For firefighter's wife, helmet is enough

Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Daily News (NY)...05/21/2002

By Michele McPhee

All that is left of Fire Capt. Brian Hickey is the sweat of his brow.

But for his wife, Donna Hickey, that is enough.

As recovery work at Ground Zero nears the end, survivors of World Trade Center victims have prayed that any small remnant of their loved ones would be recovered for a proper burial.

For eight months, Donna Hickey waited for something _ anything _ of her husband's to be carried out of the rubble.

Last week, her husband's colleagues presented her with his white captain's helmet.

The crushed hat, caked with soot and dirt, was found months ago alongside tools from Rescue 3, which Hickey commanded Sept. 11. His perspiration and a few strands of his thinning brown hair found inside the helmet finally provided enough DNA for the city medical examiner to determine in recent days that he was wearing it when he died.

When found, the helmet bore the scars of countless fires, including the Queens explosion last Father's Day that killed three firefighters and severely injured Hickey. It also was festooned with faded green shamrock stickers _ a nod to his Irish heritage.

When Hickey left the Bronx headquarters of Rescue 3 on Sept. 11, the Mass cards of the three men killed last June were tucked under a leather strap inside the helmet, along with a photograph of his family.

The Mass cards and picture were lost, but the lining of Hickey's helmet was stained with the sweat of leading his men up the flaming south tower of the World Trade Center.

"You keep praying, 'Anything, anything _ give me anything,' " Donna Hickey said. "God gave me this."

Hickey is grateful she has his helmet, which is the heart of any firefighter. She plans to put it in his coffin for a funeral Mass on June 11, the day her husband would have turned 48.

"The helmet is the fireman. It's been through every fire," she said. "When you bury the helmet, you bury the man."

Brian Hickey, a 20-year FDNY veteran, was commander of Rescue 4 for three years, but on Sept. 11, he was filling in for a Rescue 3 captain who was off that day.

That morning, a "10-60" _ major emergency signal _ sent the men of Rescue 3 hurtling to the World Trade Center minutes after a plane hit the north tower. When they arrived, the south tower also was in flames, and the company rushed inside to join the rescue efforts, carrying equipment used in major catastrophes.

None of the eight men in the company survived.

In the days after the collapse, other rescue company firefighters searched the pile that was the south tower, the final resting place for Hickey and his men.

The firefighters began to dig and have not stopped since, even as the pile was flattened and debris carted away.

Eventually, workers uncovered an area containing Rescue 3 gear, including charred firefighting tools marked "R3" as well as Hickey's helmet.

Fire Department officials believe the company had been in the stairwell of the building on a high floor and died together when the tower came down.

"I never doubted for a moment that Brian would be anywhere but high up in the tower," said his father, Ray Hickey, who dealt with his grief by creating a stained-glass door for his son's firehouse, with the names of every fallen Rescue 4 firefighter memorialized in rich hues.

"I'm glad his guys brought him home."

Rescue 4 Firefighter Liam Flaherty _ an FDNY bagpiper who, when not at funerals for his fallen brothers, has spent the past eight months at Ground Zero _ said his company would not have been able to rest until it found the captain.

On a cold winter's morning at 4 a.m. so many months ago, Flaherty gingerly wrapped Hickey's battered helmet in a U.S. flag and carried it out. Deep down, though, he had been hoping for more.

"It's tough to face the families and say, 'We are not going to recover everybody.' It hurts," Flaherty said.

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(c) 2002, New York Daily News.

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