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A man of few words with even his closest friends, Mike has a natural inclination to shrink from the attention. He did just a handful of brusque interviews, assuring reporters that he wasn't the real hero. He let the rest of the calls ring through to the machine. But by then the picture had taken on a life of its own. A relative of a still missing person in the photo called to say he'd heard that Mike had miraculously saved people by leading them into the subcellar of the towers. Where were they now? The fan letters began piling up. A woman wrote from Australia that her three-year-old son Laughlin said his prayers each night to the photo: "You are the face [that] my son has identified as his hero." A man from Pensacola, Fla., wrote, "Your picture helped convey to the world how average Americans have always performed since our beginnings." Then he warned, "Your task now is not to be overly recognized."
The days were newly crowded with the parade of memorials and ritual embrace. Rescuers eventually turned up the remains of Ladder 11, crushed like a Coke can, and later the bodies of three of its men. In the first week of October, all six of the men were buried. There was Lieut. Michael Quilty, who had been on the job for two decades, and Michael Cammarata, just nine weeks in the department, who had a poster of the Twin Towers over his bed at home and a sealed envelope in his night table to be opened only if anything ever happened to him. "Don't mourn me," it instructed. "This was the career I chose." They mourned John Heffernan, a guitar player in a punk-rock band, and Eddie Day, who would slap a smiley-face sticker on the helmet of anyone who seemed even remotely down. Matt Rogan, a quiet man who spent all his time fixing things around the firehouse, was laid to rest twice--once with no casket and again after rescuers turned up his body. Finally, they honored the longest-serving man in the firehouse, Rich Kelly, who had spent the past two years slimming down on a "fat bastard" diet that prohibited him from eating greasy firehouse food.
At the solemn, stilted receptions following the memorials, the men and women took to opposite corners of the room. "We'd kind of huddle together and ask how each other's husbands were taking everything," explains E.J. "Some couldn't sleep or were having nightmares."
Mike seemed numb and detached. In curt monosyllables, he assured everyone that he was fine. Yet the pain seeped out in slight but revealing ways. Mike, who had helped build his father Robert's house, spent most of his free time tinkering with his masterpiece. "He kept forgetting things when he was working, or he'd bring the wrong tools. You could see he was within himself," says his father Robert. "It was almost like he was in a coma."