New York firefighters look back on a year of funerals and setbacks

Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
The Dallas Morning News...09/10/2002

By Todd J. Gillman

WILLISTON PARK, N.Y. _ Thomas Kuveikis' family members hoped for months that they'd have something to bury. But the rubble at Ground Zero, where Tommy spent his last hour helping people to safety, never yielded that comfort.

So, two days shy of the anniversary, the family finally marked his death with a memorial service. Bagpipers played "Amazing Grace," and a casket filled with flowers was borne away on a fire engine. More than a thousand mourners lined the street outside the Church of St. Aidan near Tommy's boyhood home on Long Island.

For the family, the ceremony was somber and intensely personal. For the Fire Department brass and honor guard and many in the rank and file, the rite capped a year of funerals, setbacks and soul-searching. At last count, just 209 of the 343 firefighters lost at the World Trade Center had been identified.

Funerals have been a numbing recurrence. So have early retirements, and revelations that have scuffed the department's heroic image a bit _ of antiquated radios, lack of coordination with police and the brave but undisciplined rush into danger.

"I'm a little burned out, to be honest," said one of the bagpipers, Capt. Peter Gannon, a 24-year fire veteran warming up before the ceremony, his ancient instrument bouncing notes off homes on a side street near the church. He has been to about 200 services since Sept. 11 and would prefer to just fight fires, but he knows the families deserve a dignified, memorable goodbye for their loved ones.

"It's become like your mission in life. Just get up every day and do it for the families," he said.

After the Kuveikis Mass on Monday, just one family is left that hasn't held either a memorial or a funeral. The last first-time service was Aug. 21.

Amazingly, no one has been killed in the line of duty since that day, well below the average of three or so per year.

A study released a month ago by consultants McKinsey & Co. found that the Fire Department was still relying on Sept. 11 on the same radio system that failed during the 1993 Trade Center bombing. An evacuation order issued a half-hour before the south tower collapsed went unheard. Chiefs had no idea that a police helicopter had warned of imminent collapse.

Reforms have already begun. A battalion chief is now stationed full time at police headquarters, and a police captain works out of the Fire Department _ signs that rivalry, mistrust and clashing cultures are giving way.

Tommy Kuveikis' older brother Jim, an engineer, finds the glitches hard to accept in this technological age. But he figures his brother would have ignored an evacuation order, even if he could have heard it.

"These guys, especially my brother and the guys in his company, they'd be like, 'Hey, we've got time. Let's find more people.' All of those floors, all that area. They had so much area to cover," he said.

Upgrades are slow to come. A new $ 30 million radio system still doesn't work properly. And union leaders complain that for all the adulation of the last year, pay has remained stagnant. Rookies earn just $ 31,000 a year, a sum that would qualify the father of three for public assistance. After 20 years, a senior firefighter earns $ 50,000.

That's one reason that retirements are running four times the average. Pensions are pegged to last-year salary, and with all the overtime associated with Sept. 11, that's too good for many veterans to pass up. To counter the losses, 1,200 rookies have been hired.

A year ago, nearly two-thirds of the 11,000-member department had a dozen years' experience or more. A year from now, two-thirds will have less than five years on the job.

The ceremony Monday, like hundreds before it, was moving and carefully choreographed. Blue uniforms were five and eight deep outside St. Aidan's as the processional began, firefighters in crisp rows as 29 bagpipers struck up a dirge, followed by 15 drummers _ member of the department's Emerald Society Pipes and Drums band. They marched slowly beneath an arch formed by ladder trucks. Behind them came an engine bearing a wooden casket filled with flowers, in lieu of a body. It was inscribed with the motto of Kuveikis' Squad 252, "In Squad We Trust."

Inside, the priest who led Mass was the lost man's uncle, Father Rufin Kuveikis. "We mourn the death of Tommy. We mourn the death of all the firefighters," he said.

Thomas Kuveikis was 48, twice divorced and about to get engaged to a woman he had dated for a year and a half, Jennifer Auerhahn, who told mourners in a teary eulogy that "he wasn't a good man because he was a fireman. He was a fireman because he was an extraordinary human being."

Tommy lived in Kent, N.Y., a tiny town north of the city and far from its lights and problems, but he loved the action of firefighting in Bushwick, a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn. He hadn't grown up dreaming to follow his father into the department _ Capt. Pete Kuveikis, who died last November at age 82, was also known as aggressive and brave, a legend in Brooklyn _ though all six Kuveikis kids played at it, wearing helmets and pretending to rescue people. He studied architecture but didn't finish, and was doing carpentry and odd jobs when he decided to give firefighting a try. He loved it. He stayed 24 years.

On Sept. 11, CNN shot footage of Squad 252 pulling up on the east side of the Trade Center around 9:28, its men collecting their gear, assessing the north tower. On the 37th floor, the squad's lieutenant, Timmy Higgins, and another firefighter rescued a man from an elevator. His name was also Higgins and he lived to tell the tale. The last anyone heard from the squad, Lt. Higgins was responding to a radio mayday from a unit on a higher floor.

Eighteen days later, his body and that of another man from the squad were found in the C stairwell. The other four men of Squad 252 were never found.

Tim Kuveikis, Tommy's youngest brother, learned his brother was missing when his own company reported to Ground Zero after midnight on the 12th.

He worked there until the two men were found, then took some time off. "I didn't want to have one of the last memories of my brother being in pieces," he said a few days ago. "You're looking for people, you're looking for body parts. Just so people can have a decent burial and a funeral and so you have some closure there."

Weeks went by, then months. The family had no illusions that he might still be alive. He was declared legally dead in February, but they waited until the recovery efforts ended on May 30 to begin talking about a service.

Sept. 9 became the day. By coincidence, it is Day 252 on the calendar.


(c) 2002, The Dallas Morning News.