Celebrating a hero, clinging to memories
Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Record Columnist


They brought Frank Callahan's memory home Monday. They're still looking for his body.

Remember that when someone tells you it's time to move beyond this tragedy of the World Trade Center. Remember that when they tell you today's three-month anniversary ought to be a turning point toward something called closure.

For some, this is not even the beginning of the end. This isn't about closure. This isn't about turning points. This anniversary really ought to be about preserving memory.

Frank Callahan is one of 3,096 killed on that Tuesday in September when hijacked jetliners turned the Twin Towers into piles of pulverized concrete and knots of mangled steel.

One of every 10 who died that day in lower Manhattan was trying to rescue someone -- 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers, and 23 New York City cops. But they were not alone in their heroism. Dozens of civilians are thought to have died, too -- including another 37 Port Authority civilians -- when they didn't run from the towers but stayed behind to help.

Remember that.

Callahan, a fire captain, perished with 10 members of his firehouse -- a grotto-like spot on the northwest side of Lincoln Center. The "cavemen," the firefighters called themselves. Of the 11 who died in that firehouse, only one body has been found and given a proper burial. And of the 3,096 overall dead, fewer than 500 bodies have been recovered and identified for burial.

Remember that. The rest of the Sept. 11 victims are consigned to memory. Indeed, at this anniversary -- this so-called turning point -- there is little else to cling to besides memory.

And so, on Monday afternoon, as hundreds of firefighters -- some from Germany and California -- gathered at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall for Callahan's memorial service, you heard a lesson in memory and how to keep it alive.

You learned that Frank Callahan was a man of few words but had the mirth-filled heart of a practical joker. Once, he delighted his firefighters by dancing down the middle of Central Park West. You learned that soot clung to Callahan's handlebar mustache at fires, that he loved to wear the same flannel shirt while off duty, that he was a "man of few words" but had "a look" that, as Firefighter Robert Menig explained to gales of laughter, could reduce burly men into "confusion, bewilderment, or near panic."

You learned that Callahan impressed his wife's family by getting up to dry the dishes at family gatherings, that he sat for hours patiently listening to his daughter try to play the piano, that he was big enough to knock down a door but gentle enough to cuddle a baby.

You learned that he always went into a fire first.

And then you learned this: When Callahan rode off to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, he made three phone calls -- to his wife at her school, to his home to check on a sick child, and to his 20-year-old daughter to make sure she did not go to her job at the Twin Towers. She didn't.

In short, we learned Frank Callahan was human. When heading into danger, he first made sure his family was safe. On Monday, in her eulogy, you heard that daughter, Nora, read an all-too-human letter she would like her father to hear, telling him she wanted him to now know how united his city seems. "You wouldn't believe it," she said.

As for the mourners, many find strength in these celebrations of ordinary life. Harry McKay, a retired New York Fire Department captain, has gone to more than two dozen services. Collin Thomas, of the New Brunswick Fire Department, has been to five. Lt. Jim Schumeyer, a drummer in the New York Fire Department band and a member of an elite rescue team that lost six men, has gone to more than 100. "I'd rather be here than anywhere," he said.

In his eulogy, Callahan's colleague at the Lincoln Center firehouse, Capt. James Gormley, noted how Sept. 11 had touched us in so many personal ways -- from offices, to families, to firehouses.

"It's a story," Gormley said, "that must be told until it makes sense."

Remember that.