all of Staten Island; and his sister Christine, 39, of Florida.

"He was the youngest, and we used to bust his chops all the time," Billy Curatolo said, "but he would do anything for anybody. You never had to ask him twice, my brother."

--Jo Craven McGinty