For firefighter's friends ... the music never stopped

1,000 gather to celebrate the life and music of Stephen Harrell, killed on Sept. 11

Monday, August 26, 2002


Hangdown Harrell would never miss a party like this.

Ask any one of his many friends and they'll say with certainty that the fire lieutenant who was killed on Sept. 11 was there in spirit at the inaugural Stephen "Hangdown" Harrell Memorial Jam yesterday--and loving every minute.

With performances from six bands comprised of firefighters and local musicians, the giant party, held at Camp Kaufman in Sea View, served as a fitting tribute to Harrell, whose passion for music was as strong as his love of fighting fires.

A talented singer, songwriter and musician, "He would be the first guy to step up and play for a benefit like we're doing for him today," said Kevin Kelly, a friend and fellow firefighter.

Kelly, along with Harrell's friends Jim Steinhilber, Mike King and Dennis Barnes, organized the event, held to benefit the Elsasser Fund, Firefighters Transport Foundation and the Holly Rae Harrell Fund, established in his 7-year-old daughter's name.

Raised in Midland Beach, Harrell, a 15-year veteran of the department, was a resident of Warwick, N.Y. Promoted to lieutenant in 1998, Harrell, 44, was assigned to Ladder Co. 157, Brooklyn, but was working at Ladder Co. 10 across the street from the World Trade Center when the attacks took place.

Harrell was the officer on duty with the "probies" -- probationary firefighters -- on Sept. 11, and the unit was among the first units to respond to when Tower 1 was hit.

"On Sept. 11 when we were going in there, they knew what was going to happen, but we couldn't stop them," said Capt. Mike Meagher of Engine Co. 255, Ladder 157. "Steve was the first guy up the stairs.

"He was the highest one up in that building," said Steve Stora, a firefighter who worked with Harrell. "The guys took a break on the 35th floor, and he just kept on going. He knew there were people who needed help. He just kept going."

Harrell's brother Harvey, 49, a lieutenant with Rescue Co. 5, Concord, was also killed when the Twin Towers collapsed.

"We were devastated to lose them, but on the other hand, we couldn't be more proud of them," Meagher said of the brothers, who he said were known as "the Twin Towers of Midland Beach" when they were younger.

The afternoon's performers included Harrell's sister Cynthia Casserly, who played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes with the Staten Island Pipes and Drums; The Recruders; The Glass Bottom Pajama, one of Harrell's former bands; Woof Woof; The Pirhana Brothers; and Hangdown, a tribute to Harrell featuring bandmembers who had played with him over the years.

Special guest, radio personality Maria Milito and the crew from Q104.3 FM, were on hand to give out T-shirts and keep the crowd pumped.

Packing every corner of the campground, approximately 1,000 of Harrell's friends reminisced about the great times they had with him.

"He always broke the kitchen up laughing after a fire," Stora said. "I've cried about other stuff, but haven't cried about his loss, because there are so many funny stories about how he entertained us."

Between the funny lyrics he wrote about the job, and the touching tributes to a fallen comrade, Harrell's songwriting skills were fondly remembered.

Stora remembered a time Harrell stole the show during a medal ceremony, taking off his shoes and socks and wading through a fountain with an ornamental baby grand piano in the middle. "He sat down and played a song for everybody -- 'Captain Jack will get you burned tonight.' The maitre d' had a heart attack."

"I cannot go a day without telling a Hangdown story," said Harrell's friend George Johnson of Engine 255, Ladder 157, one of the three firefighters in the famous flag raising photo taken at Ground Zero. "I miss him."

"There wasn't anybody who met him who didn't get a laugh out of him," King said. "We can't say enough about him. He was an amazing guy."

"He was a great fireman, but even more than that, he was a great guy to know," said Mark, a firefighter who wouldn't give his last name. "He's here now, and he's having a great time with us."

"This is his real wake," Meagher said. "Stevie was all about family, having a good time, and rock 'n' roll. He would have loved this day. Nobody would have loved this more than him."

"He'd be up on the stage singing right now," Steinhilber said. "He would never let an opportunity go by. He had so much life in him."

"He would be so proud," said Harrell's wife, Meghan. "Seeing all these people with his face on their shirts -- he would be in his glory."

Along with the music, the afternoon included kids activities, many running around with spray painted hair, as they played soccer, went on pony and boat rides, had relay races and an egg toss.

Members of Harrell's firehouse manned the grill.

"I think the kids all had a ball," Mrs. Harrell said. "It was such a nice day."

Hangdown wouldn't have had it any other way.