A Youthful Firefighter With 'a Million Friends'

February 6, 2002

In the summer of 1996, Kerri Meehan met a baby- faced guy at a bar in the Hamptons. She was so certain that she was his senior, she carded him.

Charles Mendez dutifully took out his driver's license and showed his future wife that he was five years her senior. Even as recently as a few months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mendez was carded at a bar, while his younger wife was waved past.

"He used to laugh about it," said Kerri Mendez. "He was 38, and they still used to proof him. He had a young face, a young outlook."

"Chuck" Mendez, a firefighter with Manhattan Ladder Co. 7, played beach volleyball in a league every summer and ice hockey every winter. He took up ice hockey at age 33. "Anything that involved having a good time, he wanted to do," his wife said.

"He had a million friends," she said. "We went on at least five vacations a year. I had a flexible job, and he could manage his schedule by working a lot one week. We went on a cruise every year, went to the islands twice a year."

Even financial concerns never held them back. "We never said no," she recounted. "We never said we can't afford it. I'd say: 'We'll deal with it later.'"

Those trips yielded a legion of friends, including Chris Caton, a firefighter in Yarmouth, Mass. Caton met Mendez on a cruise to the Caribbean. Caton and his wife frequently visited the Mendezes at their summer place in the Hamptons, while the Mendezes often made the trip to see their friends on Cape Cod.

In 1999, the Mendezes bought a century-old, two-family Victorian house in Floral Park with a big front porch. "It was literally falling down," Kerri Mendez said. At first, Chuck wasn't particularly handy, but he was game. Armed with his "bible," "Home Improvement 1-2-3," about a dozen other home repair books and advice from the guys at the firehouse, he restored the old Victorian.

"He always finished the job," his wife said. "He never left the job half done."

On Sept. 11, Caton and another firefighter were driving down to visit Mendez and ride with his fire company for the day. They got a late start, and when they were still in Connecticut, they got a call about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. "We turned around," Caton said.

In addition to his wife, Mendez is survived by his mother, Doris; a sister, Patty D'Agosta, and brothers Tom, Steven and Rich, all of Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn.

Mendez's body was recovered at 11:15 p.m. on New Year's Eve. John Brown, a friend from beach volleyball and a fellow firefighter, was working at the trade center site and claimed the body. New Year's celebrations around the city prevented transporting the body right away. So while revelers elsewhere counted down, toasted and kissed, Brown spent some quiet hours in the ambulance with Mendez's body before accompanying it to the morgue.

"I had a wonderful chat with him," Brown told his wife later.

-- Ken Schachter (Newsday)