With a rosy dawn on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a figure in the uniform of an Army Green Beret stood to the edge of Ground Zero wearing a name tag reading BUCCA.
Master Sgt. Ron Bucca Jr. is the son of a former Green Beret who became a legendary member of the New York City Fire Department. Fire Marshal Ron Bucca Sr. was also one of 343 FDNY members who perished at the World Trade Center across from where Ron Jr. now stood exactly two decades later.
Ron Jr. had been 23 when he enlisted to get the people who killed the hero he called dad. Now 41, he has been guided through five combat tours by a principle imparted by his father.
“You do the best you can with the cards you are dealt,” Ron Jr. said.
Some of the very best cards Ron Jr. had been dealt were fellow Special Forces operators such as those who joined him on the corner as the sky brightened on Saturday. They greeted each other with smiles and easy laughter and manifest affection, seeming much like firefighters.
“It’s the same bond,” said retired Master Sgt. Brendan O’Connor, who received the Distinguished Service Cross after repeatedly exposing himself to withering gunfire to aid wounded comrades in Afghanistan in 2006.
The soldiers may have been betrayed by a host of political leaders, but they still had themselves. And there was not a waft of defeat about them despite how everything had played out since the attack on the Twin Towers that once stood across the street.
“Twenty years of war,” O’Connor said. “And we are no safer.”
But because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are officially over, operators who otherwise would have been deployed were able to join Bucca in honoring his fallen father on Saturday.
“Most of the battalions are back,” O’Connor said. “It’s an unusual moment in time.”
Altogether, 54 Green Berets proceeded with Ron Jr. through security and on to the memorial. They were joined by a variety of family and friends, including Ron’s wife, Silvana, a former Army officer who served five tours in Iraq.
“I had a birthday in Baghdad,” she said.
The Green Berets stood shoulder to shoulder and saluted as an honor guard bore the flag up to a ceremonial platform. The national anthem played. And the annual reading of the names of the dead commenced.
Ron Jr. led the contingent over to the memorial pool that occupies that footprint of the South Tower. He stopped where the names inscribed along the edge include that of his father. His comrades fell into formation three lines behind him, saluting after the alphabetized list of names came to the former soldier who became known as The Flying Fireman during his time with the FDNY.
“And the son is the match of the father,” a former Green Beret who served with both remarked.
For all of us, the story of Ron Sr. and Ron Jr. offers everything we need to prevail in this unrelentingly dangerous world: dedication and resilience and determination and courage and selflessness. We have their example to follow no matter how misled we are by those we elect.
In 1986, Ron Sr. survived a five-story fall while attempting to save a fire lieutenant at a burning building in Manhattan. Bucca struck a telephone wire and a pair of cables on the way down, but fire officials concluded this slowed his fall only minimally. They theorized he was saved by his Airborne and Special Forces training he received in the Army after enlisting at 17 near the end of the Vietnam War. He landed on his hands and feet like a cat, suffering only a broken back in a fall that doctors would have expected to be fatal.
“It wasn’t my time,” Ron Sr. later said.
The mayor then, Ed Koch, visited Ron Sr. at the hospital and offered his own explanation.
“He’s the first man I’ve ever met who I can say has learned how to fly,” Koch said.
Ron Sr. could only walk with excruciating pain when he learned that a young cop named Steven McDonald was in the same hospital after being shot and paralyzed by a teenager in Central Park. Ron Sr. nonetheless managed to repeatedly visit McDonald’s bedside.
“I just remember him in his hospital pajamas and a back brace, and he would always come in and see if I was OK, if I needed anything,” McDonald would recall.
“He had been through a very bad time himself, but he always took the time to check on me. I couldn’t communicate because of the gunshot wounds, but that didn’t matter to him. He knew I was in a deep depression, dark moods, and he would spend time with me, trying to give me pep talks.”
McDonald’s wife, Patti Ann, took to calling Ron Sr. “The Flying Fireman.” McDonald subsequently regained the power of speech and became the city’s strongest voice for peace and justice when he forgave the young man who shot him.
Ron Sr. ignored those who counseled him just to retire at age 32 with a tax-free disability pension. He also dismissed the experts who predicted he would never be fit for full duty. He was determined to return to the business of saving lives as a member of Rescue 1 and designed his own, often agonizing physical rehabilitation program.
“I’m going back to Rescue 1 in a year!” he told his wife, Eve.
A year later, he was indeed back at Rescue 1. He became a fire marshal by 1993 and responded to the scene of the World Trade Center bombing. He was the only member of the FDNY assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
He also remained an Army reservist, serving as a Green Beret and assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency. There, he came across something that had been retrieved from a computer belonging to a Trade Center bomber after that attack: “Our calculations were not very accurate this time. However, we promise you that next time it will be very precise and the Trade Center will be one of our targets.”
He became one of the first of any agency to warn about the danger of al Qaeda.
At the arrival of the new millennium, the nation went on high alert for a big New Year’s Eve attack. The moment passed without event and our leaders seemed to imagine that the danger passed with it. The FDNY spot on the JTTF was among the items deemed to no longer merit the expense.
From what he had learned on the JTTF and continued to see with military intelligence, Ron Sr. was certain the threat was only growing. He kept a set of building plans of the Twin Towers in his fire marshal’s locker.
On the sunny morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Ron Sr. looked out the window of the Fire Marshal’s base just uptown from the World Trade Center and saw the attack he expected had come.
He had qualified as a miracle by surviving a five-story fall and people had started to tumble as many as 110 stories as he raced to the scene. They hit with a velocity that instantly turned a living person into a splatter. The accompanying boom was loud, jarring, transformative, signaling the start of an altered era.
Eve Bucca was at her own job as a nurse at a Westchester hospital. Her husband telephoned.
“A plane just went into the Trade Center, and we’re going into the building now,” he told her.
The building was the South Tower. Ron Sr. hung up the phone and started up the stairway with fellow fire marshal John Devery. The other marshal stopped to assist a woman who had blood streaming down her side. The Flying Fireman kept going higher and higher, and became the only firefighter that day to climb all the way to the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor.
Ron Sr. was joined by Battalion Chief Orio Palmer, who was well versed in elevators and managed to get a freight one to bring him and several members of Ladder 15 partway up. They began assisting whomever they could and made plans to fight this blaze on high.
“We’ve got two isolated pockets of fire,” Palmer radioed at 9:52 a.m. “We should be able to knock it down with two lines.”
Palmer said he was being assisted by a fire marshal and used radio code to report that many of the civilian victims were beyond saving.
“78th floor, numerous 10-45s, Code One,” he said.
At 9:59 a.m., the South Tower collapsed. Ron Sr. must have draped his turnout coat protectively around several civilians, for it was later found still wrapped around them. His remains were recovered on Oct. 23, 2001. He was 47.
At the funeral, Eve delivered a eulogy.
“I choose to be grateful for the time I had with him,” she told the mourners. “I know some bonds can never be broken... He saved lives and he touched lives.”
Ron Jr., then 21, also spoke.
“My father never bragged or talked about his accomplishments, but the family knew what he did,” the son said.
Ron Jr. walked alongside the fire rig that bore the flag-covered coffin. His new path caused him to leave his studies at Tulane University and follow his father into the Army Special Forces.
In 2003, Ron Jr. returned from training in Arizona to attend a ceremony at Ground Zero marking the second anniversary of the attack. He was one of those who read the names of the dead and stood at the podium in uniform, his nameplate the same as the final name he read.
“And my loving father, Ronald Paul Bucca.”
By then, the architect of the attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, had been captured in Pakistan. But the leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was at large and had released a video just the day of the anniversary.
Ron Jr. would have liked nothing more than to set after bin Laden. There was little chance of that when he was deployed to Iraq. But the whole nation seemed to be behind him and his fellow soldiers. He could have been back in World War II when he got a “send a salami to your boy in the Army” delivery from Katz’s Deli.
A British detention facility named Holding Area Freddie was taken over by the Americans as our primary prisoner of war camp. The commander was an Army reservist with connections to the FDNY and he renamed it Camp Bucca. The more than 20,000 prisoners there included Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and it became the birthplace of ISIS as Ron Jr. deployed to Iraq again and again. The initial fervor back home faded and it seemed as if much of the nation imagined itself not at war.
“We went to war and the rest of the country went to Walmart,” O’Connor, the retired master sergeant, said.
On May 2, 2011, Navy Seals killed bin Laden in Pakistan and the area around Ground Zero spontaneously filled with people chanting “USA! USA!”
Ron Jr. was in Iraq.
On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he was helicoptered to Camp Bucca, where there was a ceremony at the chapel and the direction of a memorial cross fashioned from World Trade Center steel. That was the year then-President Barack Obama ordered an end to combat operations in Iraq and instructed Gen. Lloyd Austin to oversee the pullout. Ron Jr.’s unit was the last in the field.
“We covered the withdrawal,” Ron Jr. later said.
The war seemed done, and he applied to graduate school at Dartmouth.
“I figured I have to do something else,” he said.
Ron Jr. was studying for a masters degree when ISIS declared a caliphate and seized 40 percent of Iraq, along with a big piece of Syria. Ron had to email a professor to explain that he would be late turning in his thesis because he had been deployed. The professor asked where he was and Ron Jr. said he was not at liberty to say.
“Well, I’m sure wherever it is, you can get your thesis in on time,” the professor said.
He managed to get it in and completed another combat tour, followed by another. He was again ready to return to civilian life and decided that might be facilitated if he also got an MBA. He was admitted to Columbia Business School, with classes to commence just as a combat deployment against Islamist extremists in Africa was ending.
“In 72 hours I went from leading men in intense combat to being the dumbest kid in the class,” he said.
He graduated in 2017 but returned for another deployment in 2019, this time back in the Middle East. He did not fail to note that last month’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was overseen by Lloyd Austin, now the secretary of defense. He is not entirely convinced that it does mark the end of the war there.
“I’ve heard that before,” he remarked.
However it goes, the expressions and demeanor of the 54 Green Berets who joined Ron Jr. in saluting Ron Sr. at the memorial on Saturday told you that we still have the dedication and resilience and determination and courage and selflessness needed to get through. That will continue to give us some very good cards if we do our best with the ones we are dealt.
Ron Jr. did have a tearful moment when he encountered the family of Orio Palmer, who had been up in the Sky Lobby of the South Tower when it collapsed. Ron Jr. quickly regained his composure, but as he stood in the bright sunshine of a perfect morning uncannily like the dark one two decades ago, his face continued to show the hurt he has carried since then.
“I’d do anything to get my dad back,” he had said just before the anniversary.