'Who's gonna fill those shoes?'
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK — Mike Warchola had two more shifts before he would retire. Greg Saucedo was studying hard to make lieutenant. And Johnny Santore — could anyone say enough about lovable Johnny, a fireman with the thick, black mustache who played Santa every year at the Christmas party? These men and five others of Ladder No. 5 company had trudged up a stairwell of the north tower of the World Trade Center — and apparently into the fireball.
One-third of the company is missing, an apocalyptic tragedy in a firehouse where men call each other "brother" and live together like family.
Tuesday night, the surviving brethren dug with their hands through metal, plaster and mounds of rubble, looking for their co-workers near their smashed ladder truck. They used hooks and shovels to clear debris. But nothing worked like their hands, and they dug until they were raw.
But while they uncovered a dead woman and hissing oxygen masks and cleared their big rig enough to move it, they never found Mike, Andy, Lou, Tommy, Vince, Greg or Paulie. And of all the great guys in a great house, they didn't find smiling Johnny Santore.
"Everyone was hoping to find someone alive and pull him out," said Stephen Sullivan, a retired member of No. 5 on the scene. "You hope. But you're afraid, too, of what you'll find."
Sullivan could not hold back tears yesterday as he waited to hear about the missing. At 56, he is still fit. He is grayed by years on a hard job, but there is still a sparkle in the man.
"I went to John's wedding," Sullivan said.
He wanted to explain how they were family, so he turned to the bulletin boards on the third floor of the firehouse. Look at the pictures, he said, pointing to four huge bulletin boards plastered with small snapshots of the guys from Ladder No. 5 and Engine No. 24, which share the house on Sixth Avenue at West Houston.
These are grinning, athletic, wholesome men. They are loved in the neighborhood because they fix leaky bathtubs in the middle of the night and know all the kids' names and rescue the kitchen help when they almost burn up the corner diner.
They do not have the complications police officers do, not knowing sometimes who the enemy is. They run into fires. It isn't for the money. They earn far less than the Wall Streeters in the neighborhood, but more than those who clean up the buildings. They're good guys, men who like their rituals — hosing down the rigs, roll calls in front of the station house and a few beers after work.
Sullivan pointed to a photograph of Santore wearing a red ribbon and a medal around his neck. Frances, his wife, and their two girls are next to him, smiling. There's Santore again, horsing around with new recruits. And Santore in a Santa Claus suit.
"We cook together; we eat together; we sleep together," Sullivan said.
On the first floor where the trucks are parked, Sullivan came across four pairs of black leather shoes neatly lined up against a wall.
"Who's gonna fill those shoes?" he asked. And then he cried some more.
The men of Nos. 5 and 24 were among the first to respond to Tuesday's suicidal plane attack. They pulled their trucks, both new, out on West Street, right up to the north tower and headed up the A stairwell.
Unlike most who could only imagine what it was like in that unspeakable inferno, these firefighters know what their friends went through before they died. They felt the heat, smelled the gas, saw the orange flames and choked on black smoke. They were in the darkness, they heard shrieks.
"We made it up 37 floors carrying a lot of heavy equipment," said Marcel Claes of Engine No. 24, "and we got an urgent message to come right back down. I think the Ladder 5 guys may have proceeded up farther."
Frank Coughlin, No. 5's captain, had his remaining men at the scene most of yesterday as part of the rescue mission. But at the same time they were doing their job, they all were listening to police and fire radio reports of firefighters who might be alive in the rubble.
"We'll have members at that scene until we bring all our guys home," Coughlin said.