Sep. 11—NEW YORK — As though in respect of the approaching anniversary, the skies over New York wore a somber face Thursday afternoon.
The mourning clouds refrained from spectacle, shedding tears upon the ebony-smooth tombs of the twin towers in a gentle drizzle remote from the infernal flooding just a week before.
The muted lament allowed visitors to congregate at the edges of the square fountains. A few photographed it, while others laid white roses. Some simply gazed at the conspicuous hole above, a gaping gash in New York's high-rise quilt, where indignant clouds had banded together to blot out the insensitive sun's radiance.
Daniel Brown-Martinez, battalion chief of the Toledo & Fire Rescue Department, had other ideas. After landing at Queens' LaGuardia Airport at noon, he and his wife Sarah walked to Bill's Bar & Burger, just a block away from the falling fountains of Ground Zero, and alongside fellow firemen from Toledo and Miami downed nachos with a swig of beer and healthy dose of anatomy-based humor.
They then glided over N.Y.C.'s wet streets to The Malthouse for another two hours of beer, after which they, from the 12th row of Madison Square Garden's 92nd section, screamed "Blues suck!" as FDNY's hockey team beat NYPD's, 7-4. The group capped off the day by getting lost in Brooklyn.
"Firefighters, we have a special way of remembering our loss," said Mr. Martinez. "Typically when we experience tragedy, we pull together as a family and we celebrate life, we celebrate the good times. That thick skin we have is nurtured by our laughter."
Revelry and remembrance blended easily. On the way to The Malthouse, Mr. Martinez's group paused for a moment at the FDNY Memorial Wall on Greenwich Street, a wall-long bronze relief commemorating the 343 firefighters that died at Ground Zero.
Inscribed between scenes of hosing firemen and the burning towers are words that capture the dual pledge by which they live: "DEDICATED TO THOSE WHO FELL AND TO THOSE WHO CARRY ON."
On Aug. 30, retired Los Angeles Fire Department captain Scott Gould and his wife, retired L.A. Police Department captain Gina Gould, stepped onto a white SUV containing his 2019 and her 2011 Harley Davidson Ultras. They wouldn't need them on this trip, though, because theirs was the "chase vehicle": the last one in line, entrusted with guarding the 41 other motorcyclists revving their engines ahead of them and pulling the black trailer memorializing 9/11 behind them.
Awaiting LAFD's Fire Hogs Motorcycle Club was a 3,000-mile, cross-country trek. Mr. Gould would have liked to pass through the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, or his hometown of Toledo. That would have to wait for the ride back.
As the Fire Hogs passed through Washington, the local fire and police departments pulled a few strings to shut down Pennsylvania Avenue. They passed through it like a presidential caravan, escorted by three fire engines, at least four police units, and two motorcycle units.
All in all, Mr. Gould thought, not a bad way to celebrate his 63rd birthday.
The motorcycling pilgrims completed their trek Thursday. After 12 days of riding, they were at Ground Zero.
"It's an investment in representing our brothers," Mr. Gould said.
A flight might have reduced more than 270 hours to five, but the length was the point. "We're honoring our fallen. And we get to do it together."
Mr. Gould has been to Ground Zero at least six times before, but this visit especially feels, in his words, "bitter-bitter" — not just because it's the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but because it's unfolding in the shadow of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. For him, that "surrender" is an "unsettling" period to the desolate sentence of the past two decades.
Bitter, yes, but sweetened by reuniting with Mr. Martinez. Mr. Gould rises from his table at The Malthouse when Mr. Martinez walks in, pulling him into a tight embrace.
Their age difference is such that Mr. Gould hadn't actually known Martinez while in Toledo. He was about 21 years old when, in 1980, he left the Glass City for Las Vegas, and then for the City of Angels two years after. Mr. Martinez was in the crib.
Mr. Gould met him shortly before retiring in 2014, when he returned to Toledo to honor two of its fire department's fallen: Stephen A. Machcinski, 42, and James A. Dickman, 31. Both had died in the line of duty Jan. 26, 2014.
Mr. Dickman had been appointed to the fire department only four months before, due to graduate Feb. 7. Mr. Martinez's hairs still stand when he remembers the graduation ceremony, where Mr. Dickman's name was called three times.
Mr. Martinez eventually did the math. Someone wearing the same Toledo patch he wears on his shoulder is lowered into the ground every 3.5 years.
Absence, and a cap, sat silent in Mr. Dickman's chair.
Ray Bell's story
Ray Bell met Mr. Martinez for the first time at Mr. Dickman's memorial ceremony. He had driven up from Florida, where he still serves on Miami-Dade's Fire Department. It didn't matter that Toledo was 1,300 miles away, or that he'd never been there.
"They would do the same thing for us," he said. "When you're there, you're representing your uniform."
That's the nice thing about being a firefighter, Mr. Bell said: You'll always get coffee and a place to stay. Then he added, with a cheeky grin: "Same circus, different clowns."
Firefighters' freewheeling, often provocative humor, he said, is a simple coping mechanism for a fact sobering no matter how drunk they get: The next job could be the last, and they can only hope that when their moment comes, it's quick.
The recent collapse of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium in a Miami suburb, gave Mr. Bell flashbacks to 9/11. Two days after the twin towers fell, he stood on the 40-story pile that marked their smoldering grave, retrieving parts of metal and flesh. That's one difference: The condo didn't fall with enough force to eviscerate its occupants' bodies, as Mr. Bell learned in the days and weeks after.
At Ground Zero, he reflected, "you were lucky if you had a body." His good friend Lt. Dennis Mojica was among the more fortunate. They found his body in a stairwell, intact.
So firefighters compartmentalize, lest the demons lying in wait just outside the protective halo of their fraternity spring — PTSD, anxiety, depression. One friend of Mr. Gould's and Mr. Bell's from Los Angeles, Reiner Montiol, had a face that snuck him looks and a personality that won him love. He knew his mother would want an open-casket funeral, so he pointed the gun's barrel at his chest and pressed.
Mr. Bell hasn't forgotten, and still accepts, the words of his academy drill instructor: "Look to your left, look to your right — one of you will not make it to retirement."
He also remembers the wisdom that his uncle, a South Bronx firefighter for almost 30 years, shared when he signed up: "Get yourself a knife kit." Those firehouse meals weren't going to cook themselves.
At The Malthouse before the hockey game, Mr. Martinez is brimming with Toledo pride. His green T-shirt, emblazoned with the clover-shaped logo of Toledo Fire Hockey, is barely visible in the dim light, but no matter. He shows Mr. Gould what he's missing out on: Pictures of the recently hosted Solheim Cup, and then his plan for home landscaping.
But the most important picture of himself, a fresh-faced 20-year-old fire academy graduate holding his 1-year-old son Romeo. It was 2001, just after 9/11. Twenty years later, Mr. Martinez is in the fire battalion, and his son is a fresh academy graduate.
Mr. Bell, sitting at another table, leans in.
"Is he on the rig now?" he shouts over the cacophony of music.
"Yeah," Mr. Martinez yells back. "He's on Engine 9 in the South End."
Hearty congratulations of admiration are exchanged. That this profession was a dangerous choice for one's child went without saying
"It's almost as if we hit the repeat button," Mr. Martinez said. "I worry about him every time he goes to work. And I respect that this is a decision he's made, and that he understands it can cost him his health and his life. As long as he's happy, I'm happy."
So he carries on — and so does his little band of brothers and sisters, making plans for what to do on Friday, the eve of Sept. 11. The decision: a tour and taste of Little Italy and Chinatown.
Perhaps the weather took a cue. The next morning, the sun shone brightly above New York.
First Published September 11, 2021, 8:30am