Pure, Clear Notes Triumph in Grief

Up from the dusty pit marched 19-year-old Patrick Dowdell in the white shirt and plaid kilt of the New York City Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes and Drums.

On his left were members of the Port Authority Police pipes band, on his right the NYPD pipes band. He was the fourth piper back from the fire drum major as he ascended from the place where his father had died trying to save others.

Patrick is the older son of fire Lt. Kevin Dowdell, who was lost Sept. 11. Patrick is too young to be a firefighter, but that did not keep him from going down to the pile. The father's body was lost in the wreckage. The father's spirit was there for anybody to see in his son.

That spirit is no less apparent in the younger son, 17-year-old James. Both boys summoned a poise and dignity far beyond their years as they played with the band at twin tower funerals and memorial services.

In April, Patrick soloed "Amazing Grace" as his father's coffin was carried into St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Queens. His fingers were sure and steady, the notes clear and pure, telling everyone that death had not won.

Yesterday, Patrick stood ready to play with men from three pipe bands. He waited as buglers played taps and five police helicopters flew in formation through the thin air where the twin towers once stood. The fire drum major then shouted a command.

"America! By the center! Slow march!"

The drummers struck up a stirring rhythm. Patrick and the other pipers began to play, the strong and vibrant sound filling that thin air, broadcast by television so the whole country could feel what the 19-year-old's lone pipes had shown outside St. Thomas More.

The ambulance leading the way up West St. seemed somehow less empty. The American flag looked bright and beautiful as it lay on the shrouded steel beam borne behind by a flatbed truck.

Then came the band, the pipes going quiet at the end of "America." They marched on. Patrick's free right arm kept swinging in time with those of the others, the glinting silver bracelet on his wrist bearing his father's name.

His hand rose to the pipes as fire drum major Liam Flaherty called another command.

"Gary Owen! Ready! By the right, quick march!"

After "Gary Owen" came "Wearing of the Green" and a final, faster rendition of "America." The onlookers who lined the way applauded and wiped away tears.

At Canal St., the ambulance turned and the truck rumbled off and the pipers played a final note. The band was dismissed, and Patrick was joined by his younger brother.

James had come ready to play drums, but he had been consigned to the honor guard because the number from each band had been curtailed. James had an identical silver bracelet on his wrist as he joined his brother and the rest of the band in hopping atop Ladder Co. 5's shiny new rig. The old rig had been crushed Sept. 11.

The Dowdell boys rode off at the center of the kilted figures arrayed along the top of the gleaming ladder. An elderly lady on a stoop waved. A young woman in a white top tipped her head as if to peer up and answer the age-old question about men in kilts. Entire blocks smiled at these men who had played hundreds of funerals over the past nine months and yet looked so exuberantly alive.

At Houston St., the rig pulled up to the quarters housing Ladder 5 and Engine 24, a firehouse that had lost 11 men. A crowd of firefighters and family members had gathered there, and the band formed a circle on the concrete apron.

This time, both Dowdell boys got to play, James his drum, Patrick his pipes, their father in each of them, the whole band resounding with what the terrorists could not kill.

"Okay, guys, we're going to go over to Chumley's for lunch," Flaherty then said.

Patrick led the way over to a Bedford St. restaurant on whose walls hang photos of Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge and Fire Capt. John Drennan and Fire Capt. Patrick Brown and Firefighter Keith McLaughlin and other fallen comrades.

The band plays a funeral today, another Monday and two more June 11. Patrick Dowdell goes to West Point as a cadet in July. James is heading off to Iona College on a music scholarship.

Meanwhile, Chumley's filled with the grace that restores the pipers between heartbreaks. This, of course, is laughter.

E-mail: mdaly@edit.nydailynews.com

Original Publication Date: 5/31/02