Tom Ryan and I grew up together on the North Side of Chicago. He was as good a friend to me as I had when I was younger. We went to St. Gertrude School and I always wanted to be a little bit like him. He was bigger, faster, more athletic and more confident than I was. I could sing better than he could-I was in the boys choir, and he wasn’t-but he got to be an altar boy at midnight mass on Christmas, the brass ring for all young boys in our neighborhood. I moved out of the neighborhood when I was 14 and we lost track of one another. Facebook pulled our friendship back together several months ago, and we’ve been catching up on lost time.
Tom has been a firefighter for over twenty years and is the President of the Chicago Firefighter’s union. He’s held this position for a few years now. Last week he was at the dedication of the 9/11 exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago.
I spoke to him about his perspective on the events of 9/11. He told me a few things that I didn’t realize about that day, and his point of view gave me chills. The texture of Tom’s emotion came through the phone as if we were sitting next to each other in the classroom. He told me that the last firefighter’s transmission from the World Trade Center was as follows: “On 78, heavy smoke, many casualties.”
Tom said “78 floors. Think about that. A firefighter wears about one hundred pounds of gear.” So I thought about that. Climbing 78 flights of stairs, barely able to see, in full gear, in hopes of helping people escape. To climb 78 floors while the towers were burning is an act of heroism. Not brave, not courageous, but completely and utterly heroic. Tom continued “ While as many people as possible were fleeing for their lives, running in every direction away from the towers, the firemen and women on the ground and surrounding New York City were moving in.”
Tom told me that he and over fifty firefighters from Chicago were on the ground in New York City on September 12th and spent days and days picking through the rubble, looking for survivors that were never found. He shared with me his deliberations and thoughts, the things he saw, and the feelings he still holds to this day. Ten years later, he asked me to never forget the nearly three hundred people who lost their lives and those who were left behind to remember what happened.
I want to share so much more of what Tom and I talked about, but suffice it to say that the conversation will remain between two old friends. What I can tell you is this: I will never fully grasp the sacrifice that was made by the men and women of the fire departments that aided so many in New York and Washington DC. It is beyond my comprehension, but not my appreciation. It is now my obligation and privilege to express my deepest and most sincere thanks to somebody that represented our country with his full heart engaged and every fiber of his will thrust into the duty he shared in helping this nation come alive again from the awfulness of 9/11.
Thanks, Tommy. I am so incredibly proud of you. Thanks for being my friend. Thanks for helping a nation heal.