Firefighter gave ultimate sacrifice aiding comrades

WASHINGTONVILLE: A gentle giant is remembered as a hero who lived to help others.

By Timothy O'Connor
The TimesHerald-Record

Thick black smoke poured from the stricken Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as FDNY firefighter Mark Whitford and his comrades from Engine 23 arrived.

Whitford was supposed to stay with the truck, standard operating procedure for the driver. He had called his wife, Renee, in Salisbury Mills before his squad headed down to Lower Manhattan and told her he would be staying outside.

But now, he looked up at the flames and the smoke, saw the panicked people running from the buildings, saw his comrades heading into the flaming mountains of melting steel.

He phoned Renee again as she tended to the needs of the couple's bright-eyed twin tykes, Matthew and Timothy, barely a year old.

"It's terrible here," he said, "I'm going in."

Renee pleaded with him to stay with the truck.

He couldn't. People trapped in the towers needed his help. His brother firefighters needed his help.

He grabbed his gear and headed into the teeth of trouble.

"The world came to an end around them," Rev. John Keaveney said yesterday during a memorial service for Mark Whitford at St. Mary's Church in Washingtonville.

The former wrestling champ from Tottenville High School was remembered as a giant of a man, 220 pounds of muscle with a size 18 neck, who lived to help others. A man who loved his job almost as much as he loved his wife and twin boys.

"He told Renee ... of the loves of his life," Keaveney said, "she was first and the fire department was second."

Mark Whitford and five of his fellow Engine 23 firefighters were lost under the collapsing towers, among the 343 New York City firefighters and nearly 6,000 people who perished in the Sept. 11 attack.

Yesterday, about 200 New York City firefighters and cops filled the pews of St. Mary's. Renee Whitford sat near a giant photo of her smiling husband, posed in his firefighter gear. The twins sat still for about as long as two active 13-month-old boys could be expected to, then took turns fussing, blissfully unaware of the pall that hung over the church.

U.S. Army generals Richard Colt and Paul Hill, accompanied by a color guard and a squadron of Army brass, presented Renee Whitford with an American flag and her husband's Meritorious Service Medal for valor at the World Trade Center. Mark Whitford was a captain in the U.S. Army reserves, where he served with the 331st Military Intelligence Company stationed at Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.

Firefighters from Engine 23 presented Renee Whitford with a helmet.

She clutched the flag to her chest with one arm and the helmet with the other. There was no casket.

On the morning of the attacks, Mark's brother, Dennis, called Renee and asked if Mark was OK. She told him that Mark was there, but he was staying with the truck.

Dennis Whitford knew his brother better than that. The two boys shared a room growing up, Mark just a year older but every bit the protective older brother. Dennis knew his brother was in the towers trying to save people.

As he watched on TV, the first tower collapsed.

"At that moment I felt a piece of me leave," he said. "I knew Mark wasn't coming home."