A Sign That He'll Be Remembered;
Smithtown pays tribute to a fallen firefighter

Copyright 2002 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York, NY)...08/18/2002

By Theresa Vargas. STAFF WRITER

Bagpipes moaned. An American flag, suspended by two fire truck ladders, flapped across four lanes of traffic. And about 200 people filled a Smithtown intersection to see that stretch named "Chief William McGovern Avenue."

The sign, unveiled July 26 on Mount Pleasant Road at Sandalwood Drive, is a tribute to the New York City firefighter from Smithtown who was killed during rescue efforts at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

"There will be hundreds, if not thousands, of people passing that spot every day, and somebody may ask the question 'Who's Chief William McGovern?'" said Steve Hoch, 49, of Mineola, his friend of 10 years and a fellow firefighter. "People should know."

McGovern, 49, a 24-year veteran firefighter, had worked his way up the ranks without losing his grounding, friends said, describing him with words such as "big laugh" and "fun loving."

But he had his serious side, too.

In 1998, he and another firefighter crawled on hands and knees to rescue two children trapped in a Bedford-Stuyvesant blaze. They resuscitated the 7-year-old boy, who had stopped breathing.

"I feel maybe naive when I look back," his wife, Mary McGovern, said about the years he spent fighting fires and occasionally coming home with minor burns. "I always felt that he was ... well, not invincible ... but a smart guy about his job. I just thought he could handle situations."

But no one could handle what happened Sept. 11.

McGovern, a chief of the 2nd Battalion, was stationed about a quarter-mile from the towers and was probably one of the first rescuers on the scene.

"Do you want me to go upstairs?" he had asked repeatedly inside the north tower before finally getting the OK, said Hoch.

McGovern was last seen on the 30th floor.

Amid the chaos and unknowns in the hours following, Hoch and other firefighters scoured St. Vincent's hospital in vain, hoping to find him there, among the injured.

His body was pulled from the rubble a week later.

"That was one of the most devastating moments, particularly for my daughter," Mary said of Katie, 12, whom McGovern spent much time raising because of his flexible schedule. Still, she added, "I feel grateful that they did recover him. There are people that haven't had that."

"A day doesn't go by that we don't think about him," Hoch added. "The way we live together and work together there, it's just like losing a family member."

A small memorial sits upstairs at Ladder Company 115 in Long Island City, where he once served as captain, but the firefighters wanted something more permanent, more public.

Several months back, Hoch and another firefighter, Charlie Roberts, began working on obtaining the street sign.

Mary McGovern, who had met her husband on a "cruise to nowhere," simply had to choose the spot. She settled on the section of Mount Pleasant Road in front of St. Patrick's cemetery, where her husband is buried and where fresh flowers and cards left by anonymous well-wishers decorate his grave every so often.

"It would be a coming-home place to us, whether I continued to live in the same house or not," she said. "It would be something great to my kids, just another thing to make them feel proud of him."

At the ceremony, red, white and blue bunting was lifted off the sign as relatives, fellow firefighters and local politicians gathered.

"My husband is the type that would be thrilled with it," Mary McGovern said. "Bill would be the type to say this is great and I deserve this, joking around."