Between Funeral and 'Pile'

September 21, 2001

Michael's choice: remain with his mother, Anne, in Lindenhurst and support his family during the wake, today, and the funeral, tomorrow, for his father, New York firefighter Joey Angelini, 63; or, return to The Pile to continue searching for his missing brother, New York firefighter Joey Angelini Jr., 38.

Michael, 33, knew yesterday that his mother and Joey Jr.'s wife, Donna, his two sisters and his nieces and nephews needed him, needed a strong, grown, male Angelini nearby, perhaps as much or more than he needed to be nearer his brother. "It's hard to figure out what's the right place to be in," he said, already having decided to stay with the family. "I want so much to go back there."

Michael works for the Fire Patrol of New York, which operates under the New York Board of Underwriters, protecting the interests of insurers during and in the aftermath of commercial property fires. Wearing the same firefighting gear, except for the distinctive red helmet that denotes Fire Patrol, he responded to the World Trade Center disaster last Tuesday morning, as did his father, a 40-year FDNY veteran assigned to Rescue 1, and his brother, of Ladder Co. 4 in the Theater District. "We were all in the same area, and none of us knew it," he said.

In the lobby of one of the stricken towers, a fire supervisor suddenly ordered him out of the building. They passed firefighters who had just encountered the body of department chaplain Father Mychal Judge. Michael helped carry Judge away. "... but then my officer grabbed me and said, 'Let's go!'" he said. "We ended up a block or two north on West Murray Street."

Michael entertained a slender hope that his brother might have finished his tour early and gone home. He suspected otherwise, and he learned later that afternoon that Joey had done what his father would have done and what so many other firefighters did who were supposed to be ending their tours at 9 a.m. They went to work.

Once a jokester and a partygoer, Joey Jr. had undergone personality changes increasingly noticeable to Michael during the past seven years, since he had joined the department and Donna gave birth to the first of their three children, Jennifer. He had worked previously as an electrician with the Transit Authority. "I didn't want him to leave Transit," said his mother, "because they were about to make him a foreman. But, for some reason, he switched over to the fire department."

"Since then," Michael said, "I saw him taking on more and more of my father's traits. Before, we used to go out a lot, he and I. He was silly, funny. Now, getting him to go out was like pulling teeth. I tell old stories to guys he worked with, and they'll look at me like I'm talking about somebody they don't know. He had become so, like, straight. He just wanted to be with his family. He was showing more and more of that integrity, that seriousness, like my father.

"Three things were important to my father: his family, the church and the department, and I'm not sure in what order. My father was honest to a fault, religious. I remember walking back from the store with him. I was only little. He realized that the counter girl had given him 30 cents too much in change, and we had to walk all the way back. I mean, it was almost ridiculous. Joey was becoming more like that. It was good to watch, but it's hard to live up to."

The elder Angelini was in special operations that morning, and Michael hoped he too might have been sent elsewhere, but he really knew better. His father was legendary in the department for loving the work, for loving "to get dirty," for loving "making a grab [rescuing somebody]," for routinely walking out of a mostly extinguished inferno and lighting a cigarette while younger firefighters lay sprawled around him, exhausted.

Earlier this year, at a Holy Name Society communion breakfast tribute for his 40th anniversary as a firefighter, the short, wiry, gray-haired Angelini resisted efforts by his fellow firefighters to get him to wear more of his medals. "They convinced him to put on maybe a third of them," Michael said. "Then he said, 'Stop. I'm tired of pinning these on.'

"He kept them in the back of a drawer, in a box," Michael said. "He didn't tell us about half of them. He didn't talk about what he did. You would be eating dinner across from him and notice that he looked dif- ferent, like, strange, and then you would realize that his face was all red, and his eyebrows were completely gone, and his hairline had receded. He was burned. You would say, 'What happened to you?' And he would say, 'Aw, something flashed over me.'

"At the site, all week, guys were joking about him finding a pocket and eventually walking out. They said to me, 'He was probably buried in a void, and as soon as he runs out of cigarettes he's gonna come walking out.'"

Rescue workers found the body of Joey Angelini on Monday. He had been listed as missing since the day after the attack. Joey Jr. still is missing. After tomorrow's funeral Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Lindenhurst, Michael probably will return to the site.

--Ed Lowe (Newsday Columnist)

Note: Joey, Jr was found 3/15/02



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