'They Never Did Come Back'

The main room of Engine 23's firehouse feels claustrophobic despite its substantial size. It is not the heat or the crying grandmothers who have turned out in their Sunday best to honor the company's six dead men that stifles us. It is not the tight space, made tighter by rows of grimy helmets and the false cheer of billowing flags. We can't see what entraps us, but it is filling the space, atom by atom.

"Firefighter Dan Marshall, Firefighter John Fischer, Capt. Thomas Moody," the dispatcher shouts, three of 343 men who will be addressed but not brought back. The names ricochet off the walls at today's ceremony marking the anniversary of their deaths even as a Catholic priest gives mass, trying his best to speak over the staccato rhythm coming from the intercom above. "If someone strikes your right cheek offer your left," the priest intones. "If someone takes your coat, offer your suit." No one seems to be listening. There is no escaping the pulse of the voice from above, the voice that ceaselessly lists names, the voice that makes forgiving seem truly impossible.

Even the man who runs this midtown Manhattan firehouse and arranged for this priest to visit can't ignore the stream from the crackling intercom. "I don't know about what he [the priest] was saying about forgiveness," says Capt. John Bendick. "I was listening to the names." Bendick was listening for six in particular. Engine 23 lost Lt. Charles Garbarini and firefighters Robert McPadden, John Marshall, James Pappageorge, Mark Whitford and Hector Tiado. The loss of six dead men in a company of 20 makes for a searing wound.

One look at the makeshift shrine erected in the corner tells it all. The dead men's smiling faces jump out of framed photos that sit adjacent to flickering candles and carefully lettered prayer cards. The survivors stand near their handmade memorial and tell visitors about the other one they are building in the back room, the fresh wood that they will adorn with the work shoes their dead brothers left behind.

The firefighters are mourning their fallen comrades in their own stiff-upper-lip style. Over pastries and orange juice--and, in a back room, over a whiskey toast--the men's quirks and characters are discussed. Remember how McPadden used to watch "Jeopardy" obsessively because he always knew every answer? Remember Whitford and his practical jokes? That time he rigged all the lockers so when you opened them a plume of powder would coat your face like smoke? Whitford, 31, the father of 2-year-old twins was a good guy, the best. He always washed the dishes after meals even though that was technically the rookies' job. Remember that?

There are painful memories, too. Tony Cotroneo, 50, sees Whitford in his nightmares. He can't forget how "the kid," always a good sport, had come in a half hour early to relieve him on the morning of September 11 last year. "Sometimes I get upset, sometimes I feel guilty," says Cotroneo, pointing a finger at a spot 10 feet away. "We were jockeying back and forth, standing right over there, arguing over who was going to take the job. 'I'll go.' 'No, I'll go.' 'No, I'll go.' There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of that exchange with Mark."

Had either man known what was coming, their last exchange wouldn't have been so teasing. Cotroneo and Whitford believed a small Cessna plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Neither imagined this run would be the last. So Cotroneo relented and Whitford and the other five climbed aboard the company rig. Cotroneo stayed behind, but as soon as he realized the extent of the tragedy he hopped into the company's spare truck, stopped at a neighboring firehouse to grab more help and barreled downtown, arriving right after the first tower collapsed. "I looked up, and it was gone," Cotroneo says. So were his best friends.

Captain Bendick recalls how he stayed at the firehouse throughout the day, worrying about his men, as well as his own son, who was working at the scene as an EMT. He got a call from his boy six hours after the first building collapsed. It would not be long before he learned that while his own son had survived, his other boys were gone. "I kept hoping they'd come back, but they never did," Bendick says. "I kept thinking there could have been voids, there could have been basements, you always hope. But they never did come back."

Not that Bendick wants to dwell on it. The captain admits that losing his guys--five of whom were in their 20s and early 30s--has "been like losing a child." But he also knows that at some point the grieving must stop. Because the 20-person company lost more than a third of its muscle in the WTC attacks, several fresh-faced, wide-eyed rookies have joined Engine 23. And they need coaching. Lots of it. That means Bendick hasn't been able to spend much time grieving. "The bell hits, and you gotta be ready," says Bendick. "We have to go on because if we don't we're endangering our lives and yours."

This anniversary morning, life is indeed going on. The surviving company members' girlfriends and wives and mothers are milling around clutching danish and sesame-seed bagels slathered with cream cheese. If it weren't for the whiskey toasts in the back room, it would be easy to mistake the scene for a church mixer. It's the small details--the odd tear wiped away quickly, the firetruck stenciled with the names of the six dead, the corner shrine weighed down with bunches of flowers--that hint at the brutal truth. By the time the pastries come out and the chummy reminiscences are shared, the intercom has long since stopped squawking. But after it goes silent, all you have to do to know how these survivors really feel is to listen. The echo of the 343 names--those six especially--are ringing in their ears.