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Firefighter portfolio by Nigel Parry
They have big boots to fill.
Sixty-five on-duty members of the FDNY lost their first-responder fathers in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, or watched them die of diseases caused by toxic smoke and debris at Ground Zero.
These young Bravest — including three women — decided to honor their fathers’ courage and sacrifice by following in their paths.
“Knowing what happened that day, it just shows their bravery and willingness to face those challenges,” FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said of these legacies — the sons and daughters of firefighters and officers killed in the line of duty. Some were as young as 5 or 6 years old on 9/11.
Twenty years after the horror of that day, many of them posed for a portrait and shared favorite memories of their dads as they explained why they could not resist the FDNY’s siren call.
Many say working in the same job — sometimes in the same firehouse and wearing the same badge number as their dads — feels like having a guardian angel watch over them.
Here, they tell their stories.
Anthony Ragaglia wears a tattoo on his left arm that shows what he shared with his father, Leonard Ragaglia, and what he lost on 9/11 at age 7.
Puzzle pieces that fit his dad’s portrait depict baseball and hockey, the teams his dad coached, the video games they played together, and “the toy car he pushed me around in.” Broken pieces show Anthony’s 8th birthday, basketball, weight lifting, high school and college graduation.
“He was a very loving family man,” the 27-year-old recalls. “The thing I remember the most is waiting for him to come home from work and jumping on him when he came in.”
Once pondering a career in the sports world, Anthony graduated from Mount Saint Mary College determined to become a firefighter to honor his dad and “make him happy.”
Facing the prospect of another life-threatening crisis like 9/11 caused no hesitation, he said. “I kind of put it aside. It’s the dangers that come with the job.”
Now assigned to Engine 217 in Brooklyn, he has no regrets. “I love how everyone’s part of a family, and everything you do together you do as a team.”
Anthony’s brother, Leonard Ragaglia, Jr., 30, started his career as an NYPD officer, but graduated from the Fire Academy at the same time, in September 2019. Leonard is assigned to his father’s Engine 54 in Midtown, which lost 15 members on 9/11 — more than any other firehouse in the city.
It could be any child’s dream to spend the day in a firehouse, ride an engine with lights and sirens and eat supper with the firefighters in their raucous kitchen. That’s what John Bergin did as a boy.
“My coolest memories are going to work with him,” John said of his father, John P. Bergin, of Rescue 5 in Staten Island.
“Every once in a while, in the summer, on weekends or a holiday, I got randomly woken in the morning and went to work with him for the day. I went on the runs, but had to stay on the rig. I’ve seen him dive in the water. I’ve seen him go to fires.” He helped with chores. “We’d go out and shop for the meal, and everyone cooked together. Like a big family.”
John was 9 years old on 9/11 when his father, 39, and 10 fellow Rescue 5 firefighters responded to the World Trade Center call and never came home.
The late father of three loved the job and the family life it let him enjoy. “He just seemed happy, like there was nothing better in the world,” John said. “That pretty much locked it in for me, what I wanted to do.”
At 29, John wears his father’s badge, No. 6359, at Ladder 157 in Flatbush.
The Port Authority Police badge, No. 1012, that Chris Howard treasures is a duplicate. That’s because the original one belonging to his dad, emergency services specialist George Howard, spent eight years in a US president’s pocket.
“When President Bush came into town, on Sept. 14, he wanted to meet with everybody who had [family members] confirmed missing or killed in action,” Chris Howard said. His father, a 16-year Port Authority veteran and a volunteer fire captain in their hometown of Hicksville, LI, had the day off on Sept. 11, but he rushed to the World Trade Center to assist. He was killed when the North Tower fell. Chris was 18. “We brought the badge down and my grandmother … pressed it into George’s, President Bush’s, hand,” Howard, now 38, said. “And then for the rest of his presidency he always had the badge on him.” Then-Rep. Peter King (R-NY) “would call him out, say ‘Where’s the badge?’” Howard said. “And he always had it in his pocket.” Today, George Howard’s badge is on display at the Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas — and George Howard’s son is a firefighter with Ladder 157 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “I think he always wanted to be a fireman, that’s why he became an ESU cop,” Chris mused. “So I hope he’s looking down and laughing.”
“I was in a weird state of mind after he died, a little bit of depression, I guess,” said Emmet Meehan, 30. “I had no direction, no purpose. The Fire Department was the structure I needed.”
Meehan took the Fire Department test “for the hell of it” in 2017 after abandoning his life in California to be with his dad, Lt. Edward Meehan, who had been diagnosed with cancer as a result of his rescue efforts on 9/11. “I was with him those last two or three months every day,” Meehan said. “We always were close, but when you’re facing death it’s like anything you were holding back is going out the window. That’s a time I cherish a lot.” Edward Meehan died in February 2018, just six months after his diagnosis, as his son’s test was being graded. “He had no idea I would join the department. It wasn’t a thought at all,” Meehan said. A prayer card from his dad’s funeral — bearing a photo of Ed from his days as a probie and another with his beloved Engine 45 truck — is tucked into Meehan’s helmet as he works at Ladder 34 in Washington Heights. “I’m just keeping him with me,” he said.
“I think he’s proud of us, you know?” Chris Wieber said. “He would have been proud no matter what we did.” “But I’m sure he’s a little happier that we followed in his footsteps and chose to be firefighters, too,” said his brother Erik.
The brothers’ dad, Robert J. Wieber, a firefighter at Engine 262 in Astoria, Queens, developed a rare non-Hodgkin lymphoma brain cancer as a result of his rescue and recovery work at the World Trade Center. He was 50 when he died in 2006. “I guess you could say we were fortunate enough to have a couple more years with him,” Chris said. “But eventually it got him.” Chris, now 33, always planned to become a firefighter, but Erik — his elder by two years — took a more circuitous route. “I was doing accounting and it just wasn’t working out for me,” Erik recalled. “My dad, he loved his job, so that’s what made me want to change.” The two ended up attending the Fire Academy together, becoming firefighters side by side in 2014. Today, Erik is assigned to Ladder 113 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, while Chris works a few miles away at Ladder 176 in Brownsville. “We kinda have a reason now to know why he was so happy every day going to work,” Chris said.
Carl Kumpel was only 8 years old when his father Kenneth, a firefighter with Ladder 25 on the Upper West Side, died in the collapse of the South Tower — but his colleagues’ response made a lasting impression.
“I became a firefighter because there’s so much camaraderie,” he said. “Especially after 9/11, I saw how much they came together and helped our family out.” Carl, now 28, swore in as a Fire Department probie in 2017. Two years later his older brother Greg, 30, followed suit. Today, they work in neighboring Harlem firehouses — Carl at Engine 37, Greg at Engine 80 — 14 blocks apart. “I saw just how much fun he was having and how much he truly loved and was passionate about the job,” Greg said. He finds the work enormously satisfying. “You get called to something, and the adrenaline’s up,” Greg said. “But then there’s that moment when you get to reflect and realize what you did and the impact that you have on people’s lives on a daily basis.” Their mother, Nancy Kumpel, is a bit less enthusiastic, they admit with knowing laughs. “She’s a little nervous, but she’s very proud of both of us,” Carl said. “Yeah, I’d say my mom is 10 percent nervous, 90 percent very happy,” his brother agreed.
“This is the only thing we ever recovered from him down there,” said James Dowdell, hefting a heavy Halligan tool in his hands. The initials “KD” soldered onto the head of the multipurpose pry bar makes it instantly recognizable: It belonged to Lt. Kevin C. Dowdell, James’ father, who raced to the World Trade Center with his unit, Rescue 4 from Woodside, Queens. Six members of the squad were killed.
“It got to us in early October of ‘01,” Dowdell, now 37, said. “We never found his body, but … as a family, I guess, we took it as our memento of him.” He and his brother Patrick, 39, have cherished the tool that somehow survived the South Tower collapse — even whisking it to safety from the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, which flooded Patrick’s home in Breezy Point, Queens. Kevin Dowdell’s heroics with Rescue 4 included national recognition for his recovery efforts in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Today, James Dowdell works at another of the city’s elite companies, Brooklyn’s Rescue 2. “Being a firefighter does make me feel closer to my father,” he said. “It makes me proud to put on the same uniform he died for.”
Lt. Robert F. Wallace was killed on Sept. 11 as he climbed toward the inferno on the South Tower’s 78th floor — but he’s never left his son’s side.
“Sometimes I’ve been in situations on the job when I’ve talked to him, you know, ‘point me the way, show me what to do,’” firefighter Robert Wallace said. “It’s a real confidence booster to feel like he’s with me.” Wallace, 39, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of New York City firefighters, has spent his entire 14-year career at Engine 275 in Jamaica, Queens. The “War Wagon” responded to 715 fires in 2019, making it one of the city’s most active engine companies. “I was very, very fortunate to land a spot here,” Wallace said. “As a fireman you want to be busy. I love it, never a dull moment.” His dad, he said, was “a whack job” with “the biggest sense of humor” — known for his habit of gazing and pointing up at the sky until friends and random strangers craned their necks to see what he was looking at (which was never anything at all). “After he died, guys from his firehouse down at the [World Trade Center] site would take pictures of each other, pointing up,” Wallace said. “Just to remember him.”
Terence Pfeifer tucks two prayer cards from his father’s wake into his FDNY helmet. One shows a vigorous Ray Pfeifer at a fire. “F–k cancer,” is written over the picture. “He would say it a lot. He would make light of it,” his son said.
On the morning of 9/11, Ray was golfing with other off-duty firefighters when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. They grabbed gear at their firehouse, Engine 40, Ladder 35, near Lincoln Center, and raced to Ground Zero. Ray spent the next eight months digging through toxic rubble for victim remains. Diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer eight years later, he died in 2017 from the disease that ravaged his body. “I’m a lucky guy,” Ray Pfeifer told The Post in 2015. “I’ve had 15 years with my kids after 9/11, and I’m still here with Stage 4 cancer.” Terence, 29, dwells on happy times when his dad pitched for his firehouse softball team. “I just remember how fun that was. A lot of the guys would bring their kids, so we’d all hang out and play.” Ray became an ardent advocate — a “poster boy,” as he called it — for compensation and health care for hundreds of ailing responders. At age 59, he died three days after learning that his son was admitted to the next FDNY class, clinging to life until he got the good news. Terence is assigned to Engine 79 in the Bronx.
“He was the highest-ranking uniformed firefighter in the city,” Chris Ganci smiled. “But if you asked him what he did for a living, he’d say he was a New York City firefighter.”
Ganci’s father, Chief of Department Peter Ganci, heroically returned to the World Trade Center to direct rescue operations after the South Tower collapsed. He died when the North Tower gave way. Chris, then 25, had a well-paid pharma job and was about to earn his MBA from New York University. “But I wasn’t happy,” he said. “So I thought, basically, what’s the closest example? And he was always happy going to work.” He completed his MBA program — but soon left the business world to join the FDNY. “It’s the best decision I ever made in my entire life.” Chris, now 45, joined the department in 2005. Today he’s a battalion chief, leading the 19th Battalion in the West Bronx. His brother Peter, 47, is a Fire Department captain. “There’s a reason we call each other ‘brother’ on the fire ground,” he said. “It’s more than a relationship. That’s how I feel about my father every single day I walk through those doors.”
“When I was little, I would listen to it all the time,” John Leahy said of the message that his dad, NYPD officer James Leahy, left on the family answering machine on the morning of Sept. 11.
“He was super calm,” Leahy remembered. “It was just, ‘I’m here helping out and I’ll call you later.’” Officer Leahy was on patrol in Greenwich Village, two miles away from the attack, when he witnessed the first plane’s impact. He raced to the scene to assist. John, the youngest son he called “his buddy,” was 6 years old. “Everyone told my dad he didn’t have to be there,” John said. “He was last seen bringing oxygen tanks up the stairs of Tower 1 for the firefighters” — without any protective equipment of his own. “He chose to go and help the Fire Department out. So I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” Today Leahy, 26, works at Engine 33 in the East Village, which shares turf with his father’s 6th Precinct. “My firehouse lost 10 guys in the tower where my dad was,” he said. “I don’t know if they were together in there, but they were all in the same building. “So it’s funny, now, that I ended up here. It’s like he’s looking out for me.”
“My father would do anything and everything for anybody, whether he knew you or not,” said Josephine Smith. “Selfless would have been the way to put it,” she added with a nostalgic smile. Her dad, firefighter Kevin Smith, was a Marine Corps veteran and a founding member of Hazmat 1 in Maspeth, Queens, the Fire Department’s dedicated company of hazardous materials experts.
The unit was quickly deployed to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 — and was almost entirely wiped out there. Twelve of its members, including Smith, were slain. “I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter my whole life,” Josephine Smith, now 41, said. “Just watching my father as I grew up, saving people, protecting the city of New York and loving what it is that he did made me want to do and be everything that he was.” Smith became the Fire Department’s first female legacy in 2014, at the age of 34. Today, she’s a firefighter at Engine 39 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “We’re all a family in a different way than anybody else is,” she said of the deep bond that 9/11 legacy firefighters feel among themselves. “It’s something that nobody else can really understand except for us.”
“I’m the first and only girl my firehouse has ever had,” Kelly Fullam said. “There’s a little bit of an adjustment period — you know, for them,” she added, flashing a mischievous grin. “But it’s good … I feel like I have 50 big brothers.”
Fullam was the oldest of three sisters whose dad, Lt. Martin Fullam, died in 2013 of polymyositis, a rare autoimmune disease that he and several other first responders developed as a result of their World Trade Center rescue efforts. After his death, Kelly, 30, joined her father’s beloved Fire Department herself and is now stationed at Engine 284 in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights neighborhood. “I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter, just seeing how my dad … loved the job,” she said. “It was never ‘I have to go to work’ — it was always ‘I get to go to work.’” Lt. Fullam’s 2010 testimony before the US Senate was instrumental in the passage of the Zadroga Act, the law that extended federal aid to 9/11 victims who, like Fullam, developed WTC-related illnesses years after the attacks. “I was very lucky to have him as a dad,” she said.
“I see him in all of us — especially in how witty he was,” Rebecca Asaro said of her father, Carl Asaro, who inspired four of his six children to follow him into the Fire Department.
“He always had something smart or wise to say, and I see that in my brothers,” she said.
“In the firehouse, you’ve always got to have the witty comeback, so my home throughout my childhood was basically training. I’ve been a probie for 30 years now,” she laughed. Rebecca was 9 when her dad — along with every member of the 15-man shift at Midtown’s Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9 — was killed on 9/11. It was the heaviest loss of life suffered by any single firehouse that day. “We never found my dad, so there was never really closure for us,” she said. Today, all four of the firefighting Asaros serve in Manhattan: Carl, now 33, at Ladder 23; Matt, 32, at Engine 33; Marc, 27, at Engine 22; and Rebecca, 29, who was thrilled to be assigned to their father’s old outfit, Engine 54. “I am literally following my father’s footsteps every single day,” she said. “Some days I don’t think too much about 9/11,” she said. “But working that house, seeing the memorial there, you really can’t avoid it.” To help preserve her father’s memory, she offers tours to visitors, showing off the bronze bas-relief panel at Eighth Avenue and 48th Street that pays tribute to him and his lost comrades.
Third-generation firefighter Michael Sullivan feels he has a lot to live up to. “Walking through the same doors, sharing the same locker that he had … it’s pretty amazing,” said Sullivan, a firefighter at Ladder 34 in Washington Heights.
His father, John P. “Sully” Sullivan, was the house’s rock for his entire 27-year career — so much so that the city has dubbed its 161st Street block “Firefighter John P. Sullivan Way” in his honor. “And my grandfather was also in the same firehouse, so — no pressure,” Sullivan said with a self-deprecating chuckle. John Sullivan died in 2010, just weeks after his retirement at age 52. “It was pancreatic cancer,” said Michael of his father’s diagnosis, related to the toxic environment at Ground Zero. “We only really had him for a month after his diagnosis.” Colleagues remember his dad’s “very calming” presence, no matter how chaotic or dangerous the scene. “You always felt safe with him. Whether it was on the job or off the job, you would feel a blanket of safeness,” the 27-year-old Sullivan said. “Because you never see a firefighter run, it’s just not how you operate,” he explained. “Everything’s smooth. You’ve just got to be easy, and take it all in, because there’s a lot going on. “That’s him, he was smooth,” he said. “And now I carry the torch.”
As a child nicknamed “Little Manny,” Manny Mojica watched his dad roar off to work on his Harley-Davidson, knowing he was doing something important.
“He was my superhero then, and still is,” he said of Manuel Mojica Jr., a firefighter at Squad 18 in Greenwich Village known for his motorcycle, tattoos and big mustache. When “Big Manny” died in the World Trade Center rescue efforts, he was 37. Manny was 5. Now 25, Manny pays tribute to his dad with tattoos on his muscular right arm. They depict the logo of the Grateful Dead, his dad’s favorite band; the words from a song, “Inspiration, move me brightly;” the Harley-Davidson; a kneeling fireman with two beams of light for the Twin Towers; and a Maltese Cross marked 9017, his dad’s badge number. Manny, who joined the Bravest in 2019, wears that number at Engine 298 in Jamaica, Queens, fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter like his father. “That was my only plan.” He remains close to retired members of his dad’s old firehouse. “They were always there to help my mother, sister and me, and always made us feel welcome,” he said. Now a mirror-image of “Big Manny,” he rides a motorcycle and likes to work on cars. He is refurbishing the old Harley, but only to ride on his dad’s birthday, Father’s Day, and 9/11 anniversaries.
“I knew he was going to be there that day when I saw the fire on the news. I knew he was saving other people,” Jonathan Otten recalled of his father on 9/11, when he was 8 years old. Michael J. Otten, 42‚ was killed with all 10 fellow Bravest from Engine 40/Ladder 35 in Midtown who raced to the blazing Twin Towers.
Before then, Jonathan knew little about the dangers of the job. He remembers how his dad “always walked into a room with an ear-to-ear grin, and never let anything get to him.” A “big kid,” as Marion Otten called her husband, the father of three spent hours on end playing football, soccer and baseball with the boys on their East Islip front lawn. “He taught us right from wrong, to always be polite and respectful of other people. But he was able to have fun with us whenever he could,” said Jonathan, 28, who is due to graduate from the Fire Academy this month. He will be a fourth-generation FDNY firefighter, following his father, grandfather Richard and great-grandfather Henry into the department. “I grew up my whole life thinking I was going to be a fireman. This was going to be my career, my passion and there was no looking away from it.” His father’s death did not deter him. “I know he died doing what he loved. I do it for the same reason — to put your own life on the line to help other people when they need it the most.” His brother Christopher, 31, joined the Bravest first. He serves with Ladder 35, the “Cavemen,” on the Upper West Side.
Firefighters wear a hood under their helmets to prevent their head, neck and ears from burns. Pete Carroll keeps a brown hood that belonged to his dad, Peter J. Carroll, in his fireman’s coat pocket.
“I carry it with me every single day on every single run. I like to think he’s looking out for me and the guys I work with.” Pete’s older brother Michael, who joined the FDNY three years after 9/11, carried the fire-resistant hood for 13 years. Michael, now at Rescue 5, bestowed it on Pete when he became a firefighter in 2019. Just 8 years old on 9/11 when his father was killed, Pete has vivid memories of the time he spent with his dad, “just me and him,” in the woods and swamps near his grandparents’ home upstate. “Me and him used to catch frogs and snakes and keep them as pets. It was the most fun in the world.” After 9/11, the family received a letter from a woman who worked in the Twin Towers. “He pulled her out and went back in,” Pete said she wrote. “He was one of those extremely brave people,” Pete said. “I’m blessed to live in his footsteps.” Pete, 28, serves at Ladder 120 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, near his dad’s Squad 1. His younger brother, Christopher, 26, will soon join the FDNY as well.
Glenn Perry’s dad never tried to persuade his son to become a firefighter. “He wanted me to do something else. He wasn’t pushing it,” Perry said. Lt. Glenn C. Perry had been so eager to follow the path of his own dad into the FDNY that he ran up and down the stairs at a Staten Island rail station with an oxygen canister to train for the test.
Before 9/11, the younger Perry thought about becoming a gym teacher or joining the military. That changed when he was 16. Lt. Perry, 41, died in the World Trade Center collapse. “After that happened, it was pretty much a no-brainer. Shove it down the terrorists’ throats, and tell them ‘You didn’t win,’” the son said. “After 9/11, he would have wanted me to join the FDNY. To become a third-generation firefighter and try to fill my dad’s shoes … is a very difficult task.” Perry, 36, who joined the Bravest in 2006, is assigned to Ladder 34 in Washington Heights, the same firehouse where his dad last served — and where one of his dad’s fellow firefighters still works. “I plan on doing another 15 years,” he said.
Not until his father’s funeral in 2015 did Thomas Heedles realize the FDNY was where he belonged. “Even though my dad had been retired for more than 10 years by then, the department took care of everything,” Heedles said.
“That got me thinking — yes, you’re taking a risk every time you go to work,” he said. “But at my dad’s funeral, I felt, they got our back.” Dennis Heedles, who was stationed at Ladder 76 in Tottenville, Staten Island, on Sept. 11, died 14 years later — weeks after being diagnosed with WTC-related lung cancer. “It was sudden,” said Thomas, now 31 and a firefighter at Ladder 148 in Borough Park, Brooklyn. “We all thought he was the strongest guy in the world. By the time they caught it, it was too late.” Heedles was one of a then-record 16 legacy probies in his October 2019 Fire Academy class. “A legacy already has a respect for the job,” he explained. “You’re in the firehouse all the time from when you’re a little kid; it’s already part of you. “Some guys feel like it’s just work,” Heedles said. “We come in knowing a little bit better what it’s all about.”
“When I was younger, I told him he was crazy for running into burning buildings,” James Tancredi said. It wasn’t until 2008, when his firefighter father Lt. Vincent Tancredi died at age 49 from 9/11-related brain cancer, that James changed his mind. He was 19 at the time.
“Then I realized what the job was all about,” James said. “And that it’s the only thing I want to do with my life.” Tancredi, now 32 and a father himself — with an 18-month-old son and another baby on the way — marvels at the time and energy that his dad lavished on his boys, James and Kevin, during their childhood years. “He came home and always gave us his full attention, no matter how tired he was,” he recalled. “And now I realize how tired he actually could be, coming home from a 24 [hour shift].” His day-to-day work at Ladder 39 in the Wakefield neighborhood of the Bronx “definitely makes me feel I have a closer bond with my dad,” Tancredi said. “I wish we could have conversations about things that happen on the job. But doing it makes me feel…” he paused for a moment, searching for the right word. “Whole.”
“This picture reminds me how much he loved the job, how happy he was to work in Rescue 5,” Larry Sullivan said of his father, Lawrence J. Sullivan, who died in 2012 at age 53 of a rare cancer linked to his digging at Ground Zero. Larry was with his dad in 2011 when a Sloan Kettering doctor told him the tumor in his small intestine could not be removed.
“The first thing he said, in tears, was, ‘I’ll never be a fireman again.’” After chemo and radiation failed, Sullivan spent his final months in bed at home, but had plenty of company with his wife Virginia, three sons and two daughters. Larry and his dad watched Yankees games, laughed and talked about his job with the FDNY. As he was ailing, Rescue 5 comrades visited and tended to his every need. The Staten Island veteran voiced a final hope that this death would give sons Larry and James the “legacy points” to catapult them into the Bravest. “He wanted me and my brother to be firemen so badly. He used to always tell me, ‘It’s the best job in the world.’” In 2014, Larry, now 39, was assigned to Ladder 148 in Borough Park. One year later, James, 30, joined Engine 310 in East Flatbush. Their brother Robert, 33, is a member of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit.
“My dad never stopped learning,” Thomas Van Doran said. “When he turned 50, my mom bought him a saxophone,” said Van Doran, 27, a firefighter at Ladder 154 in Jackson Heights, Queens.
“He had no musical experience whatsoever, and it was pretty rough in the beginning, but he taught himself how to play. He’d even bring it to the firehouse with him. “To this day I’ll meet guys from his firehouse who’ll say to me, ‘Just tell me you’re not playing the saxophone, please!’” Van Doran laughed. Thomas R. Van Doran was a captain with Engine 95 in upper Manhattan on Sept. 11. “He was on restricted duty at the time,” his son said. “But he went down to the pile that day and was there for six months.” The toxins he breathed there likely caused the esophageal cancer that killed him in 2012. Around his neck, the younger Van Doran wears a St. Florian pendant honoring the patron saint of firefighters — another gift from his mother, Elizabeth. “My mom met my dad when he was at Engine 23 in Manhattan,” Van Doran said. “She gave him this pendant when they started dating. He wore it to work every single day. “It was kind of a way to stay safe, and it worked,” he said. “Maybe it’ll protect me, too.”
Peter Regan was a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego when the Twin Towers collapsed, killing his father, Donald Regan, 47, of Rescue 3 in the Bronx. The 20-year-old flew to New York and raced to Ground Zero, where he dug and dug for days in the smoking rubble “because my father was in there.” He found human remains, but his family never recovered his father’s.
After 9/11, Peter served two tours in Iraq, including Operation Enduring Freedom, before joining Ladder 174 in Brooklyn, a former firehouse of his dad’s where some members had worked with Donald. Peter knew how his father felt about firefighting. “My dad loved going in. He was in a much better mood when he came home knowing he did something good for someone else. He would always have the attitude, ‘I wish I could do more.’” Now 40, Peter is married and has four children, ages 3 to 9, and appreciates his dad, who also had four kids, more than ever. “Now I look back and I’m like, ‘How did he do this every day?’” Donald worked a second job as an HVAC technician to support his family. With his children all playing sports at the same time, “He tried to make at least an inning of every game,” he recalled. Peter said he aims to live up to his father’s legacy every day. “What he modeled I’m trying to stick with,” he said. “It’s a good pressure to put on yourself. You’ve got to do well because you’re living up to expectations. I don’t want to let up.”
What Aric Tegtmeier remembers most about his childhood are fishing trips with his dad, Paul A. Tegtmeier: “That’s what he and I used to do.”
Tegtmeier was just 6 years old when his firefighter father was killed at the World Trade Center, yet memories of angling on family vacations in the Adirondacks, Poughkeepsie and Outer Banks, NC — or just on outings to a local pond — still come to mind. Looking back now, the 26-year-old sees his dad as much more than a happy, gone-fishing kind of guy who doted on Aric and his two sisters. He was also a volunteer firefighter for more than 20 years in Roosevelt, NY, who kept testing for the FDNY. When he finally made it, he gave up a higher-paying career with the phone company to join the Bravest. “It’s all he ever wanted to do.” His father became an FDNY probie at the “pretty old” age of 40 (the limit has since dropped to 29) and died on 9/11 just 18 months later. His dad’s accomplishments impressed his young son to follow suit. “If he could do it at 40 years old, I could do it at my age.” Aric, who has a degree in arson investigation, is a member of Ladder 58 in the Bronx, near his father’s old firehouse, Ladder 46.
“It takes a special person to do this job, not to pat us all on the back,” said Chris Mascali, 38, an eight-year FDNY veteran assigned to Ladder 157 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “And I have a different understanding of that, now that I’m doing the same thing my father did.”
Joseph A. Mascali was one of 11 members of Staten Island’s elite Rescue 5 unit who perished at the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11. “I always felt like I might become a fireman,” Chris Mascali said. “I went to college and thought for a while that maybe I’d take a different path. But the 11th drew me back in. “The job, it’s my connection with my dad,” he said. His fondest memory of his father dates back to the summer of 2001, as Chris competed in a prestigious junior golf tournament in Staten Island. “I never liked the family or anyone to watch me play,” he recalled. “But unbeknownst to me, my dad was there the whole time, watching from a distance. “I won the tournament, and suddenly out from behind the trees he came walking down to me,” Mascali said. “It was one of the last moments we shared — a hug on the 18th hole I’ll never forget.”
Michael O’Hanlon Sr. wore his fierce Irish pride on his sleeve — and on his firefighter’s helmet, with its distinctive bright green shamrock. “He was all about his Irish heritage,” said son Michael Jr., now 32. “I have so many pictures of myself as a kid wearing this helmet,” he said. “Putting it on again was definitely emotional.”
When O’Hanlon Sr. died in 2017 of stomach and esophageal cancer developed after spending months at Ground Zero, his son was just about to take the firefighter’s test to follow his dad’s path. “Becoming a firefighter was one of my dreams as a kid,” O’Hanlon said. “I think God had it in his plan all along that that would be the time.” Today O’Hanlon, who joined the department in 2019, works at Ladder 59 in the Bronx’s University Heights neighborhood — just a mile away from Engine 68 in Highbridge, his dad’s home turf for his entire 30-year career. “I’m meeting so many people now who worked with him or knew him from the Emerald Society,” he said, of the group of firefighters with Irish heritage. “To hear them praise him, talk about his character, how he conducted himself — it makes me so proud.” “Now that I’m experiencing it firsthand, I’m learning to appreciate the honor, the prestige, and the responsibility he felt in the way he did the job.”
Raymond R. Phillips played Santa so well, his own kids couldn’t recognize him. “One of us said, ‘Santa’s got daddy’s eyes,’ and Mom was like, ‘The kids are onto us,’” his son Brian remembered. The 6-foot-3 firefighter’s nickname was “Gonzo,” which came from Godzilla, but he brought joy for 30 years as St. Nick at a burn center and the annual FDNY Widows & Children’s holiday party.
“He was a big guy with a big personality,” said Brian, 31, now a firefighter assigned to Ladder 37 in Bedford Park, the Bronx. On Sept. 11, Raymond was called to the Twin Towers from the Special Operations Command on Roosevelt Island. He spent weeks on the smoking pile searching for bodies. He developed asthma, which ultimately triggered a fatal heart attack in 2018. Over the years, the FDNY fellowship made an impression on Brian. Last summer, a Bronx firefighter came up to him and said, “When my dad passed, Gonzo went above and beyond for our family.” Added Brian: “I love the firefighting side of the job, but I fell in love with the camaraderie and brotherhood behind it.” Raymond encouraged his kids to explore public service, but never pushed it, Brian said. His older brother, Raymond, 33, is an NYPD officer. His younger sister, Courtney, 29, is in nursing school. Brian joined the Bravest a year after his dad died. When he inherited his father’s badge number, 5659, his mom, Maureen, bestowed upon him the gold Maltese cross, with 5659 engraved on it, that she had given her husband as a gift.
Gary Watson, who was 7 years old when he lost his doting father, firefighter Kenneth T. Watson, felt reluctant at first about taking the same career path. “What I went through as a child was tough. God forbid, if something happened to me, I wouldn’t want my kids growing up without a dad.” But his attitude has evolved over 20 years.
“The older I got, I realized you can’t really think about it that way. I want to save lives. I want to help people out. You can’t think about the negative ‘what ifs,’” said Gary, 27, who is set to graduate from the Fire Academy this month. “I think about the good stuff,” like summer camping trips to the Catskills with the families of the firefighters in his dad’s Engine 214/Ladder 111 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, dubbed “Nut House.” Gary and his three siblings played with the other kids and everyone bonded around the campfire. “It’s something I would like to share with my family when that time comes.” His father had been a star lacrosse player at Smithtown West High School, where he met his wife Susan, and passed his athletic ability onto his three sons and daughter. Gary’s older brother Ken and sister Angela are Nassau County cops. On his back, Gary has tattoos of a kneeling firefighter with angel wings in front of the Twin Towers, his father’s badge number 11685 and the simple tribute: “Dad.” “I’m positive now,” he said. “Everything I do now I’m hoping he’s proud of me.”
Tommy Palombo’s 2-year-old son loves bedtime. “That’s grandpa’s truck!” little Anthony Frank said excitedly as his dad turned the pages of the picture book “Goodnight Firehouse.” “We try to tell him about my dad in a way that works for his age level,” Palombo, 29, said of the boy named in honor of Frank Anthony Palombo, one of seven firefighters from Brooklyn’s Ladder 105 lost on 9/11. “Last year on September 11 I took him to the fountains and to my dad’s firehouse to start the tradition with him,” Palombo said. In another year or two Anthony’s little brother Luca, 11 months, will join them.
Tommy himself was just 9 when he lost his dad in the terror attacks, and he has cherished a Mass card from his funeral ever since. “Now I wear it behind my fronties,” he said — the leather helmet badge that identifies his unit, Engine 69 in Harlem, where he’s worked since 2015. “It helps me, just his presence.” Two members of the 10-sibling Palombo family, Tommy and his brother John, 28, joined the department. “Me and him were not that close growing up, but now we might be the closest,” Palombo said. “It’s that bond — it’s hard to describe but it means a lot.”
Dad photos courtesy of FDNY; Production by Sway NY.