The very center of their hearts

The organizers intended for the families to leave their flowers on the rim of the wooden Circle of Honor, but Janet Brown stepped up and over the knee-high wall with the spirit of the fallen firefighter whose holy card she held.

In jeans and a Ladder Co. 3 T-shirt, she kneeled in the deserted center and set down a pink rose along with a laminated card bearing the smiling face of her brother-in-law, Capt. Patrick Brown.

Janet's other hand clutched three small stones that remained on the floor of The Pit after the 1.8 million tons of debris had been sifted and carted away. She set them atop the holy card so it would not be carried away by the wind that was whipping up huge clouds of dust.

She and her husband, Mike Brown, had watched the swirling clouds from the edge of The Pit before they descended the ramp. Mike had been reminded of the small whirlwinds they call dust devils back home in Nevada.

He also had been reminded of the night in Central Park last January when those who loved his brother had cast Patrick's ashes into the moonlight. The huge billowing clouds in The Pit now brought to mind the 1,399 innocents whose remains have not been identified.

"Dust angels," somebody said.

Janet rose in tears, leaving the holy card with Patrick's grinning face at the windswept center of what seemed a universe of grief. She returned to her husband on the outside of the ring and looked about at the thousands of others who had lost someone.

"How could this have happened?" she asked.

Janet had inspired a woman in a white T-shirt to help her young daughter onto the ring.

"I want you to put Daddy's picture in there," the woman said.

With a hand from Mike Brown, the girl stepped into the circle holding a framed picture of a man who was smiling as brightly as Patrick. The woman moved to join her daughter.

"Can I help you?" a man asked.

"No," the woman said.

The woman joined her daughter. They propped the framed photo upright, the way thousands had family photos on their desks when the terrorists struck.

More families stepped into the ring, and the once-empty center filled with people embracing and setting down mementos. The wind kept whipping up dust. The reading of the names of the dead came to another one that resonated in Mike Brown.

"Mychal Judge."

Some months before the World Trade Center attack, Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge had suggested Patrick should be a little less heedless of his own safety when he dashed into fires. Patrick had only laughed and said he thought he was doing God's work.

Soon after, Patrick joined Firefighter Jeff Giordano in a dramatic rescue. Judge wrote Patrick a letter, which Mike found among his brother's papers.

"You are right, Patrick, God puts you where He needs you when He needs you and as often as He needs you and you always respond.
Love, M"

Mike Brown now turned from the wooden ring and passed through an arc of uniformed personnel. He strode alone into a desolate expanse marked off by regularly spaced rectangles in the bedrock. These marked the columns supporting the north tower where Judge and Patrick and hundreds of other rescuers had responded exactly a year before.

Mike tipped back his head and peered upward with eyes so much like his brother's. Judge had at this minute last year been praying in the lobby directly overhead. Patrick had been leading Ladder Co. 3 high into the tower.

Mike straightened, his eyes wet as he dropped his gaze from a sky whose very emptiness seemed to fill him with hurt. The voices were still only halfway through the list of 2,801 victims when Janet came over.

"So many names," Janet said.

Somebody remarked there would have been many more names were it not for Patrick and the other rescuers. A man passed with a boy about 10 to show him where his firefighter father had perished.

At 10:29 a.m., the reading of the names ceased for a moment of silence to mark when the north tower collapsed. The moment ended with the blare of ships' horns, the ringing of a ceremonial gong and the tolling of church bells.

"Life goes on," Mike said.

Mike, Janet and others of us who adored Patrick huddled arm in arm in our own tight circle where he died. We were coated with hallowed grit as we walked together back up the ramp.

The subway took everybody to Ladder Co. 3's quarters on 13th St. for a Mass in memory of the 12 people from that firehouse who died that terrible day. The crowd spilled onto the sidewalk and Mike and Janet stood in the crosstown wind with the flag overhead snapping at half staff.

Just as the Mass ended, an alarm came in. The five firefighters on duty pulled on their bunker gear and climbed into the rig that had replaced the one lost at the Trade Center.

Mike watched the rig rumble off down E. 13th St., a flag flying from the back. He could still hear the siren as the gathering began to sing "America the Beautiful."

"An appropriate way to end the service," Mike said.

In the late afternoon, the crowd back at The Pit sang this same song after President Bush and the First Lady placed a wreath at the wooden ring. The holy card was still in the center under the three stones, the face of a fire captain who died where he was sure God put him smiling up from the dust of angels.