Hitting Home

You could draw an emotional contour map of the New York region last week, and put shock at its center, in the still-smoldering ruins that tenaciously refused to yield up their myriad dead. Beyond that, a band of fear among the people who live and work in the city itself, which (as they have just discovered) is what military planners call a "target-rich environment." And then, farther still, where on a clear day the Twin Towers were thumb-size bumps on the horizon, a circle shaded by grief in the suburban towns of New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island, on the streets where the flags are the thickest, in the houses with pictures of the missing taped to the windows. This is where many of the corpses now buried in the rubble lived.

Stretching east on Long Island, from the border with Queens halfway to the Hamptons, is a jumble of suburbs whose borders are so unmemorable residents sometimes just describe their hometowns as a certain exit number on the Long Island Expressway. Here, many of the pictures in the windows are of firefighters or cops. The people who put out Manhattan's fires do not, as a rule, live there themselves. This is both a financial necessity and a lifestyle choice; a firefighter has enough excitement at work that he doesn't need to live in the midst of it, too. In these middle-class towns they can buy a house for not much more than $200,000 and start a family on the $30,000 or so a year a young cop or firefighter earns--and, by the vagaries of shift work, aspire to every New Yorker's secret dream of commuting against the traffic. To be "on the job"--i.e., a member of New York City's uniformed civil service--is an honored state here, like being a military officer in a base town. Kids look up to you.

One of those kids was Mike Kiefer, who grew up in the unincorporated village of Franklin Square, 20 miles from Manhattan. Franklin Square is a firefighting town. When the community held a memorial for the World Trade Center victims on a stormy evening last week, it wasn't in a church or high-school auditorium, but in the volunteer firehouse, where sleepy children slumped against the rows of boots nearly as tall as they were. The Franklin Square station mustered 120 volunteer firefighters, each working a minimum of 20 hours a week, to fight last year's grand total of five fires. It even has a teenage auxiliary to the volunteer fire department, the Explorers. Kiefer was legendary for his gung-ho spirit as an Explorer. Even before he was old enough to join he carried a radio scanner on his belt and, racing to alarms on his bike, would sometimes beat the engines to the fire scene. When he became a full-fledged volunteer he joined three different companies before settling on nearby Hempstead, which had 26 fires last year, "because," says his mother, Pat, "God forbid you'd be in a town where nothing was burning. We don't have enough fires in Franklin Square for him." But Kiefer didn't dream of fighting fires in suburban kitchens anyway. From the time he could write, says Pat, he would copy the same four letters over and over in his schoolbooks: FDNY.

Kiefer, 25, lived with his parents in the house he grew up in, which was also the house his mother had grown up in. On Sunday, Sept. 9, he went to mass at St. Catherine's of Sienna, his parish, and introduced his girlfriend to the Rev. Thomas Groenewold. "I could tell she was special," said the priest. "His mother told me he was saving for a ring." Years ago Father Groenewold had been impressed with Kiefer's religious devotion and asked if he'd considered becoming a priest, but Kiefer had replied: "I'll tell you what, Father, you save the souls, I'll save the bodies." Kiefer joined the FDNY last December. Among the other men of his unit, Ladder 132, his nickname was "Mike the Keeper," meaning they wanted him to stay on after he finished his 10-month probationary tour, which would have been over in October. Tuesday morning he was at his firehouse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when the World Trade Center fire went to five alarms and trucks began converging on downtown from all over the city. Just about all anyone knows is that his unit, Ladder 132, was sent to the fiercely burning South Tower, disappeared up the stairs and was never seen again.

And now his picture is on the door of his house, on a street filled with flags, as many are in Franklin Square and the surrounding towns. The yellow ribbon, the formerly ubiquitous symbol of American disaster, is largely absent this time; even from the first days most families knew deep down that their loved ones would not be coming home alive, and it's grown increasingly likely that many won't be brought home at all. Franklin Square lost by varying accounts 11, 15 or 25 residents--there is no official tally--including at least four firefighters and one New York City police officer. The others were mostly office workers in the Twin Towers; school officials say that 80 percent of the students have fathers who commute to Manhattan. But the town has yet to have a single funeral. Dawn Kloepfer's husband, Ron, an emergency-services officer with the NYPD, also disappeared in the collapse of the South Tower, two days before his 40th birthday. For days she clung to a diminishing hope that he would be pulled out alive, until she made the journey down to ground zero to look at the rubble herself. "You look at that pile and you know there's no way a human could survive that," she says. "That was my closure." But although she went to see Father Groenewold to discuss a memorial service, she eventually backed away from it, saying, "I'm just not ready yet. I can't do anything until they tell me they've gone through every piece of rubble."

Of course, Franklin Square is hardly unique in its grief. For 60 miles around fathers and mothers went off to work in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and never came home, their cars left ominously behind in commuter parking lots, their last words murmured to loved ones on crackling cell phones or left forlornly on answering machines. In Bernards Township, N.J., which is about the same size as Franklin Square, 19 people were missing after the disaster; 1,500 people in a community of 26,000 showed up for a memorial service at St. James Church. And, to be sure, they are mourned no less because death found them unwrapping a bagel at their desk rather than charging up a flight of stairs with 75 pounds of equipment. In the rosters of the missing are surprisingly few titans of finance or industry; instead, the disaster struck at the foot soldiers of Wall Street, men and women who sat at computer terminals and answered their own telephones. But those people are also the backbones of communities like Allenwood, N.J., where Jack Connolly, 46, sometimes left for work at Eurobrokers in the World Trade Center as early as 3:30 a.m., but always managed to get home in time to coach his kids' T-ball and soccer. Or Valley Stream, Long Island; Ridgewood, N.J.; Scarsdale, N.Y., and Stamford, Conn. By and large, it isn't the managing partners of big investment banks who run the Boy Scout troops or manage the church bake sales--or staff the volunteer fire departments.

New York City, although until now it sometimes neglected to acknowledge it, is built on hundreds of towns like Franklin Square, and people like Kiefer and his brother firefighters, Michael Haub, Robert Evans and Tom Hetzel (who, according to his sister, "has been chasing fire trucks since he was born"). This is a town where flags sold out so fast after the disaster that Sean DiBona, 19, had to resort to blue and white tape to turn the hood of his red Dodge muscle car into a rolling emblem of the Stars and Stripes; a town situated in a county whose county executive, Tom Gulotta, calls America "the greatest nation on earth" five times in a brief interview. It is a town where people cared about Kiefer not just because he was a hero, but because they knew his parents or his grandparents. "Mike's grandfather was just in here," said Bart Carapezza, a barber. "I was crying a little as I cut his hair and he was telling me what was going on. I was a little choked up."

And because so many of its sons and husbands go off to work in the city every day as cops and firefighters, saving lives in a city their grandparents left a half century ago, the disaster has special meaning to the people in Franklin Square. "I was walking down the street and in one of my neighbors' houses there was a sign in the window that said please remember my husband, and it had his ladder company on it," said Dan Spitaliere, 15, who sang with his youth group choir at the firehouse service last week. "It's weird to think there are people in this town who I've seen my whole life who are missing." And others are missing from their families, even though still very much alive. Anthony Battisti, the volunteer fire-department chief, himself a New York City cop, has been working 14- to 20-hour shifts either at the Trade Center site or covering for other cops who are there; so have many other Franklin Square fathers, who as a result have barely seen their own children in nearly two weeks. And the children themselves are frightened, says Marie Russo, a crossing guard. "I've known them forever, and I can see it in their faces. I see sadness and a little bit of fear."

At least Battisti and his men haven't had to miss many meals. The town has rallied around all its heroes in part by heaping them with cold-cut platters and provisions, sold at a 20 percent discount by the T&F Pork Store Italian Deli. "We tried to send food to the Kiefers," says Father Groenewold, "but they said, 'Please don't bring it, we've got too much already'." "I've been going for 13 days," says Battisti. "I don't even know what I'm doing anymore. We're all trying to keep focused on the job we have to do, but we're totally devastated. Everywhere you turn, someone's missing someone."

So for sure, every teenager in Franklin Square, and every teenager's mother, knows all about the dangers of firefighting. Undoubtedly, there are mothers of Explorers right now who are thinking, Gee, maybe I should have pushed him harder on those violin lessons--but for the moment they are keeping the sentiment to themselves. "It's what he wants to do. I just have to be there as a parent to back him up," says Bonnie Morello, whose son, Matt, 17, is a captain in the Explorers. "My brother is a firefighter in the city, my husband is a volunteer fireman here. You have to go on. You can't let this defeat you." And Matt, of course, hasn't changed his mind about his choice of a career. He knows the danger of firefighting, but also its seductive allure. "It's beautiful up in the ladder," he says dreamily, recalling a recent training exercise. "It was just me and one other guy and we were a hundred feet up, all strapped in. The wind was blowing and we could see the whole town and all the way to the city. We could see the Twin Towers."