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Everyday reminders for New York firefighters
NEW YORK — Ten years removed from the worst day of his life, New York City firefighter Mike Kotula is about ready to say "enough."
Sunday, at a ceremony at the only firehouse where he has worked during his 29 years in the department, Mr. Kotula will read the names of the 12 men from his house who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He swears he will do it sober this time, something he admits he didn't do eight of the previous nine times he has read the names.
He will mingle and visit with families of the victims, some of them as close as his own family. The 10th anniversary of the attacks, he knows, is a milestone, a bigger deal than the rest of the anniversaries so far. It's also just a day like every other since. It's a day to carry on and try to move forward and function, all the while knowing things can never really be normal again.
"I don't think it ever gets better," Mr. Kotula said. "I may not come back at all. I may leave town after this year. Yeah, I've had enough."
Mr. Kotula works at a firehouse on the corner of 66th and Amsterdam in Manhattan, just a block behind the Lincoln Center. It houses the No. 40 engine and No. 35 ladder, which means it is known as the 40-35 house. It sent 13 men - 12 from the house and one who was subbing from nearby engine 23 -on those two vehicles to what is now known as ground zero.
Only one survived. That survivor, Kevin Shea, was badly injured and is now retired.
The 40-35 house is not alone in the devastation it has suffered. The department of 11,500 uniformed members lost 339 firefighters, two paramedics, a chaplain and a deputy commissioner that day. It has lost 17 in the line of duty since.
But the 40-35 house was thrust into the spotlight when author David Halberstam, who lived in the neighborhood it serves, published a book about it in 2002. "Firehouse," a short but powerful book, turned victims into more than names. It turned them into people, into colleagues, into loved ones, into friends.
It did the same for some of those left behind, like Mr. Kotula. Though he wasn't featured in the book, 40-35 colleague Robert Ostrofsky feels the same way as Mr. Kotula. He hasn't been at the house half as long as Mr. Kotula. He, too, thinks 10 years is enough.
"After 10 years, it's taken its toll," Mr. Ostrofsky said. "I think I'm getting to the point - I love the 35 truck, I love it there - I think it is time for me to take a break. After the 10-year anniversary, I'm seriously thinking of moving on, moving to a firehouse closer to my house [on Long Island] to get away from all the hustle and bustle, even though I like it here.
"It's time to start thinking about myself. I can't be here and remove myself from this. I've tried. So I think I have to physically remove myself from the whole thing."
Trying to be normal
From outside appearances, it is business as usual for men like Mr. Kotula and Mr. Ostrofsky and their colleagues. They try to maintain a sense of normalcy and do their jobs. As Mr. Ostrofsky noted, "We're still trying to get our feet on the ground. Along the way, we've been doing a very good job. For what we were faced with, we did a really good job. To this day, all fires go out. We save a lot of people."
They try to be normal away from the job, too. Mr. Ostrofsky helps his sons with Boy Scout activities. He trains for marathons. Mr. Kotula talks about his son, also named Michael, who followed him into the department. He talks about his grandchildren, who are a big part of his life and who may keep him from eventually moving to Texas and joining a friend in the home inspection business.
But the memories never really fade, never really dim. How can they when there are daily reminders?
It is quite evident at the 40-35 house, with a small flower bed outside built by the firefighters and plaques memorializing those lost. Inside, the duty chalkboards from that morning are unchanged. People have sent tokens of appreciation that are prominently displayed. Every day they report to work, the firefighters get multiple reminders.
It's there away from work, too. At P.D. Hurley's restaurant and bar on 72nd and Broadway, a selection of framed jerseys hang above the bar. They are not jerseys of any Yankee or Met. They are jerseys of firefighters killed on Sept. 11, firefighters who played for the softball team that restaurant owner Paul Hurley sponsored. All of their numbers have been retired.
Some of the firefighters hang out there. Mr. Kotula and others work there during their time off from the department, and some aren't coming back.
There's a No. 35 with "Giberson" across the top, a No. 7 that says "Bracken," a No. 6 with the name "Boyle," a 0 for "Arce" and a No. 1 for "Mercado." Jimmy Giberson, Kevin Bracken, Steve Mercado, David Arce and Michael Boyle died on Sept. 11. Giberson, Bracken and Mercado worked out of 40-35. Arce and Boyle were from Engine 33.
"You still think those guys are going to walk through that door," Mr. Hurley said. "You're 10 years on and you still think they're coming in. It's a nightmare you weren't expecting. You think they'll be there, at the end of the bar ... and they're not here.
"I'm still saddened that we lost all those guys. Knowing they're not here is such a tough thing. And the guys left behind? It's definitely not the same. It's been a tough 10 years for these guys."
A voice of comfort
Mr. Kotula was on vacation Sept. 11, 2001. He was with some colleagues in Ocean City, Md., playing golf. His son, not yet with the department, reached him by phone and told him to turn on a television.
Once they saw what was happening, Mr. Kotula and friends jumped into a car and raced back. They went to the site but knew right away that they were too late to help, too late to do much good there.
"I found a woman's arm with a ring on the hand," Mr. Kotula said. "I never went back. I didn't want to see any more of that."
When they returned to the firehouse, Jennifer Liang, wife of Kevin Bracken, was waiting outside, not yet knowing she was a widow. Mr. Kotula had a hard time looking at her, knowing what all the wives and families were starting to realize. The devastation he had just witnessed was something he couldn't begin to describe.
He went in, took off his gear and heard the house's three phones ringing. Mr. Kotula answered and knew there was a huge role he could fill. The families would be calling constantly, wanting whatever information was available. Mr. Kotula knew that the voice of a friend - someone who would be honest with them while understanding their state of mind - was important.
He stayed and answered the phones for five days.
"Nine of the 12, I knew their families personally," Mr. Kotula said. "Someone else answered once when one of the guys' daughters called. She was upset. She said, 'Where's Mike?' She wanted to talk to me. So I just never left."
One of the anecdotes in Halberstam's book best explains the bond among firefighters and why Mr. Kotula felt a friendly voice they knew was so important to the families.
When Mr. Kotula was about to go on a vacation, he mistakenly poured oil instead of gas into his car's carburetor to try to get the balky engine to start.
Giberson saw it and lent Mr. Kotula his car. When Mr. Kotula returned, Giberson returned Mr. Kotula's car. The engine had been taken apart and cleaned and was running perfectly.
"Even my brother probably wouldn't have done that for me," Mr. Kotula said.
Mr. Kotula, now 53, shares another story. Early in his career, he was on the phone with his wife while at work. He had just started the job, money was tight and Christmas for their three children would have to be small.
Bruce Gary overheard the call. The next day, he handed Mr. Kotula an envelope with $2,000 in cash.
"He said, 'Take care of your family at Christmas,' " Mr. Kotula said. "He hardly knew me, and he knew I'd get it back to him eventually, which I did."
Gary was killed on Sept. 11.
"You don't replace that kind of thing," said Mr. Kotula, who also told of 15 firefighters coming to his son's house to help replace the roof. They did it in a day.
"That's what we do. You can have a fight, an argument, almost come to blows and then you're going down the hallway to fight a fire right next to the same guy and you're glad he's there. If something happens to you, he's going to help. If something happens to him, you're going to help. I guess it is like soldiers. When you're in a foxhole together, you have to rely on that person.
"Anybody tells you they're not scared at a fire, that's [nonsense]. But you rely on the guys you're with."
Coping in the aftermath
Mr. Kotula tried to stay busy right after Sept. 11, doing what he could to help the victims' families. He would stay at the house rather than venturing to his home on Staten Island. His captain ultimately ordered him to take some time off. That was when his problems started.
"When I was home, that's when it hit me," Mr. Kotula said. "I bottomed out. I couldn't leave my house. I had the kids bringing me cigarettes and food. And alcohol. For weeks, I couldn't leave my house until finally they got me to go to the therapist. Then they put me on medication and I hated that. I just stopped that myself.
"I guess alcohol played a big role in my life for a while. After a few years, I finally checked myself into rehab. I stopped for under a year. I have it under control now. It took me awhile. It was hard. I lost three of my best friends. They were like brothers to me."
Mr. Kotula describes his current state as "functioning." He is determined to stay sober for Sunday's reading of the names and will work at Hurley's as late as possible Saturday night and into Sunday morning "because I never drink when I work." Besides, this may be his final time reading the names.
"It's hard to leave here. I have children and grandchildren here," Mr. Kotula said. "But maybe it's time."
Mr. Ostrofsky's situation is different. He has been with the department for 13 years, less than half the time as Mr. Kotula. He was assigned to the 35 ladder on Jan. 6, 2001. Because of a rotation the department was using at the time, he was not working out of that house on Sept. 11. He was off duty on the fateful day.
Afterward, he asked to be transferred back to the 35. That move became official on Sept. 29, 2001.
Though he didn't have Mr. Kotula's tenure, he knew the men who were killed and knew the house hierarchy would change. There is a definite pecking order beyond the traditional ranks. Men like Giberson and Gary, universally respected leaders with dominant personalties, were gone.
"A lot of the guys we lost were guys who enabled us to move in the right direction, and a lot of that was taken away that day," said Mr. Ostrofsky, 44. "The guys who were left were emotionally and physically devastated. To have to step into that role overnight is a very difficult thing. I thought there were things I could do to help.
"You can go to a fire academy all you want, but you don't learn this job until you actually get in a firehouse and live and breathe it and eat it and sleep it. This job is more than just getting on a truck. A firehouse is where you breed what you need to do on the fire scene. Not thinking about ourselves, doing what you need for others translates into what you do on the fire scene."
Mr. Ostrofsky has taken on the role of unofficial house spokesman and has been something of a liaison between the old and the new. Of the 45 men currently assigned to the 40-35, nine firefighters and one officer were assigned there on Sept. 11, 2001.
Many of the families who lost members are still in touch and will be at the house on Sunday for a bigger-than-usual memorial. Some are still struggling. Not everybody from the house was found. Figures from New York Magazine say that of the 2,819 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, a total of 1,717 families haven't received any remains.
"We keep in touch with as many families as will allow us to keep in touch with them," Mr. Ostrofsky said. "We're always very accommodating with them, and I think we do a great job when it comes to the anniversary every year.
"I don't think this one means anything more to me personally beyond the fact that society has this whole 10-year anniversary thing and people are coming out of the woodwork and coming to the firehouse. It is a big undertaking to try to accommodate the families, the friends, the retirees who all come out.
"So in that aspect, typically from year to year, starting in late July to August, the stress level goes up. Can I put my finger on why? Not really, but Sept. 11 is coming."
Mr. Ostrofsky's daughter, Eliza, was born a month before the attacks.
"Unfortunately, I missed a lot of her first year on this planet because I was so wrapped up," he said. "I always look at her and I say she kept me hanging on. It was memorial services and then funerals and memorial services.
"The things I've experienced in the past 10 years, sometimes it takes a lifetime to experience all that."
Mr. Ostrofsky still feels a sense of obligation to the house, to his fallen colleagues and their families. He also doesn't think anyone will quibble with his decision to leave. He will never forget. He is just ready for the daily reminders to end.
"I do feel I have an obligation to the guys we lost," he said. "I think they would understand if I moved on. At this point in my life, I need to take care of myself."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Washington Times sports editor Mike Harris has more than 30 years experience in the business as a reporter, columnist and manager. He’s covered a wide variety of events including two Olympics, horse racing, auto racing, professional and college sports. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow the section on Twitter @WashTimesSports.
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