BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — A sea of blue uniforms rolled into Brooklyn Monday as some 2,000 firefighters from the New York area, New Hampshire, Maryland, and even Los Angeles gathered to say goodbye to a fallen colleague. Firefighter Michael Ragusa, the FDNY’s last September 11 fatality to be memorialized, was honored at the Church of St. Bernard in the borough’s Mill Basin district.
Of the 343 FDNY firefighters slain at the World Trade Center, 342 already had received services. The body of Ragusa, then age 29, never was found. His family instead laid to rest a vial of blood that he had donated to the National Marrow Donor Program. As unfathomable as it seems, some bereaved are even more unfortunate than the Ragusas. To date, there are 134 FDNY firefighters of whom nothing has been recovered or matched through DNA. Their families had no remains to bury, but held funerals without them.
For the Ragusas, though, their son’s memorial could not have been more dignified. On a warm, sunny Monday morning, rows of firefighters stood smartly at attention, completely filling more than a block of 69th Street between the Catholic church on one side and Temple Sholom of Flatbush on the other. A solemn song began in the distance, then grew louder as 55 members of an FDNY bagpipe and drum ensemble marched slowly forward. Residents of a nearby apartment building, some holding American flags, watched quietly from their balconies. Young students clad in white shirts observed the procession through the windows of a Catholic school opposite the church.
A fire engine glacially advanced with its steel nozzles and fixtures gleaming. It bore Michael Ragusa’s flag-draped casket, on either side of which black and purple bunting flowed. The Statue of Liberty was painted elegantly on one side of the engine. On the other, a sole FDNY helmet rested on the ground beside a river. In the background, across the water, the Twin Towers rose gracefully into the sky.
As bells steadily tolled, pall bearers brought Michael Ragusa’s casket into the church. Just behind the altar, a large wreath incongruously read “Happy Hookers.” The whimsical floral arrangement displayed the nickname and insignia of Ragusa’s unit, the Red Hook, Brooklyn-based Engine Company 279. Four of Ragusa’s comrades also were murdered on 9/11.
Every pew was filled inside the airy church, and additional mourners lined each wall. The overflow crowd — some 5,000 inside and out, by FDNY’s estimate — heard Ragusa eulogized as a dedicated public servant, loyal friend and loving young man.
“I didn’t know your son,” New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his remarks to Dee and Vincent Ragusa, Michael’s parents, and to the congregation. “But my kids are safer because of him, and so are 8 million people.”
Former mayor Rudy Giuliani observed that when the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, the terrorists hoped to kill many more people and break America’s spirits. Thanks to Ragusa and other firemen, Giuliani said, some 25,000 people were saved, dramatically lowering what could have been an even more staggering death toll. Al-Qaeda “would have broken our spirits, if these men had not stood their ground and run away,” Giuliani added. “These men saved America.” He asked the mourners to show Ragusa’s young nephews how much they loved their uncle by giving him a standing ovation, which they heartily delivered.
“My son walked out of the sunshine into the darkness, never to be seen again,” Dee Ragusa said in a stirring speech. She said she worried about her young grandsons growing up in a world filled with fear and hate. She called on the little boys to sing a song and asked the crowd to help them, if they wished. After some coaxing, the shy lads uttered the words, “God bless America, land that I love.…” The mourners quietly whispered along, some too moved even to do that.
Mrs. Ragusa thanked her son’s colleagues for their support, “hundreds of visits” to her family’s home and “too much cake.” She especially appreciated the efforts of one fireman who drove to Brooklyn from his home in upstate New York to take her and her family “to the airport, which was 15 minutes away. And he did the same on our return.”
She spoke of her son’s smile, his love of cars, his mechanical prowess, his mischievous sense of humor and his generosity towards others. And she said he never was happier than when he worked as a fireman.
“How he loved us,” she concluded. “How proud we are to call him our son.”
After the pall bearers carried Michael Ragusa’s coffin back to the fire engine on which it arrived, an FDNY bugle player delivered “Taps” from the church’s roof. Moments later, the NYPD paid its respects by flying a blue and white police helicopter slowly over the ceremony while hundreds of firefighters again crisply saluted.
As they played “America the Beautiful,” the Pipe and Drum Corps led the fire engine forward at perhaps one mile per hour. It reached the end of the block, then turned right on Veterans Avenue. Beneath the Stars and Stripes, the much-loved Michael Ragusa disappeared around the corner, now just a very fond memory.
— Mr. Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.