Tripp Zanetis ‘Was Supposed to Be the First Gay President’
As the FDNY mourned three of its own this Holy Week, firefighters felt as if they were back in the dark days after 9/11—and recalled the unity America felt just after the attack.
The FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums played “America” as eight white-gloved firefighters carried the flag-draped coffin under the marble arch at Washington Square Park that commemorates the nation's first president.
“Detail, hand salute!” a voice called out.
The ranks of firefighters in navy dress blues were joined by figures in the lighter blue of the Air Force in saluting the mortal remains of Christopher “Tripp” Zanetis on Thursday morning. Along with being an uncommonly brave firefighter he had been an uncommonly brave combat rescue helicopter pilot in the Air National Guard. He and six fellow airmen had died on March 15, when their helicopter went down in Iraq.
He had also graduated with highest honors in political science from New York University and with equal distinction from Stanford Law School. He was invariably well prepared and hyper focused in all he did and he was as widely respected as he was loved. Many of his many, many friends ranging everywhere in this fractured country, from Vice President Pence’s home state to the academic realm to the legal world to the FDNY to the military hoped he would go on into politics.
“Every single person I ever asked or ever known about Tripp would have run to campaign for him,” FDNY Lt. Pete Sapienza would later say.
Zanetis was someone who seemed like he not only could but also should achieve highest office.
“I sometimes wonder what this country, even this world would look like if Tripp got his hands on it,” Sapienza would add, in tears at the thought of what we have all lost.
And Zanetis’ sexuality would have only added to the reason for all of us to cheer his achievement. He would have joined Washington as a first.
“He was supposed to be the first gay president,” one friend would text another after hearing of Zanetis’ death.
The recipient of the text, childhood friend Drew Elliott, had been Zanetis’ roommate at NYU. Elliott had gone on to become the acclaimed creative director at Paper Magazine and a creative consultant to the TV show America's Next Top Model. He would later turn as tearful as had the FDNY captain over what might have been.
“Tripp had so much more to do,” Elliot would say. “He was changing the world because he was changing people’s minds.”
Zanetis had said he did not want a funeral. He wanted a celebration of life and the FDNY and the military and his family and friends had joined together to plan the Thursday’s unique ceremony. His father, John, and mother, Sarah, had preceded the coffin under the enormous American flag hanging from two tower ladders set before the arch. They had continued on under the arch itself and stood off to the left, within a big circle that had been marked off by smaller American flags. They were from Carmel, Indiana and this park in lower Manhattan was the very place where their son had graduated from NYU in 2003.
He had been elected student body president and he was a member of the swimming and diving team as well as a talented musician and a noted person in New York nightlife. And when the graduation ritual 15 years ago began with a trumpet fanfare from atop the arch signaling the start of life after college, his next step, or in his case steps, had been his for the choosing.
He had decided the first big step at the start of his sophomore year, when the hijacked jets flew into the World Trade Center. He had been living just three blocks away and even then his impulse to help had propelled him into danger rather than away from it. He had done whatever he could at the fiery ruins on into the night.
A year after his college graduation, Tripp Zanetis joined the FDNY.
“He could have done anything and been anything he wanted in this life and he chose to serve and give back,” FDNY Supervising Fire Marshal Thomas Sabella later said.
Zanetis also enlisted in the New York Air National Guard. He had just completed three years of combat helicopter rescue pilot training in 2011 when he volunteered to deploy to Iraq with a unit that was shorthanded. He returned in time to deploy to with his regular unit, the 101 Rescue Squadron, to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in 2012. He flew as a co-pilot with pilot Shaun Cohen, a fellow FDNY reservist who had been working at Goldman Sachs on 9/11 and had been similarly inspired to serve doubly.
Two other FDNY reservists completed a crew with an average response time of 8 minutes when the standard was 15 minutes. Their primary mission was to rescue wounded service members who might otherwise have died on the battlefield, and the Air Force’s only all-FDNY crew was credited with saving nearly 100 lives in a three-month period.
“Those guys knew that if they were hurt, we were going to come get them no matter what,” Cullen later told a reporter. “They knew we will fight our way in and fight our way out. We will come get you.”
Cullen also knew Zanetis as a firefighter, where the primary mission was much the same.
“The thing about Tripp is he had a tremendous amount of courage,” Cullen later said. “So, you never had to worry about if he would waver or not. He was always going to be there either to make the rescue, whether it was on the fire floor or on the battlefield.”
Back at Camp Bastion, Zanetis’ less dangerous duties included serving as morale officer. His squadron commander, Air Force Lt. Col. John Schulz, would later say that of his numerous prior deployments he was unable to recall a single morale officer or a single activity that might have been offered.
Schulz was in a hallway during his first days at Bastion when Zanetis stopped him.
“Sir, I have a morale event planned for tomorrow,” Zanetis said by the commander's recollection. “ I just need you to sign off.”
“Sure, Tripp, what is it?” Schulz asked.
“It’s a CrossFit event,” Zanetis replied.
“Really, Tripp,” Schulz replied. “You think you’re going to get much participation?”
“Absolutely, sir,” Zanetis said. “It’s going to be awesome.”
The CrossFit classes soon became what Shultz later called the “must see, must do event.” Marines ran two miles from the far side of the base to attend. The British helicopter unit also came, including Prince Harry.
“Even Prince Harry did burpees for Tripp,” Schulz would report.
Schulz would continue. “You could be tall or short, a royal or not a royal. If you wanted to participate, Tripp made sure you did. Because service to Tripp wasn’t just to country and community. It was to each individual.”
Following his safe return from that second deployment, Zanetis entered Stanford Law School. He co-founded the Stanford Law Veterans Organization and co-produced the Stanford Law School musical and helped organize a conference on LGBTQ advocacy in the workplace and participated in the International Refugee Assistance Project and worked on the Stanford Journal of International Law. He discovered a discarded plaque in the law school basement that listed Stanford folks who had died in World War II and he convinced the university to rededicate it in a pine grove. He interned with the office of legal affairs at NATO headquarters in Belgium and pitched in the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic. He graduated in 2017 and received that year’s National LGBT Bar Association Student Leadership Award. He also continued to serve with the Air National guard in civilian search and rescue missions.
Meanwhile, Zanetis had been promoted to fire marshal in the FDNY and had graduated at the top of his class in the training course. He took leave from the department to work as a litigation associate at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton in New York, but he figured on continuing with his Air National Guard squadron. His commander, Schulz, noted that law associates are expected to work hellish hours and wondered how the firm might react to him saying he also wanted to fly with the 101.
“How did they take it, Tripp?” Schulz would remember asking Zanetis.
“They never had it happen before,” Zanetis replied.
In January, Zanetis deployed for a second time to Iraq, now upgraded to Instructor Pilot. He was on a night mission near the Syrian border on March 15 when his helicopter went down, killing all seven aboard. The others included fellow FDNY firefighter Christopher Raguso, who had been taking lessons via Skype with the FDNY Pipes and Drums so he could join the band following his return.
New band members are inducted after the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, and Raguso was posthumously “piped in” following a march in which the FDNY contingent carried a banner bearing photos of him and Zanetis directly behind the 343 flags carried by 343 firefighters representing the 343 members who were lost on 9/11. The banner included the FDNY code for a fallen member.
“LT. CHRISTOPHER RAGUSO
FM CHRISTOPHER T. ZANETIS
REST IN PEACE
MARCH 13, 2018”
Raguso was already slated to play in spirit at his own funeral and at the send-off for Zanetis, when the code 5-5-5-5 went out again. FDNY Lt. Michael Davidson was killed at a fire in Harlem on March 23. His wake was on Palm Sunday, and the FNDY faced a Holy Week when it would be saying a farewell to three of its fallen members.
On Tuesday, the firefighters gathered for Davidson’s funeral at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. And now, on Holy Thursday, they were again together in sorrow, 50 flocks down Fifth Avenue. The older firefighters had been saying they felt like they were back in a time when they had lost so many brothers.
“This week definitely harkens back to 2001,” a senior band member texted.
The eight FDNY pallbearers carried Zanetis’ coffin up to red wood stand placed before the family and officials and an Air Force color guard. The pallbearers became oh-so-gentle in the last inch as they set it down. The accompanying hush made the park seemed like a cathedral walled with stone-gray morning mist, which was so thick it obscured the view downtown where the Twin Towers had once stood. The melding of the FDNY and the military was symbolized by twin variations of the battlefield cross.
In both, an inverted rifle had been replaced by an axe and a Halligan tool. Combat boots had been replaced by fire boots. A combat helmet had been replaced by a fire helmet, the one on the right with the number 11 representing his time in Ladder 11, the other marked Fire Marshal from his time as an arson investigator. Both were on wooden stands bearing ZANETIS in big block letters, just as it would be on the back of a turnout coat.
The Air Force honor guard then strode up and stood on either side of the coffin. They ritually lifted the flag, holding it over the polishing wood whose surface reflected the stripes.
“Firing party, ten-hut!” a voice called out.
Seven members of the Air Force honor guard standing behind the assemblage raised rifles. The first volley startled the park's birds and they wheeled in the sky as two more volleys came, for a total of 21 shots. The quiet between the volleys was such that you could hear the shell casings striking the pavement.
“Detail, hand salute!” the voice then called out.
FDNY and Air Force again joined in a salute with everyone not in uniform placing their hands over their hearts. A wind had begun to stir, rippling the semi-circle of American flags that stood around the ceremony and clearing away enough of the mist beyond to reveal the lower half of the Freedom Tower that had risen where the World Trade Center had once stood. The visibility remained too limited for a scheduled flyover.
Then, just as there had been a trumpet fanfare at the 2003 graduation signaling the start of the future, a pair of buglers began to play Taps to signal an ending. The ritual continued with the Air Force honor guard folding of the flag, the removal of the hast wrinkles made more difficult because the material had become wet during the procession from Zanetis’ old firehouse on the Lower East Side.
The head of the honor guard then presented the folded perfection to an officer who presented it in a wooden case to the family, along with the thanks of a grateful nation. Two FDNY officers presented the family with two fire helmets from Zaneitis’ two assignments.
The younger sister took the flag case and handed to somebody. The parents stood holding the helmets in the depths of their grief, the mother with the one from Ladder 11, the father with the one representing his son’s time as a Fire Marshal.
“The one thing I remember him saying after 9/11 was that he couldn’t help, because there was nothing to help; nobody to help, because everybody was dead,” the mother had told a reporter earlier. “He decided he wanted to do more. There's no changing his mind when he wanted to do something.”
For a long moment, the coffin stood covered simply by the grace and glory that was Tripp Zanetis. Two fire officers strode up and ceremoniously added an FDNY flag. The FDNY pallbearer then approached again and exhibited that same tenderness as they lifted the coffin. The voice called for one more hand salute as they slowly carried the coffin back out through the arch.
The drums that Raguso joined in spirit started up, accompanied by the pipes. The band played “Going Home” as the coffin was returned to the caisson and “Hard Times Come Around No More” as the procession started back up Fifth Avenue, the flashing emergency lights of the vehicles reflecting off the wet asphalt.
As the coffin was escorted off for the cremation, the family, friends, firefighters and service members walked to NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts for the Celebration of Life Ceremony. Mayor Bill de Blasio was the first to speak.
“Here’s a guy that ran into burning buildings so many times,” de Blasio said. “That would have been enough. But he kept returning to the battlefield.”
Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro spoke next.
“There are many New Yorkers who are alive today because of Tripp,” Nigro said. “Tripp could have done anything in life, but what he chose was to be one of us.”
Nigro added, “His name will be forever linked with service, honor and above all with bravery.”
Then Zanetis’ former commanding officer, Schulz, stepped up to the podium. He recounted when Zanetis was fresh back from the three years of pilot training and came to see him.
“He said, ‘Sir, there’s a squadron deploying to Iraq in two weeks. There’s a short call out for a pilot. I’d like to volunteer. The problem is I need to be with them in Nevada in three days,’” Schulz recalled. “I remember sitting back in my chair and saying, ‘I love this guy’s motivation, but I think he’s crazy.’”
Schulz recalled telling Zanetis that he would not make it work logistically.
“And Tripp, in his ever-present optimism slides a piece of paper across my desk and said, ‘Sir, I’ve prepared this checklist. If we follow everything on here, I’ll be good to go,’” Schulz remembered.
Before Schulz could even glance at the checklist, it was sliding away from him.
“Tripp says, ‘Sir, I can complete every one of these today, come back, you sign it and I’m off,’” Schulz recalled. “Within two weeks, he’s on a plane and he’s overseas.”
Schulz subsequently received an email from the commander of the unit that Zanetis had volunteered to fill in for in Iraq. The message from the war zone offered an appraisal of Zanetis’ qualities and abilities as a person as well as a pilot.
“The sky is the limit.”
Schulz had found this to be exactly the case during his time with Zanetis in Afghanistan. Zanetis’ most recent and last commander had said much the same in an email to Schulz from Iraq, asking it be read at the memorial:
“Tripp was an incredible human being. He was always looking for ways to improve himself, his fellow airmen, his squadron as a whole. To him, no idea was too farfetched. No task was unachievable. He was an incredible aviator, one of the best I’ve ever known.”
Schulz closed his remarks by reciting the Air Force rescue creed.
“These things we do that others may live.”
Schultz was followed by Supervising Fire Marshal Thomas Sabella, who said that upon becoming an investigator Zanetis had introduced the fire marshals to a new term, using “telephonically” in reports rather than the usual “via telephone.”
“I said, ‘Tripp, what is this word?’” Sabella recalled. “He says, ‘Well, that’s the proper way to say it when you interview someone over the phone.’ I certainly wasn’t going to argue with him. I thought I was impressing people with the word, ‘via.’”
Sabella joked that Zanetis’ handwriting was so small and precise he would have almost been trying out for the U.S. Treasury.
“I said, ‘You’re going to write on money with this?’” Sabella remembered. “He said, ‘You mean currency.’”
Sabella had further discovered that Zanetis spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese.
“He probably had nothing to do on the weekend so he taught himself Mandarin Chinese,” Sabella said.
But as brilliant as he was, Zanetis had never acted as if he was the smartest guy in the room.
“He was just able to blend in and be like and be loved by many,” Sabella said.
Sabella noted that Zanetis possessed a rare added brilliance.
“To have an emotional intelligence also along with academic intelligence,” Sabella said.
Sabella closed by saying, “Rest in peace, brother. You’ll be missed.”
FDNY Lieutenant Sapienza was next. He recalled when Zanetis arrived for his first assignment as a firefighter, at the quarters of Engine 28, Ladder 11. Zanetis had told him that his first name was Christopher, but he liked to be called Tripp.
Sapienza now recalled. “I said, ‘That's really good, Christopher. You know you’re a probationary firefighter, right? If you hear the word ‘probie,’ that's you. If you hear the words ‘new guy,’ that’s you. If you hear the words, ‘Hey, you,’ that’s you.’ And we understand each other, right, Christopher?’ And he said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And I saw his head was going to explode he was just so effin mad. And I just loved it.”
Sometime later, Sapienza asked Zanetis to help him master the FDNY computer system. Zanetis spent three hours walking the lieutenant through it and then printed him out a summary.
“I said, ‘I just want to thank you, Tripp,’” Sapienza recalled. “You should have seen the smile he had.”
Sapienza came to understand that Zanetis had joined the FDNY because he wanted to make a difference. Zanetis’ continuing effort to become a better firefighter included using a stopwatch to time how long it took him to leap from his bunk, slide down the pole and pull on his gear.
“I know guys who can do that with a sundial,” Sapienza said.
Sapienza and Zanetis developed a true friendship.
“I believe I was the first person in the job he came out to,” Sapienza told the gathering. “And I’m proud of that.”
Sapienza knew that as soon as Zanetis had mastered one challenge, he had moved on to master the next. Sapienza had figured that successive challenges would lead Zanetis to run for office and there indeed no limit to where he could go in politics as well. Sapienza grew tearful as he spoke of the difference his friend could have made in the world. Sapienza was moved to poetry in his closing words.
“Everyone, please look up,” Sapienza requested, “I saw a ceiling. I’m sure you did as well. Tripp would have seen the stars.”
After the fire lieutenant came Dana Rehnquist, a Stanford Law classmate. Her grandfather was the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and at a gathering of Zanetis’ friends the night before she had become buddies with a bunch of firefighters whose names she now called out with a smile. She understood the magic in Zanetis’ ability to embrace people of all kinds and backgrounds.
“He touched us not because he glad-handed or code-switched between being a firefighter, a lawyer, a pilot, a coach, an activist, a diver, a singer, or a friend,” Rehnquist said. “He touched so many people because he was genuine, because the closer I got to him, the more I want[ed] to be close, because he made a life out of giving all of himself to others and he was our hero.”
His sisters, Britt and Angela, also stepped up to the podium. The younger sister, Britt, said she did not grow up in her brother’s shadow. She grew up in “Tripp’s radiant light.”
His childhood friend, Elliott, was the last to speak. He recounted reconnecting with Zanetis when they were both at NYU. Elliott had come out to Zanetis.
“Tripp was the first person that I told I was gay,” Elliot reported. “To which he said, ‘Let’s hit the town!’”
They teamed up to produce “parties, drag shows, live game shows.”
“These prima donna Hoosiers became nightlife staples,” Elliot said.
Elliot knew his fellow Hoosier prima donna well enough not be surprised by Zanetis’ reaction to 9/11.
“As soon as he could, he joined the FDNY,” Elliot said.
When Zanetis joined the air national guard, the military had still been in the era of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Zanetis had told Elliot that he had put his name down as a reference for a security clearance. Elliot agreed to meet the woman investigator at his office at Paper Magazine.
“Unfortunately I had forgotten about the appointment when I was making my outfit pick, which was a little more fashion than I probably should have,” Elliott recounted. “Let’s just say, she didn’t have to ask, she could tell.”
Zanetis was cleared nonetheless. He was able to be openly gay after 2011 and become a vocal LGBTQ and veterans advocate. He also remained the very best of best firefighters and airmen.
“He accomplished everything he set his mind to do,” Elliot said. “He ran into danger to help others, to maintain our freedom and he always did what was right.”
He told the gathering of the text he had received saying Zanetis was supposed to become the first gay president and nobody at the celebration of this astonishing life could have doubted it.
Elliot himself rose to pure poetry when he tearfully said that his friend was changing the world because he was changing people’s minds.
The FDNY proceeded on to bury a third member with the funeral on Long Island for Christopher Raguso, the fellow firefighter and reservist who had died with Zanetis and five others when their helicopter went down. He was among the drummers of the band at his own send off.
But if the triple loss made the firefighters feel on this Holy Week as if they were back in the dark days following 9/11, Zanetis also gave them cause to think of the unity the whole country felt in the immediate aftermath of the attack. They arrive at Easter with good cause to feel that Zanetis’ spirit lives on among people all of types and persuasions as surely as Raguso is playing with the drums.
Tripp Zanetis did not live to become the first gay president, but he can still lead us with his example, with what his kid sister would call his radiant light.