Just three days before the second anniversary of 9/11, the FDNY will conduct its last memorial service for a firefighter killed at the World Trade Center. That it will have taken 727 days to reach this milestone barely describes the boundless pain that this atrocity’s survivors endure daily.
Firefighter Michael Ragusa was 29 years old when al Qaeda attacked America. He and four members of Brooklyn’s Engine Company 279 rushed into the conflagration, but never escaped.
“He would not turn his back on anyone,” says Ragusa’s 62-year-old father, Vincent. “He was just a wonderful individual. If you had Michael as a friend, you had a great person on your side.”
So why has his family waited so long for a memorial? They simply had nothing to bury. His body never was found at Ground Zero.
Michael Ragusa gave blood as a prospective bone marrow donor. The National Marrow Donor Program gave the Ragusas a vial of their eldest son’s blood. And that is what they will bury on September 8.
The vial’s existence “was like a lightning bolt that struck both my wife and myself, that something of our son still existed on this Earth,” Vincent Ragusa explains. “The only thing ever recovered from [his son's unit] was Lt. Anthony Jovic’s badge. They found his brass badge that November or December. That’s the only thing ever recovered from the entire company of five guys.”
“We got the [blood] sample from the Red Cross,” he continues. “We picked it up on our son’s birthday, July 30. As it happens, our son was born in Brooklyn Hospital. On the way home, we passed Brooklyn Hospital, 31 years to the day after he was born.”
“Everything about Mike was about helping people and loving life,” recalls fireman Gerry Sweeney, 35. His FDNY Ladder Company 131 shared a firehouse with Ragusa’s crew. “When you came in and saw his name on the riding list and knew you were working with him, you felt great because he was just a great guy to be around.”
But as Ragusa’s service approaches, Sweeney’s emotions are decidedly unsettled.
“Even though it’s two years later, it seems like it happened yesterday,” he adds. “We can’t even get to September 12…It’s sad we’re still going through this, but it’s a good thing that the funerals are almost over. It kind of closes the chapter of the memorials and the funerals.”
FDNY’s Michael Camaratta, buried last June 7, was the only other 9/11 firefighter whose blood vial was laid to rest. He also was the youngest of the Bravest killed. Camaratta was murdered on duty at age 22.
Meanwhile, others have grieved over even fewer remains.
Captain Brian Hickey led seven of Rescue Company 3′s men into Tower Two. None survived. After awaiting his body’s recovery for eight months, Hickey’s family instead buried a coffin bearing his helmet. Only perspiration residue on its sweatband and a few hairs tied the headgear to the 47-year-old father of four. Later, the medical examiner classified a one-inch square bone fragment as Hickey’s. His family interred it in lieu of his helmet.
DNA analysis thus has connected minuscule remains to individual casualties. Incredibly, pathologists linked one atomized, male, South Tower employee to more than 200 body parts.
Ghastly though this is, at least these bereaved have something to honor. Each family can visit a grave and commune with a hint of the person they still love and sorely miss.
But homicide pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi denied many relatives even this. Of the 2,792 people they butchered at the World Trade Center, only 1,521 have been identified. The 1,271 other men and women essentially were vaporized. There is no discernible speck over which prayers can be said nor tears shed nor tender moments recalled.
Of the 19,893 remains recovered, most of the 12,374 bits of tissue and bone that endure are too badly damaged to distinguish, due to exposure to the elements and the fires that raged at Ground Zero until December 19, 2001.
Still, experts hope eventually to attach names to the mere particles that once were people.
“We have made a commitment to the families that we are not going to stop the identifications until we can go no further based on the technology that is available today,” says Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for New York’s Medical Examiner. “That is the reason we are preserving and drying the remains that have not been identified so that in the future, when the technology improves or evolves, we can extract DNA from those samples.”
Such painful details surely thrill the terrorists who target America. This carnage is exactly what the war on terror’s soldiers, spies, diplomats, and airport screeners fight to prevent. Sadly, such mayhem is all too common overseas. After a car bomb killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim on August 29 outside the Shiite Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq, all that remained for his last rites were his pen, watch, and wedding band.
Amid the latest adventures of Ben & Jen, Kobe Bryant, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Americans might overlook what all this means: This war aims to avoid further scenes such as those that Gotham’s coroners have faced since 9/11.
“I’m still driven by the families,” Robert Shaler, New York’s chief forensic biologist, recently told the Associated Press. “When I see these people, they look at me with eyes that say, ‘Did you find her yet?’”
— Mr. Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.