'He Was Building His Own Memorial'

February 1, 2002

Visit Engine House 55 in Little Italy, and the firefighters will proudly show you their memorial cabinet, its shelves heavy with pictures of their fallen comrades.

And the cabinet is itself a reminder of the carpenter who built it - firefighter Stephen Russell, 40, lost Sept.11 along with four others from the firehouse.

"It's sort of surreal, because now his picture is in the memorial cabinet," said Russell's mother, Marie Russell. "He didn't realize at the time he was building his own memorial."

Russell's body was recovered in October, and his funeral was Nov. 3. He is also survived by his father, Clifford, his brothers, Cliff and Bill, and his girlfriend, Rhonda Cohen.

Carpentry, which was Russell's trade before he became a firefighter eight years ago, had become one of his many hobbies. When he wasn't working, his mother said, he was building something in the basement of the apartment he rented in his parents' house on Rockaway Beach. "At night you could hear his little sawblade going down there," she said.

Or he was enjoying what his mother calls "his love" - the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, near where he grew up in Arverne.

"He was either diving in it or swimming in it or boating on it or skiing on it," said Russell's brother Cliff. "If he wasn't on the water, he was in it or he was under it."

Russell had a motorboat for waterskiing, a WaveRunner, a kayak and even a hydroplane he built himself. A certified dive master, he took vacations to Mexico and Honduras to do dives. And he had recently taken up photography, developing black-and-white photos in a darkroom he had built and taking color pictures of sunsets over his beloved water.

But since becoming a firefighter, Russell's passion for the work had overtaken all his other passions, his mother said. "Once he got on that job, he wouldn't even think of doing anything else."

What he liked about it, she said, was the camaraderie and the excitement. "I think he liked living on the edge," she said.

Russell didn't let danger hold him back, his mother said. Indeed, after his death she found out that he had been planning a sky dive but had not told her, so as not to worry her.

"All firemen, I think, are very much alike in their attitude to the job," his mother said. "You listen to the eulogies, and they sound like one person. They were all like that. You can't be a fireman and have fear of what's going to happen."

-- Indrani Sen (Newsday)