Monday, September 10, 2012


343 active duty members of the FDNY perished in Lower Manhattan eleven years ago tomorrow.  Three retired members of the Department were also killed.  All three hundred and forty-six died trying to ensure that others would not have to die.  Dennis Smith's extraordinary work, "Report from Ground Zero", which - were the decision mine to make - would be mandatory reading in every United States History class taught in every school in these United States whether parochial, private or public, is dedicated to "Those 407 Brave Souls Who Went In to Help Others Get Out".   In addition to the three hundred forty-six FDNY casualties, the NYPD suffered twenty-three deaths, the PAPD lost thirty-seven members and the New York City Fire Patrol sustained one. 
We have to remember to look deeper than the numbers.  I know that I am guilty sometimes - when looking at an event as far-reaching and as catastrophic as what happened on September 11, 2001 - of looking at it on a large scale.  There is nothing wrong with doing so to be sure.  However it must never be forgotten that the tragedy is not in the total loss of life.  It is in the complete loss of each life and the ramifications each loss had on the family affected by it.  Human beings are not promotional ball caps given away at Major League stadiums annually on Cap Day.  One size does not fit all.  Each family and each indvidual member of each family was impacted by his or her loved one's (or in the even more tragic cases more than one) loss in a way unique to that person.    That too is something that we must never forget.
Engine 226 - Brooklyn lost four members on September 11, 2001.  The house has created a website that serves as a memorial and a living tribute to its fallen friends.  On its home page, a visitor is advised that, "This site is dedicated to those four guys, our brothers, who selflessly gave their lives in the line of duty, and left us a piece of their hearts."  The four fallen members of 226 are Lieutenant Bob Wallace, Stanley Smagala, Dave DeRubbio and Brian McAleese.
Firefighter Brian McAleese was the fourth of five children.  At the time of his death on September 11 he was just thirty-six years old.   He joined the FDNY in 1994, a career path on which he was able to follow in the footsteps of his father Jack who spent a quarter century in the FDNY.   It was also a path walked by his brother John with whom he sometimes had the chance to fight a fire together.  Big brother Kevin in a detective in the NYPD. 

About five months after he began ascending a happy trail in the professional piece of his life, he did so in his personal life as well.  In late June 1994 he married his high-school sweetheart.  As of September 2001 Brian and Dawn McAleese were the proud parents of four children - none of whom was older than five and the youngest of whom was only four months when Brian McAleese was killed.  A week or so after he was killed, Kevin went to Brian's firehouse to clean out his locker. He found a wedding photo of Brian and Dawn, ringed with photos of their 4 kids. Surrounding them were photos of Brian's 13 nieces and nephews. Kevin also found a pile of Brian's clothes, neatly folded, everything in its place. A testament, said Kevin, to an orderly life.

Dawn McAleese was left in a very difficult situation when her husband was killed.  Assistance for her and her children has come from an expected source.   Assistance also came from an unexpected source.  In 2002 the then-owner of the Cleveland Browns Al Lerner pledged to give the McAleese family $60,000 a year until the youngest child Aidan is eighteen.  At the time he presented her with the first check in 2002 Lerner - a New York native - was asked why he had chosen to do what he did.  His answer?  "We are in this together.  You are not suffering your loss alone. There are people who care about your loss. We can't take back your tragedy. We can show that we are together as a country. I'm pleased to be able to help. We have become a bigger, more extended family."  The generosity is appreciated.  In addition to being a New York Yankees fan, Dawn McAleese lists Mr. Lerner's former football team as one of her favorites

Firefighter Dave DeRubbio had been a member of the FDNY - and of Engine 226 - since 1998.  Dave DeRubbio was one of seven children - including five sons.  When he joined the Department in 1998, he became the fourth DeRubbio brother on the job, joining Dominick, Robert and Albert.  At the time he joined the FDNY he and his wife Lorraine had been married for close to a decade and were the proud parents of one daughter, Jessica.  He was a passionate fan of both the Yankees and the Rangers and was said to enjoy good natured ribbing with Jessica during hockey season given her seemingly inexplicable allegiance to the Islanders.  At the time of his death he was thirty-eight years old. 

He had a reputation among his family and friends for having a tremendous sense of humor and a seemingly limitless desire to laugh and make others laugh.  To that end, he enjoyed foisting nicknames on those he loved.  For instance, his daughter Jessica became "Pestica".  He doted on his daughter and his wife.  He no doubt was smiling upon them on September 2, 2005.  That was the date on which Lorraine and Jessica - then sixteen - went to his old firehouse to get his badge returned to his widow.  At some point after his death it has been stolen from the DeRubbio's home.  Getting it back brought a sense of joy and a sense of relief.  He was not physically with them but he was - at least - home with them again.   If you want a sense of the man he was - as seen through the eyes of his daughter - then listen to Jessica talk about him bearing in mind that she was all of seventeen at the time she recorded it.  Remarkable young woman.  Every inch her mother's daughter - and her dad's. 

Firefighter Stanley Smagala was the youngest of seven children.  In February 1996 he joined the FDNY and in doing so followed in the footsteps of his older brother Jim.  He was assigned to Engine 226 and would spend his entire career at 226.  A career that tragically was cut short after only five and a half years when he was among the men of 226 who was killed at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  He was only thirty-eight years old. 

The Smagala family only barely missed losing both of their firefighter sons.  Jim was in the North Tower and barely escaped the building before it collapsed.  "For a minute, I thought I was dead; it was so eerie," Jim said. "Of course, I realized I was alive, but somehow I knew that my brother was not OK."

Stan Smagala got married in June, 1998.  Dena, his wife, was a fourth-grade teacher.  She joked about the fact that he enjoyed visits to her class as much as her students enjoyed him.  "He'd act like a little kid," she said. "He had a big heart for children."   Dena was pregnant with the couple's first child when he was killed.  On January 9, 2002 Alexa Faith Smagala was born.  Her dad might have not had the chance to greet her upon her arrival but her uncles in the 226 certainly did.  That little baby has come a long way since.

Lieutenant Bob Wallace was forty-three years old when he was killed on September 11, 2001.  Lieutenant Wallace had been in the FDNY for twenty-two years.  He and his wife Nancy had four children, their daughter Jeanine who was 21 when her dad was killed and three sons Bobby, Daniel and Alex who were 19, 17 and 12 respectively.  
Among the nicest things I have come across these past couple of weeks is a tribute that Jeanine Wallace wrote for her dad.  Remarkable stuff.  As is this.  Among the saddest things I have come across is the news that Lt. Wallace's son Daniel was found dead of what were determined to be natural causes in early February 2007.  Daniel Wallace was only twenty-three years old.  
Firefighting remains the family business for the Wallaces.  In January 2008 Robert Wallace, Jr. joined the FDNY.  He became the fourth generation of Wallace to wear the FDNY uniform.  At the time he completed his training - and began his career at Engine 275 in Jamaica, Queens, Robert said, "My father signed me up for the [FDNY] test, so I know it's something he wanted me to do.  Firefighting has always been my family's job."


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