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A neighborhood and a survivor remember squad's 'fire boys'

Seven firefighters from Squad 18 were among the first on the scene at the World Trade Center. One survived.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001


Seven firefighters from Squad 18 were among the first on the scene at the World Trade Center. One survived.

NEW YORK -- Officially, they were part of Squad 18, New York City Fire Department. To the residents of W 10th Street, they were simply some of the "fire boys," the nice guys who sat outside the station house on quiet summer nights chatting it up with the neighbors.

There was Dave Halderman, nicknamed "Dave the Rave" because he was cute and single and liked to party.

There was "Manny Mo" Mojica, a motorcycle nut, and Andy "Aunt Bee" Fredericks, whose mother-hen ways reminded some of a character on Mayberry R.F.D.

There were three others too, Eric and Larry and Bill, and all six were slowly making their way up a stairwell of the World Trade Center on Tuesday morning as Pat Kelly, another member of Squad 18, listened to their increasingly breathless voices over his radio.

"The last I heard was, "We're on 34, we're up around 34.' A little before that, I heard Manny say he was on 18 and taking a blow. When you're going that high, you gotta take rests. You're carrying 100 pounds of equipment and carrying extra air."

Separated from his buddies early on, Kelly took Stairwell A. They took Stairwell B. In the horrific moments that followed, Kelly escaped with a gash on his nose and little cuts all over his body. Seven other members of Squad 18, including one who went in with another company, have not been seen since.

They are among more than 200 New York firefighters, including some of the department's highest-ranking officers, who are missing in the Trade Center catastrophe. At least one firefighter was killed when someone trying to escape the inferno jumped from dozens of stories up and landed on top of him.

All of New York is mourning the biggest loss of firefighters in the city's history. But the grief is especially profound along W 10th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village.'

"They're the sweetest guys, like the boys next door," said Sheila Walker, a pink-haired professor at the Parsons School of Design who lives two doors away. "That's why we call them "the fire boys next door.' "

"We have parties on the roof, and quite often they'd come over," added her partner, Jason Kippenberger.

Other times, the men of Squad 18 would open the station's big red door, pull up some chairs and schmooze with those walking by.

"It's like a block party in summer," Walker said. "We hate for winter to come, because they've got to keep the door closed."

She and Kippenberger were among the many Villagers who stopped by the locked station Thursday to drop off flowers or notes, or to photograph those left by others. There were dozens of candles, too, from a vigil the night before.

It was an eclectic, even eccentric-looking group, typical of the Village, a charmingly quirky place that is home to many actors, artists, movie producers and the like.

In little bursts of conversation, they talked fondly of the fire boys of Squad 18.

"I saw them all the time shopping at Jefferson Market," recalled one woman.

"They'd let my 3-year-old nephew come in and ring the bell," said another.

"They were all really cute," chimed in a third.

Mark Solan, a designer who was wearing a Minnie Mouse T-shirt, mentioned plans to start a fund for the firefighters' families. Rona Affoumado, whose own T-shirt had a picture of Betty Boop, quickly offered to put up posters.

"They saved my husband's life when he had a heart attack," she said, "and we have a lot of elderly people in our building who inadvertently start little fires."

Just as cloth absorbs the odor of smoke, the Squad 18 station house has absorbed some of the character of its unusual environs. The door is nearly covered by a large mural that shows two firefighters dressed as gladiators sitting in a truck with Uncle Sam between them.

Built in 1881, the station house is even older than many of the nearby brownstones with geraniums spilling out of their window boxes. The city decided it was time to renovate Squad 18's quarters, so the station was temporarily closed several weeks ago and its crew moved to a larger station on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan.

Very close to the World Trade Center.

Pat Kelly, one of the relocated members of Squad 18, had just finished his shift Tuesday when two other firefighters standing outside the station saw a plane slam into one of the center's massive towers. Although he was supposed to be off duty, Kelly jumped into Truck 18 with his friends.

The scene when they arrived was "mayhem," he said. "It was a mess in the lobby; a couple of the elevators had come down so hard they had exploded. It was hard to head up, so many people were coming down the stairs."

In the confusion, Kelly became separated from the others. Using another stairwell in Tower No. 1, he had made it to the 21st floor when Tower No. 2 began to collapse.

"It was like an earthquake. Somebody said, "Everybody get out of here.' We started to go down. I ran into a Port Authority cop with a civilian who couldn't walk. We carried the guy down to the third floor and a firefighter said, "You can't go down those stairs anymore.' "

Still carrying the injured man, Kelly and the officer were about to step onto a low roof when "two other firefighters told us to wait. They said people were flying out the windows. One landed on one firefighter and killed him."

By now Kelly was in a small group of firefighters and others who were struggling to make their way to a nearby building when the tower imploded. "The shock wave pushed us all in. I couldn't see anything at first; it was like night. But all of us lived."

For the next two days, Kelly would remain on duty, helping to put out the flames and trying to find survivors, including, he prayed, the missing firefighters.

"They're not all coming back," he said, "but you hope some are coming back."

By Thursday morning, Kelly was using the past tense to speak of his friends from Squad 18. Such as Eric Allen: "He was a short guy with a big heart." Or Bill McGuinn: "He was a very big job man. He loved his job more than anything."

Several were married and had children. Kelly, who has three boys, said his wife was so thrilled he survived, "She even said she's not going to bother me about going out for drinks."

Despite his narrow escape, he plans to remain in the department.

"I was a beer salesman before I joined in 1994. I loved this job, or I did until Tuesday. But I don't think I could leave at this point. We're family. We live together, we eat together, we go out on picnics together. I moved to Staten Island because a lot of the guys lived out there."

When the renovations are finished, probably early next year, Kelly and the 18 other surviving members of Squad 18 will return to Greenwich Village and their cozy little station. There, a third bronze plaque will go up, beneath two others honoring past members of Squad 18 who have died in the line of duty.

"They made the supreme sacrifice," the new plaque will say, and it will list more names than any of the other plaques:

Lt. Billy McGuinn

Firefighter Eric Allen

Firefighter Manny Mojica

Firefighter Andy Fredericks

Firefighter Dave Halderman

Firefighter Larry Virgilo

Firefighter Timmy Haskell

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