343 Bravest Stand Up For 343 Gallant Souls

The pipe band went silent, the crowd hushed and Fifth Ave. became quieter than a whispered prayer as the 343 firefighters turned about face toward the place where 343 comrades had perished.

"Uncover!" a voice called out.

The firefighters removed their hats and stood with the wind at their backs. The air itself seemed to gust downtown with their thoughts and memories.

Each of these firefighters was representing a particular member of the department who had died at the World Trade Center. They had joined the formation earlier in the morning on E. 44th St. by speaking the name of a son, brother or friend to a lieutenant from the ceremonial unit who held a list of the dead.

The first to arrive was Firefighter Steve Wall. He gave the name of his best friend.

"Matty Ryan."

The lieutenant penciled a check on the list next to Battalion Chief Matthew Ryan. Wall stepped into a 40-by-80-foot section of the block that had been ringed with barricades and marked with a sign reading "Honor Company 343."

"We used to march every year together," Wall said of Ryan. "He was my best friend. ...They found him with two firemen the Saturday night before Thanksgiving."

More firefighters checked in with the lieutenant, Nick Aufiero. Firefighter Michael Stackpole was there to march for his brother, Capt. Timothy Stackpole, who had suffered terrible burns in a fire and then fought his way back to the job only to die on Sept. 11.

Retired Firefighter John Tipping arrived to represent the son also named John whose remains he had helped carry from the Trade Center just last Tuesday. He spoke with Fire Chaplain Christopher Keenan, who was there to march for Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge.

"Did John have a family?" Keenan asked.

"He was just going to get married," Tipping said.

Tipping walked over to several firefighters from his son's company, Ladder Co. 4.

"These are my boys now," Tipping said.

Capt. Danny Browne of Ladder Co. 3 went up to Aufiero with his own list of the 12 from his company who had perished and those who would be marching for them. The number happened to match the march formation.

"Each row is 12, so we have one row," Browne said.

Firefighter Lenny Phelan approached Aufiero and said he was there to march for his brother.

"Phelan with a 'Ph,'" Phelan said.

Aufiero flipped to the Ps and Phelan pointed with his forefinger.

"There," he said.

Aufiero put a check next to "Kenneth Phelan" and Lenny Phelan joined a crowd that swelled shoulder to shoulder as marching time neared. To squeeze through them as they talked and sighed and laughed and embraced and fought back tears was to be reminded how much life there is in 343 members of the Fire Department.

And everywhere you looked, there was more proof of the enormity of losing even one. Firefighter Joe Higgins was marching for his brother Lt. Timmy Higgins. Firefighter Dan Foley was marching for his brother, Firefighter Tommy Foley. Capt. Joe Downey was marching for his father, Chief Ray Downey.

Firefighter Joe Spor stood with a holy card from his son's wake pinned to the front of his uniform. He pointed to the card when somebody asked his son's name.

"Joe Spor Jr.," he said.

Just before noon, the pipe band started onto Fifth Ave., its newest members including James Dowdell, son of the still-missing Lt. Kevin Dowdell. It was followed by 343 probationary firefighters carrying an equal number of flags.

"The future," a firefighter said.

Then, came a trio of firefighters bearing a black and purple banner that had the number 343 in white. Right behind them came the 343 firefighters. The number 12 never looked bigger than when you looked down Ladder Co. 3's row and considered this was how many that firehouse lost.

You then realized you were actually looking at 24, not just the ones marching, but also the ones for whom they were marching, not just Dan Browne, but also his dead friend Lt. Kevin Donnelly, not just Mike Brown, but his dead brother Capt. Pat Brown.

As all 343 started up Fifth Ave., the biggest St. Patrick's Day crowd any of them had ever seen broke into cheers and applause. A good number of firefighters seemed to be welling with tears even as they smiled.

Wall had a green ribbon around his neck bearing a holy card picture of his best friend, Ryan. Lt. Jim Rallis held a glossy photo of his friend Lt. Mike Quilty. All the firefighters wore their battered hearts on their faces.

The cheers seemed to grow even louder as they continued uptown on what had on every other year been just a happy lark up Fifth Ave. They were just below 55th St. when they stopped and turned about with the rest of the parade. The moment of silence deepened to where the only sound was the slap of the ropes against the metal flagpoles overhead.

Then, almost as if arising from that place of death downtown, a roar came up the avenue, rolling through the throngs like the force of life itself.

Gone, Not Forgotten

The roar reached the firefighters a little earlier than some might have wished, but there was no mistaking that the moment had come to turn back around. More than one of the 343 had tears on his cheeks as they marched on uptown for 343 gallant souls who were gone but not forgotten on St. Patrick's Day.