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Jerome Becker: Observations Martyrs on 9/11

Two weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, I received a phone call from New York Gov. Pataki’s office, asking me whether I would attend the funeral of a fallen firefighter on his behalf. Since so many funerals were underway in different parts of the city, the governor couldn’t attend all of them and hence needed surrogates.
As a member of his administration, I was hard pressed to say no, in spite of my reservations about being able to fulfill the task. Although I was provided with talking points, I had no idea what lay ahead, other than attending the unforgettable Mass being celebrated at a church on Staten Island.
When I arrived, I presented my credentials to the officer in charge, who directed me to a line of dignitaries and top brass of the New York Fire Department standing in front of the church. Because I represented the governor, protocol dictated I stood first in line, with Mayor Giuliani standing to my right.
Few words were spoken by anyone, so somber was the mood. Behind me was a sea of blue comprised of several hundred NYC firefighters and their brothers and sisters from all parts of America who came to express their sympathy.
It was a sunny, mild day. Not a cloud in the clear blue sky. The silence was broken by a sound that still haunts me until this day. Bagpipes wailing. Marching towards the church was the fire department’s Emerald Society Pipes and Drums Band dressed in traditional plaid Scottish highland attire. The melodic shrill sent shivers up my spine. Their slow shuffling cadence made it appear as though every step was steeped in pain. Grown men cried unashamedly upon hearing the pipes play “Amazing Grace.”
Behind the marching pipers was a fire engine with a flag-draped casket sitting atop it. The truck came to a halt in front of the church. From there the casket was carried into the church by six firefighters who acted as pall bearers, followed by the mourners. On a stand in front of the altar was a picture of the deceased firefighter in his dress uniform.
From where I was seated, I could see the widow and her children, who were grief-stricken beyond words. As I gazed around the church, it seemed as though firefighters filled every pew. With the arrival of the priest on the altar, the solemn Mass began.
Halfway through the service, appointed speakers delivered eulogies. Protocol required that I speak first – no one really cared what I had to say, but all were being respectful because of the office I represented. I felt like an interloper trying to talk about a hero I didn’t know.
The next speaker was the mayor. After his comments came heart-wrenching words spoken by firefighters from the deceased’s engine company. These voices were the ones the mourners truly wanted to hear. They were men who, when on and off duty, were one big family. Their loss was inconsolable.
Whatever image you may have of Rudy Giuliani today, at that moment in the city’s history he was truly “America’s Mayor.” When he spoke before the congregation, he touched every heart and soul with words of inspiration. He started speaking in a low tone, until his words reached a resounding crescendo as he extolled the deceased firefighter who, like his comrades, ran into the burning World Trade Center Towers on 9/11 to save lives as everyone else in the buildings was trying to escape.
Giuliani’s remarks ended dramatically as the mayor asked everyone to stand and clap loudly in honor of not only the departed firefighter, but for all the 343 firefighters who died heroically on that tragic day. The sound was deafening as Rudy gave comfort and hope to the walking wounded. I saw a man who made a huge difference and deserved all the credit due him during this catastrophe, as he held a shaken city together in its hour of greatest need.
After the Mass, the lineup of dignitaries returned to stand in front of the church, as the casket was placed in a hearse to be taken to its final resting place. Then the NYPD Aviation Unit gave the firefighter one last honor – a fly-by of five helicopters in missing man formation.
I left the church emotionally drained, never realizing I would be asked to attend, as the governor’s representative, 22 more funerals over the next several months for fallen firefighters.
Although it never rained once on the days of those religious services, there was never a shortage of tears.
Jerome Becker lives in Tinicum Township. He served as a New York State judge.