Cops, firemen & miracles

The doctors declared a miracle when Police Officer Steven McDonald survived the shooting, but he remained paralyzed below the neck and he was in the maw of despair when he was visited by a kind of angel wearing hospital pajamas and a steel back brace.
The angel who appeared in that room at Bellevue Hospital in September 1986 was Firefighter Ronald Bucca. Everyone declared a miracle when he survived a five-story fall while trying to rescue a comrade at a blaze on the upper West Side.

Bucca struck a telephone wire and a pair of cables on the way down, but fire officials concluded this slowed his fall only minimally. They theorized he was saved by his Airborne and Special Forces training in the Army. He landed on his hands and feet like a cat, suffering only a broken back in a fall that doctors would have expected to be fatal.

"It wasn't my time," Bucca later said.

"He's lucky, lucky, lucky," his wife, Eve Bucca, was quoted saying. "He used a life-span of luck."

The mayor then, Ed Koch, visited Bucca at the hospital and offered his own explanation.

"He's the first man I've ever met who I can say has learned how to fly," Koch said.

A broken back is still a broken back, and Bucca must have been in considerable pain when he learned that a cop who had been shot by a teenager in Central Park was on the same ward. Bucca made his way down the hall to the paralyzed McDonald again and again, one miracle seeking to comfort another.

"I just remember him in his hospital pajamas and a back brace, and he would always come in and see if I was okay, if I needed anything," McDonald would recall. "He had been through a very bad time himself, but he always took the time to check on me."

'Flying Fireman'

McDonald's wife, Patti Ann, took to calling Bucca "the Flying Fireman." Steven McDonald was still physically unable to speak.

"I couldn't communicate because of the gunshot wounds, but that didn't matter to him," McDonald would remember. "He knew I was in a deep depression, dark moods and he would spend time with me, trying to give me pep talks."

McDonald managed to fight off the despair that threatened to overwhelm him. He regained his power of speech and became our city's strongest voice for forgiveness, peace and justice.

Bucca, in the meantime, had ignored those who counseled him to retire with a disability pension. He had also dismissed the experts who predicted he would never be fit for full duty. He was determined to return to the business of saving lives.

"I designed my own rehabilitation program - calisthenics, running and other exercises," Bucca was quoted saying. "There was never any doubt in my mind."

In September 1987, a year after his fall, Bucca did indeed return to full duty. He became a fire marshal in 1992, and he was at the scene of the World Trade Center bombing a year later.

Bucca also remained an Army reservist, serving as a Green Beret with the 11th Special Forces Group and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was a firefighter-soldier who was certain the terrorists would strike again.

On Sept. 11, Bucca's prediction came horribly true. He telephoned his wife to say he was on his way to the World Trade Center. He had reached the 79th floor of the south tower with Fire Chief Orio Palmer and firefighters from Ladder 15.

There, they are said to have stretched a hose from a stanchion and begun battling pockets of fire. Their apparent hope was to clear an escape route for those trapped above.

Not even the flying fireman could survive when the tower collapsed. Those who spoke at Bucca's funeral included Steven McDonald.

The two had stayed touch over the years, and Bucca kept a picture of McDonald in his home. McDonald kept the image in his heart of Bucca at his hospital bedside in pajamas and a back brace.

"We always talked about getting together," McDonald later said. "And then he was gone."

On Thursday, McDonald attended a rally in Times Square that was organized by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association to demand a pay raise that was undeniably their due long before Sept. 11. He parked his motorized wheelchair on the sidewalk just to the right of the stage and he was introduced to the crowd as "one of the great heroes of New York."

At the rally

The cops cheered, along with thousands of firefighters who attended the rally as a sign of solidarity. The event culminated in the police union president embracing the fire union president, and McDonald surely would have joined the applause if only he were able to clap his hands.

He could smile, and the light of it spread to the eyes that had only seen darkness in those terrible days 16 years ago. He had not forgotten how his fellow miracle had appeared as a kind of angel when he most needed one and he knew that spirit had not died with Ronald Bucca. To see a cop and a firefighter united up on that stage was to see that New York's true twin towers are still standing.