Orphan Grew Up Looking After His Siblings

November 26, 2001

At age 30, Hector Tirado Jr. was a rookie firefighter -- a "probie," still on probation -- when he ran into Tower One. But his short life had been fuller, and harder, than many twice as long.

At 15, orphaned along with his three younger siblings, Tirado took the weight of the world on his shoulders. His mother had died several years earlier, and, when he lost his father, Tirado moved the family in with their uncles and aunt.

"He would not go to sleep until his brothers had eaten," recalled his uncle, Robert Tirado, 49. "We would tell him, 'Hector, we'll take care of that. Why don't you go to bed? You have work tomorrow.' But he wasn't like that."

After a difficult upbringing, Tirado was accustomed to looking out for the younger kids, his uncle said.

"Hector was a very sad little boy," he said. As he got older, he said, "He told us he never wanted to be without a family."

At 18, when he graduated high school, Tirado got a job as a waiter, and moved his small family -- his brothers, Angel and Sean, and sister, Marina -- to an apartment in the East Bronx. A year later, he had a family court declare him legal guardian to his three siblings. "His goal was to have all his brothers together and try to build up the family," his uncle said.

There were tough times and large hurdles to overcome, his uncle said. Tirado's brother Sean was at one point placed in a group home because of his truancy from school, for instance. But, when Tirado became their guardian, "It made a difference, because the kids never got into trouble anymore," his uncle said.

After a couple of years, Tirado's grandparents offered to take in the younger children. Tirado joined the U.S. Army and was posted in Panama.

He returned a year later, and met his future wife, Sheneque Jackson. They had five children, now ranging in age from 6 to 13 -- Devon, Denzel, Ronald, Ashley and Hector III.

"He was very happy in that time," said his uncle. "They sort of became the family that he really wanted."

The couple divorced five years ago, his uncle said, and the children now live with their mother in Ohio.

Tirado had always worked, his uncle said. Since he was in high school, when he worked in a shoe store and did construction jobs, "Hector was always employed. People liked him, so he always had a job," his uncle said.

But it was only in the past couple of years that Tirado found his calling. It was about two years ago that he became an emergency medical technician, and then, 1 1/2 years ago, he became a firefighter at Engine Co. 23 on Manhattan's West Side.

"He loved being a firefighter," his uncle said. "He said, 'I'm beginning to live. I feel so full of energy.'"

And indeed, things were looking up for the young man who had spent so many of his years taking care of others. He planned to finish college and then go to medical school to become a doctor. He had just bought a co-op in the East Bronx. And, his uncle said, "He told me that he wanted to meet the woman of his dreams.

"He was sort of at the beginning of his life," his uncle said. "He was at that point in his life that he was beginning to live and see that there's more to the world than just sadness."

-- Indrani Sen (Newsday)