Family Bedrock and Supportive Father

September 23, 2001

Tragedy stalked all the Gary males, but until the Sept. 11 terrorist attack it had only nipped at Bruce Gary's heels. A city firefighter from South Bellmore, Gary received a commendation from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for assisting the rescue in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Now, Gary is missing and his family is bereft of their bedrock.

"He has been his family's hero their whole lives, and now he's a hero to the whole country," said his daughter, Jessica Gary, 24.

After his father, Hank Gary, died of cancer in 1987, Gary "assumed the role of the support system for his whole family," said Joe Ferrante, his friend since age 6.

Gary and his wife divorced in 1991 and Gary raised Jessica, Ricky, 20, and Tommy, 15, alone until relations with his ex-wife improved in recent years. After working his fire department shift in Manhattan, he would come home and work eight more hours as a plumber. He could still find time to draw up baseball rosters as vice president of Bellmore's Little League for 12 years.

"Everything he did was with his children in mind," said his sister, Donna Struzzieri, of Wantagh.

Gary, 51, long had been a father figure. In 1970, his older brother Ricky died in a motorcycle accident in Hempstead, after surviving two tours of duty in Vietnam. Gary carried on for his shaken parents.

"He was like the father in the family," Struzzieri said, adding that friends also thought of him paternally.

In 2000, Ricky's namesake, Gary's son, was in a car with six friends that flipped several times and landed vertically against a house. For seven weeks, not knowing if his son would survive, Gary waited by Ricky's hospital bed until he recovered.

The day before the World Trade Center attack, Gary told Ferrante how much he appreciated the firefighters in his department. Gary's coworkers had taken on his work schedule during Ricky's hospital stay so he could spend every moment by his son's bedside and not lose any pay.

"Sometimes I tell the younger guys this is the greatest job in the world," Gary said to Ferrante.

Before his accident, Ricky was waiting to join his father in the fire department. He had scored well on the physical and written tests. Struzzieri said her brother was "ecstatic" that his son would follow his path. But a year later, Ricky needs another surgery to replace a tendon in his leg. He will not be able to pass the physical test again.

Gary always has been proud and supportive of his children, Jessica said. When Jessica's boyfriend proposed two years ago on Valentine's Day, Gary had to be at the firehouse. Knowing of the plan, he left a card for Jessica to open after the proposal. He wrote his daughter: "Letting go is not easy, and even though your hand may slip from mine, we will hold each other in our hearts forever."

"And that's the way I feel about him now," she said.

--Kathryn Wellin (Newsday)