When five-year-old Joey Wylie saluted the flag-draped coffin of his firefighter dad outside a Queens church in early 1995, mourners immediately thought of John John doing the same at President Kennedy’s funeral.
Joey’s dad, firefighter Tommy Wylie, had been a full-fledged member of the FDNY for only a few days when he was fatally injured at his very first blaze. He died five days later as seemingly the whole city was praying for a miracle.
“If daddy’s in heaven, what’s in the box we keep following?” Joey asked on the way from the funeral to the cemetery.
“Memories,” his mother, Randi Wylie, said. “The box is full of memories of daddy.”
Memory gave rise to aspiration as Joey grew older. And this past Thursday he himself graduated from the FDNY academy. He was now 24. He had requested and received his father’s badge number.
“4981,” his mother noted. “It really brought me back 19 years. But I couldn’t have been more proud of him.”
On Monday afternoon, the mother prepared to send Joey off to his first tour of duty just as she had sent her husband off on another December day nearly two decades ago.
Firefighter Thomas Wylie had embarked from their Queens home to Ladder 18 in Manhattan. He responded with the rest of his company to a fire in a five-story Chinatown tenement during the early morning hours of December 29, 1994.
A candle had been knocked over in a basement gambling den, igniting the kerosene in an illegal heater. The initial caller to 911 gave the wrong address, but the firefighters nonetheless arrived in time to rescue a baby.
On the chance that others might need assistance, the firefighters continued searching the smoke-filled interior. Tommy and a veteran firefighter became trapped in the warren of cubicles where the immigrant residents lived crammed in together. Tommy was the less fortunate of the two, and he was close to death from carbon monoxide poisoning when his comrades carried him to the street.
At Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, 30-year-old Wylie was placed in a hyperbaric chamber with 100 percent oxygen at more than double normal atmospheric pressure. A CAT scan indicated that he was essentially brain dead, but when Randi called to him to squeeze her hand if he could hear her tell him she loved him, he did.
Tommy clung to life on into the New Year. A special mass was held for him at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on January 3.
“No matter what the doctors say, I believe in miracles,” Randi told reporters. “And if everyone says one prayer for Tommy, maybe he’ll pull through.”
Three hours after the mass, Tommy lost his struggle and died. Randi said that all the prayers had not been vain, for they “helped send Tommy to a better place.”
“And that’s getting me get through all this,” she said.
The funeral was at St. Luke’s Church. Mayor Giuliani delivered the eulogy.
“Thomas Wiley gave his life trying to save the lives of other people,” Giuliani said. “By the way he lived his life, by the way he died, he earned a place, a secure place in the history of this city.”
The FDNY Pipes and Drums band played “Will Ye No Come Back again?” as the box of memories was carried out and 6,000 firefighters saluted. Little Joey saluted with them.
Joey heard the pipes and drums again on Thursday, when the band led him and the other new firefighters into the graduation ceremony in Brooklyn. Joey now saluted as one of eight new members of the FDNY who had lost either a firefighter father or brother in the line of duty. He was the only one whose loss was unrelated to 9/11.
As was widely reported, this was the most diverse class in FDNY history, with minorities in the majority. There will be no differences among them when an alarm comes in and they all respond as firefighters when an alarm comes in.
And they will now include Joey Wylie. His mother sent him off with a big hug on a grey Monday afternoon bright with promise. She felt sure he was more than ready and happy in the best possible way.
“He gave me a big smile and told me he loved me,” she later reported.
Then, just as his dad had headed in to Ladder 18, Joey headed in to Ladder 3, also in Manhattan. The firehouse is near the Food Emporium market where Tommy worked as the meat manager before he was called to the FDNY. Tommy had taken a pay cut to become a firefighter and Randi had gone to work at the Gap to help support Joey, along with his two sisters, who were still in diapers.
But Tommy had valued meaning more than money. His son was now following the same path.
“It’s all good,” his mother said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”