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The day death came calling
  Irish Voice   2001-09-26 00:00:00+01


IT'S ONE of the most enduring images we have of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

In the chaotic hours following the deadly assault, when the fear of further attacks was still extremely high and the fate of so many New Yorkers was still unknown, three city firefighters did something so simple, yet so extraordinary, considering the circumstances.

They raised up an American flag that had been displaced among the wreckage and destruction around them.

The photo that ran in various newspapers the day afterwards inspired New Yorkers and Americans still struggling to regain some sense after the inhumane attack, and that image will remain with them for years to come.

It was so appropriate, and yet so bitterly ironic, that one of the firefighters in the picture was George Johnson, who is a resident of Rockaway in the borough of Queens.

If there were just one area in New York that could use all the inspiration it could get right now, it would have to be Rockaway.

Once known mostly for its picturesque beaches and strong Irish American population, Rockaway has taken on a grisly infamy since the terrorist attacks.

In terms of people missing and loss of life, it is among the hardest hit places in all of New York City - some reports have claimed as many as 70 Rockaway residents, many of them Irish American firefighters, are either confirmed dead or still unaccounted for.

It's the kind of tragedy that could rip a neighborhood to shreds, or at the very least leave the once vibrant community in mourning for a long time to come.

There's no doubt that Rockaway will be mourning its losses for the foreseeable future, but there's no way the horror of that Tuesday morning will be able to tear the people there apart.

There are few places in New York City that have the type of community spirit that Rockaway has, and much of it is drawn from an Irish American heritage that means so much to so many of its residents.

There are so many stories of people missing or dead, all of them heartbreaking in one way or another.

In a predominantly Irish American community that has historically had strong ties to both the police department and the fire department in New York City, Rockaway has lost far too many of its heroes to this tragedy.

Danny Suhr, a firefighter who was killed in the line of duty even before the towers collapsed and was buried last Monday. Steve "Bells" Belson and Walter Hynes, firefighters who lived just a block apart from each other on Beach 92nd and 93rd Streets. Mike Andrews and Charlie Heerin, two local products who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald.

The list of Rockaway's sorrows is too long to catalogue, so much so it seems never-ending.

Eugene Whelan is among those for whom his friends, his family and his community grieves today. Eugene grew up in Rockaway, one of 10 children, and like so many of his fellow Bravest, had always wanted to be a fireman growing up.

When he finally joined the FDNY six years ago, it was the culmination of a lifetime dream. He was working out of Engine 230 in Bedford-Stuyvesant and enjoying every minute of it.

When he wasn't working Eugene was spending time with his friends and family - he especially liked spending time with his nieces and nephews. "He was very good with kids," Eugene's brother Alan Whelan told the Irish Voice. "He was like a kid himself. He was everybody's favorite uncle."

In fact, when he wasn't playing with his siblings' children, Eugene used to always play with the local kids outside the firehouse in Bed Stuy, sometimes even dragging out the blackboard and holding an impromptu teaching session.

Before the tragic events of September 11, life was going great for Eugene Whelan. He was working at his dream job and living with two of his brothers, Chris and Bobby, above the family-run Harbor Light Pub and Restaurant, on 130th and Newport Avenue in Belle Harbor.

Harbor Light has become one of Rockaway's many grieving places since the Twin Towers tragedy - another part owner of the business, Bernie Heerin, is a retired firefighter whose son Charlie was buried last week.

Locals have been flocking to the bars to comfort the Heerin and the Whelan family while trying to draw some comfort of their own from friends and neighbors.

"It's been good seeing everyone together," Eugene's brother John Whelan told the Irish Voice. "A lot of Rockaway has been joining together over this."

The FDNY has been amazing as well, Alan Whelan said. "It's really true what they say, about the fire department being a second family," he added.

The Whelan family will be joined by their FDNY family and their Rockaway family on Thursday, when they hold a memorial service for Eugene at the local church, St. Francis de Sales R.C. in Belle Harbor.

"Having mass will be of some comfort," Al Whelan said. "We need some closure now." The healing has already begun, and the Whelan family will continue for years, perhaps even the rest of their lives, to struggle with the sudden loss of Eugene.

There is one thought, however, that will sustain them whenever they're feeling particularly low. "He's a hero," Al Whelan said simply. "People keep telling us, 'we were running out the door and he was running in to save people'."

TO try and understand the truth depths of the pain of what the people of Rockaway are going through today, one has to understand a little bit about its history, its geography and its population.

Rockaway is a small peninsula east of New York City, with several neighborhoods of increasing affluence as one heads north to south along its famed boardwalk. As a whole, Rockaway is perhaps as geographically isolated as any neighborhood in New York City.

Located about 45 minutes from Manhattan in southeast Queens, the island of Rockaway suffers from poor public transportation into and out of its neighborhoods, effectively shutting it off from the rest of the borough and the rest of the city.

The approximate dividing line between the middle to upper-class neighborhoods to the south and the poorer areas to the north is located at 94th Street, where the Cross Bay Bridge connects Rockaway to the rest of Queens and, perhaps not coincidentally, the block where the NYPD's 100th Precinct is located.

The neighborhoods of Belle Harbor, Neponsit and Breezy Point, all south of 94th Street, all have a significant Irish American population and all have been hit hard by the attacks.

The majority of Rockaway's dead and missing lived here and these neighborhoods have become a Ground Zero of a different sort - the peninsula's sadness and anguish can be felt the deepest in these highly residential areas.

Rockaway's geographical isolation is only exacerbated by the fact that motoring out-of-towners have to pay a toll ($1.75 each way) to get into and out of the neighborhood.

There are two ways into Rockaway by car - the Marine Parkway Bridge from Brooklyn and the bridge that connects the area to the tiny neighborhood of Broad Channel and then after that, to the rest of Queens.

It would not be a stretch to say that a portion of New York City residents had never even heard of Rockaway, much less stepped foot in its neighborhoods, before the tragedy of two weeks ago.

Not surprisingly, that isolation builds a sense of community to rival that of any neighborhoods in New York City or, for that matter, anywhere in this country.

A shared Irish American heritage is a big reason for that community. Rockaway's Irish community is no different that than of Rockaway as a whole- the St. Patrick's Day parade is one of the best and biggest in New York and its annual Irish festival attracts a slew of big name musical acts and thousands of Irish Americans from around the tri-state area each summer.

"Rockaway is different because everybody knows everybody," Billy Collins, a Rockaway resident who works out of a Brooklyn firehouse, told the Irish Voice.

Collins, whose brother Kenny works out of Engine Co. 216 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and has also been a part of the rescue operation for the last two weeks, has done several 10-hour shifts digging through the rubble and hoping they'll still be someone to save.

"The saddest part is not finding anyone," he said. "I was there the first day and saw two Port Authority cops pulled out of the rubble, and everyone just assumed more would be on the way."

Unfortunately, there hasn't been. The long list of civilians and rescue workers that have been missing since September 11 are now almost invariably presumed dead - and too many of them are Collins' neighbors and fellow firefighters.

For that very reason, life doesn't get any easier to deal with at home in Rockaway. The time spent away from the physical wreckage is often given over to dealing with the emotional wreckage of friends, neighbors and loved ones.

For people like Billy Collins, splitting their time between the mentally torturous work of unearthing the dead and dealing with the pain of seeing so many burials of co-workers and friends, there seems to be no respite from the horror of that fateful day.

"I've been to three funerals already and there will be more," he said. "There's not even time to grieve for one guy before you find yourself going to the wake or the funeral of another guy."

At St. Francis de Sales R.C. in Belle Harbor, the funerals have already begun. Charlie Heerin was among the first last Thursday, just 23 years old, who was working for Cantor Fitzgerald when the first plane hit the North Tower.

Over 1,500 people came to his funeral, some lining up outside the church on Rockaway Beach Boulevard just to be near the service. The loss of someone so young is tough enough, but the toll on the Heerin family could've been frighteningly worse.

Charlie's older brother Sean, who initially got him a job in his office, left Cantor Fitzgerald for a different job just three months ago.

On Saturday two local firefighters, John Farrell and Vinny Slavin, were laid to rest. The two local firehouses, Engine 268 on 116th Street and Engine 266 just off 94th Street, each have memorials in front of the house for their neighbors and fellow firefighters.

The windows of the many Irish bars in Rockaway all bear messages of condolence to the families and friends of the fallen heroes.

There will be at least five more funerals at St. Francis de Sales this week and Monsignor Geraghty, who has been the pastor for 13 years, told the Irish Voice he is looking into putting loudspeakers outside so that people who couldn't get into the church can nonetheless hear the service.

As the world reeled from the events of that Tuesday morning, Monsignor Geraghty said he honestly didn't know what to do for his parishioners, who were obviously going to be looking to him and to the church for guidance.

Finally, he decided to open the doors to the church and say an unscheduled 7:30 p.m. Mass, ringing the church bells a few minutes beforehand to let people know there was going to be a service.

Just before leaving the sacristy, the monsignor figured he would be looking out at maybe 100 people during the mass. There were 500 people waiting patiently in the pews for mass to begin.

"They all came," Monsignor Geraghty said incredulously. "We decided to do it again the next night, because of the response."

This time, with one day's advance notice, over 1,000 people packed into a church meant to hold little more than half that amount.

On Thursday there was another overflow crowd, so Monsignor Geraghty decided to hold two masses on Friday, at noon and at 7:30 p.m., figuring that the crowds should be more manageable. It was a packed house both times.

Rockaway is grieving right now and will grieve for days and weeks to come. But it is the tremendous sense of community, one that manifests itself in so many different ways, that will bring the old and familiar sense of vitality back to life again.

 

Irish Voice




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