After the official events marking the first anniversary of 9/11, a half dozen members of the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums were left still deep in their grief.
“We felt like it just wasn’t enough,’ the band’s drum major, Capt. Liam Flaherty, recalled.
With a few instruments and a little whisky, they went to the downtown edge of the pit just as the sun set. Their impromptu gathering gave them what the official events did not, and over the years it became a tradition, drawing hundreds.
This year, the ritual took on particular importance because the organizers of the 10th anniversary observance dedication decided there would be room only for the families that had lost loved ones on 9/11. First responders feel themselves to be family of another kind with the fallen, but they were told they would have to wait for another day.
They still had the band, and as sundown neared, Flaherty donned his big bearskin hat and took up his drum major’s staff. He had led the band in playing at more than 400 memorials and funerals after 9/11. And his own mortality recently faced a serious test during a hellish fire in Brooklyn, but he had gone right back to duty as soon as he recovered from burns minor enough to called lucky.
All the active firefighters in the band routinely face similar dangers and had lost dear friends that morning 10 years ago. One of the drummers, James Dowdell, had joined the FDNY after his father was killed just a few hundred feet from where the band now gathered. Lt. Kevin Dowdell’s remains were never recovered, but his living spirit was unmistakable in the son who spoke of fighting fires with Ladder 174 in Brooklyn.
“It is well,” James Dowdell said with a grin.
As evening deepened, the band fell into formation and Flaherty raised his staff. The drums struck up a beat and the pipes trilled and they all marched up to the FDNY memorial wall along the side of he firehouse that had somehow survived the collapse of the South Tower just across the street. They formed a Circle of Honor around a group of Army Special Forces operatives who had marched in behind them.
The unit includes the son of a highly regarded firefighter who had managed to reach the 78th floor of the South Tower and actually had been fighting the fire there when it collapsed. I stood with the son at last year’s ceremony, but he had to miss this one because he was deployed in the Middle East, facing other dangers.
“Please say a prayer on my behalf for all the victims,” he asked me in a 9/11 email.
The highest-ranking uniformed member of the FDNY, Chief of Department Edward Kilduff, spoke, accurately reporting that the families of the 343 fallen members of the FDNY had been almost uniformly pleased with the memorial.
“Their loved ones have found a home,” Kilduff said.
The FDNY chaplain, Father Chris Keenan, was asked to give a blessing. He did so by reciting the words of another tall and skinny president from Illinois. The Gettysburg Address began to resonate most deeply when Keenan came to where Abraham Lincoln spoke of dedicating the battlefield.
“In a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow--this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Three sentences later, the blessing became a challenge.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
The firefighters and cops and soldiers were already meeting that challenge, dashing into harm’s way whenever danger calls just as their murdered comrades across the street had unhesitatingly climbed the burning towers.
If the rest of us demonstrated such dedication and selflessness then we could all rightly join young James Dowdell in smilingly saying, “It is well.”
In the meantime, the band ended the ceremony with a whisky toast and a rousing rendition of the Irish standard “Wild Rover.” They will be back next year and the next and the next, even if the rest of the country decides to move on.