(4 of 8)
Grief cycled through their neighborhood on the south shore of Staten Island, an enclave of starter homes colonized several decades ago by fire fighters and policemen. Mike and his three siblings grew up there, and he never left. In the days and weeks after, when E.J. steeled herself by going to Mass, priests reversed bans on cell phones in church, just in case there was any good news. Mike's two young nephews, Christopher, 12, and Brandon, 7, attend St. Clare's School, a nearby Catholic day school connected to a church that has been burying firemen for months. The boys have heard the dirges of the pipe-and-drum corps from their desks; their classmates have served as altar boys. Mike's eldest brother, Robert, left Staten Island years ago, but the tragedy followed him: he works as a psychologist in the public schools of Middletown, N.J., the quiet bedroom community that buried 34 residents; six of his students lost a parent in the disaster.
For the first couple of days, Mike did not come home at all. Like firemen across the city and country, he worked 24-hour shifts, much of it on the pile, the putrid 16-acre wasteland where the laws of time and space simply do not abide. "We'd be working in one place for a bit, and they'd blow the horn and tell us to run because another building might collapse on us, and then they'd bring us back to the same place two hours later," he recalls. "You'd be doing your work, and then all of a sudden you'd look up and see Robin Williams and then the New York Giants. They were there to see us, they wanted to shake our hands."
The grim labor consisted of scooping handfuls of debris into 5-gal. white buckets. Mike picked through body parts and shoes and paperwork, but to him the most disturbing finds were the countless tools stamped F.D.N.Y. He and his Engine 28 colleagues were on a special mission as they dug: to find their six housemates from Ladder 11 who were among the missing.
What downtime there was, Mike spent at the firehouse, catnapping on the sofa or curbside, consoling the neighbors who came bearing quilts and clean socks and underwear. On days off, the men brought food and reassurance to the homes of their missing co-workers. E.J. felt guilty calling the firehouse during that time--after all, her husband was still alive--and Mike rarely checked in with her.
On his first afternoon off, he found himself with a sudden case of vertigo as he drove over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Staten Island. He floored the gas and looked straight ahead. At his father's house, he reunited with E.J. Racked with worry and relief, and vomiting from a migraine, she went straight to bed.
Two days later Mike was in the Daily News. TV anchors flashed the picture and said he was still among the missing; one headline read STAIRWELL TO HELL. E.J. was a widow for a day. Relatives who were sure Mike was alive called again to ask if they were hallucinating. Then reporters tracked him down at the firehouse from the number on his helmet, and a correction was made: Mike had indeed survived without a scrape.