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A community of loss
More than 75 Rockaway residents are missing, one of the heaviest human tolls to hit any New York City enclave
By Anne Barnard and Beth Daley, Globe Staff, 9/19/2001
EW YORK -- On the Rockaway peninsula, a sliver of Queens that juts between the Atlantic Ocean and the city skyline, boys tend to choose between two careers: firefighting and finance. Many follow their fathers and neighbors into the Fire Department -- there is a joke in town that every other house has a firefighter. Those with more white-collar ambitions head for the Wall Street skyscrapers they can see 12 miles off, across Jamaica Bay.
A neighborhood pipeline has led many of them straight to Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading giant that had offices near the top of the World Trade Center.
Those two paths converged in tragedy Sept. 11, when terrorist attacks on the twin towers ripped through both the blue- and white-collar worlds -- and doubly devastated the neighborhoods of the Rockaway peninsula. More than 75 residents are missing, one of the heaviest human tolls to hit any New York City enclave.
The first hijacked jetliner sliced diagonally through Cantor Fitzgerald's offices, leaving most of the firm's 1,100 workers missing. Less than two hours later, the twin towers crashed down onto hundreds of firefighters and police officers, among them schoolmates and neighbors of the traders above.
"I can count, from 129th to 134th street, at least one person, if not two, on each block that are gone," said Flip Mullen, a retired firefighter who lives on the peninsula's west end, a four-block-wide grid of single family homes. "You never thought you'd need a scorecard to figure out how many funerals you have to go to."
The Rockaway Chamber of Commerce estimates that up to 90 people are dead or missing from the 11-mile spit of land, mostly from its westernmost neighborhoods Rockaway Park, Belle Harbor, Neponsit, and Breezy Point, which combined are home to around 37,000 people.
Across greater New York, there are other concentrated pockets of loss. In Ridgefield, N.J., a bedroom community for the financial district, 12 children from a single elementary school lost parents. In Brooklyn's Marine Park neighborhood, around 20 people, mostly firefighters and police officers, are missing from one church congregation.
But in the Rockaways, a twofold loss has hit both the peninsula's Jewish communities and its Catholic parishes.
The dead are everywhere. There are the firefighters: Danny Suhr, father of a kindergartner, who was killed by a falling body; Walter Hynes, who died after helping 50 people escape; Eugene Whelan, 27, a brother of two chefs at Harbor Light, the local firefighters' hangout; John Moran, a battalion chief and father of two; Steve Belson, who fought the city to get back on the job after surgery.
And the Cantor Fitzgerald workers: Charlie Heeran, 23, whose firefighter father thought the son would be safe on Wall Street. John Farrell and Michael Andrews, who grew up a block apart and shared a desk in the North Tower. Frank Monahan, who loved to sing and sometimes tended bar at Harbor Light. Pete Mulligan and Matthew Burke, Charlie's schoolmates at Xavier, the Manhattan Jesuit high school.
"I still haven't really faced reality yet," said Sean Heeran, Charlie's 26-year-old brother, walking home Monday after playing stickball at the parish school with his brother Billy, Charlie's twin. Orthodox boys walked by him in suits and broad-brimmed black hats. Nearly every passing driver waved hello.
In some ways, the peninsula is as far as you can get from Wall Street, physically and spiritually, and still be in New York City. Its affordable housing and small-town atmosphere have attracted generations of firefighters, police officers, and other city workers who get financial incentives to live within city limits.
The peninsula looks like a vision of an idyllic New York past, something out of Woody Allen's "Radio Days" or an E. L. Doctorow novel. With its rickety boats in backyards, it could even pass for a New England village, if not for the stunning views of the Manhattan skyline.
As the community sorts through the tragedy, the Heerans find themselves at the center of a web of mourning. Bernie Heeran, 52, retired from the Fire Department last year and owns Harbor Light. Monday night, he held court outside his family's white house on 129th Street. A young man sidled up to him and sat down.
"I feel like a ghost," said Matthew Tansey, 27. He was the only man on his fire truck to survive the cataclysm. Heeran prodded him to talk. About digging himself out of the rubble. About the man who came to the firehouse to thank Tansey for saving him.
"You shaved," said one of the older men. "That's a good sign."
Heeran never thought he would lose a son this way. After watching their father struggle to put them through Catholic universities, his three boys headed for jobs in finance, where a bond trader can make $75,000 by his late 20s, more than a veteran firefighter. Sean got Charlie a job working with him on the trading desk at Cantor Fitzgerald. They lived the Wall Street life, working hard and partying four or five nights a week.
Sean left Cantor three months ago, but all three still worked within blocks of the World Trade Center. On Tuesday, Sean looked up and saw papers flying. Then the news scrolled across his Bloomberg terminal. He called Charlie. No answer.
Charlie, meanwhile, had called a man who knew about fire.
"Dad, what should I do?" he asked. Bernie told him to head for the roof -- then rushed to his old firehouse to try to get on a truck. Charlie's twin, Billy, rushed out to the towers -- "I told him not to," said Sean -- and saw the second plane hit. They ran for their lives as the towers fell.
Bernie knows four fire chiefs who are dead, and three more who have lost sons. Sean knows dozens of missing traders, including Josh Rosenblum, who was supposed to be married this weekend in Bermuda. Both father and son are trying to look to the future: Bernie wants to train new firefighters, and Sean is already talking to Cantor about returning to help rebuild.
The neighborhood, too, is trying. Many residents are on rescue crews. Three doors from the Heerans, Beach Bagel, run by Arab Muslims, has delivered hundreds of sandwiches to the crews. At Harbor Light Monday night, Kevin Coleman, 42, a corrections officer, sucked down vodka drinks to blunt the memory of digging through rubble.
"You're from Boston?" he said. "Tell them we need pipe bands." Bagpipes, he meant, for funerals. "The pipe bands are all booked." He wept.
At St. Francis de Sales down the street, memorial services are booked nearly daily. Monsignor Martin Geraghty's impromptu Masses have drawn up to 1,500 people, three times the usual. Wakes have drawn hundreds.
At sunset yesterday, after Walter Hynes's wake, mourners emerged from the Denis O'Connor funeral home to see the skyline purple-gray against a peach sky, a wisp of smoke rising in place of the towers.
"Hopefully, they'll stop smoking," said Richard Fanning, Hynes's brother-in-law. "People keep looking, just looking at the smoke."