The Way He Wanted to Die
A wounded, heroic fire captain now missing in rubble

By Elizabeth Moore

September 19, 2001
Three months ago, at a time when death seemed everywhere, Capt. Brian Hickey and his wife, Donna, had just finished burying two of his men from Rescue 4. They had been killed with another firefighter in a hardware store blaze in Astoria on Father's Day. Hickey himself bore the wounds of a blast that had blown him into a ceiling that day. A sense of mourning cloaked the city. But the captain, who always knew who he was and who he wanted to be, told his wife to take heart.

"Everyone's got to die one day; it's inescapable," he said that night. "I hope I go that way."

Now, at a time when death is everywhere, the Rescue 4 captain has been lost, along with other members of his company, in the cascade of flame, stone and metal that once was the World Trade Center. Outside his firehouse in Woodside on Monday, a thousand New Yorkers lit the dark with candles, said Hail Marys and sang the "Star Spangled Banner."

Inside, at a handmade kitchen table, Donna Hickey remembered her husband's words and said she's going to be OK. Brian Hickey had volunteered for an overtime shift when he was lost in the Twin Towers collapse, and after a week of private hell, his wife no longer believes he will be found alive. She said she's at peace, knowing that he meant what he said - this is the way he wanted to die.

Hickey had said the same thing in a different way at his dining room table this past April during an interview about fire protection.

"Young guys always think they're going to live forever," said the Bethpage volunteer and former fire commissioner. "But you can never lose sight of what our job really is."

Hickey's job as a city rescue captain was to pull people out of burning buildings, to haul them out of holes and out of wrecked cars, and out from under the tracks of subway trains and the fuselages of crashed planes. He presided over a company of men so admired that buffs all over the country line up to bid at auction for their cast-off garments.

He described his calling in "FDNY: Brothers in Battle," a movie he made with his late, younger brother Ray, a television editor and Bethpage volunteer who died of cancer soon after the film aired on the Arts & Entertainment channel in 1992.

"I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman," Hickey quotes a turn-of-the-century New York fire chief, Edward Crocker, as the film opens. "The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which a fireman has to do, believe his is a noble calling. Our proudest moment is to save ... lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice."

Hickey found his calling when he was 18 years old and a friend invited him to the Bethpage firehouse. He was so taken with the life that he put off going to college to join.