I didn't know anyone who was personally affected by the 9/11 tragedy.
I did, however, want to support the fund drives, so I purchased one of the copper name bracelets. The proceeds went to benefit the Fire Department of New York families.
This bracelet was just like the one I had worn during the Vietnam War, with the name of a POW/MIA. This one was engraved with the name of a heroic New York firefighter with whom I had no connection, except that my own husband is a firefighter here in California.
As I thought about the name on the bracelet, I really wanted to speak with this firefighter's family. I thought they might like to know that their son's bracelet is being worn by someone who really cares about him. I had no idea where to begin to find this man's fire station in NY City, much less his family. So I just thought, why not start at the most public place, New York City Hall.
I called directory assistance, got a number and dialed. I had no idea what to say exactly, but I hoped that something intelligent would spew forth when they answered. The lady who answered the phone was polite but seemed preoccupied, so I stated my business as simply and quickly as possible. She began crying uncontrollably and then transferred me to another clerk. When I stated my request to the second lady, she too burst into tears and transferred me to a third clerk who happened to be a man. I felt badly that I was rekindling emotions that obviously still ran high and apologized to the man, before I repeated my request.
"I live in California, and I purchased one of the copper name bracelets of a fallen firefighter. I want to contact his family."
He asked what the firefighter's name was. I read the name on the bracelet.
There was a pause.
I feared that my request was just too much to ask of someone who had actually lived through the tragedy of New York City. I was just about ready to give up when he said, with a shaky voice, "The women whom you spoke to before me are the mother and the sister of that fallen firefighter."
He said that he would be happy to give them a hug for me. He thanked me and hung up. That was pretty heavy, and I thought that would be the end of my quest.
However, several months later, in October 2002, it was time for the annual Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Washington, D.C. This ceremony honors all firefighters from throughout the United States, who have died in the line of duty over the past 12 months. This year, the NYFD would have a much larger presence than in past years.
My husband was chosen by lottery, to represent the Ventura County Firefighters at that year's ceremony. I accompanied him. On Saturday, Oct 10, 2002, Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues were closed down for about one mile total. This historic route was lined with thousands of us, standing there silently, tearfully saluting as 37 buses passed, carrying the grieving families of the entire nation's fallen firefighters. This solemn parade was led by an honor guard of proud comrades from every state and the Bagpipe Brigade playing their familiar refrain of tragedy and sorrow, over and over.
Finally, we all arrived at the huge MCI Center for the ceremony. For the next four hours, as each name of a fallen comrade was read aloud, and his/her photo was displayed, that person's family and friends were asked to stand and be acknowledged. From our seats on the upper levels, I watched carefully for the name on my bracelet. Not only did I want to see what he looked like, I anxiously waited to see where his family was seated. I thought that right after the ceremony I could run down and meet them.
The last speech was given, and we all took a deep breath. We were exhausted from hours of crying and grieving. I kept my eye on the family as we filed out, but in vain. The stadium became total chaos. There was no way I was ever going to find his family among this moving crowd. I didn't give up. I didn't know what I was looking for, but I just had to keep trying. I was so close.
The firefighters from FDNY are easy to spot because they wear a very traditional style uniform. As I was being herded out of the stadium, I happened to look up and right in front of me stood a proud member of the FDNY. I tapped him on the shoulder. He looked down at me and smiled.
I said, "Excuse me, but I have this memorial bracelet (I showed him the name) and I wanted to find his family to show them that I am honoring their son. I don't know where to begin finding them in this crowd. Could you help me?"
The man stared momentarily at the bracelet, then turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, "He was my best friend."
We hugged. He said, "Thank you. I will definitely tell his family about this. Thank you."
At that moment, the crowd pushed me away toward the door.
I had made my connection.
Mary Jane West-Delgado - California
© 2006 Mary Jane West-Delgado. All Rights Reserved. Used by kind permission.
Mary Jane lives on the central coast of California and is a retired physical therapist and presently a math/chemistry tutor. She has had several stories published in Chicken Soup for the Soul.