Climbing a Stairway to Heaven

Author: Matthew T. Fitzsimmons '75

I have always been proud to be the son of a retired New York City fireman (Marine Co. 9) and brother of a current New York City fireman (Ladder Co. 77). I was born and raised in the tradition and culture of the New York City Fire Department. I am a lawyer in Cleveland.

On the morning of September 11 at the World Trade Center, New York City firefighters demonstrated to the world, in the most graphic manner imaginable, why they are called New York’s Bravest. As tens of thousands evacuated the Twin Towers in mass hysteria, the firefighters, with complete and utter disregard for their own safety, ran into and up the buildings to rescue the injured and others in need of help. It was an extraordinary act of bravery.

Up 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 floors, and higher, with full gear. A height at which you could almost reach out and touch the face of God. Unbeknownst to them, they were climbing a stairway to heaven.

There have been many words used to describe that day’s attack on our country: horrific, horrendous, barbaric, tragic and surreal. For me, there was nothing more horrific, horrendous, barbaric, tragic, surreal — and sickening — than the TV graphic that approximately 300 New York City firefighters were missing and presumed dead. It is a number that is beyond comprehension — beyond comprehension. It is numbing. Three hundred firefighters — about 50 companies — are significantly more than are on duty in the entire City of Cleveland on any given day.

My thoughts these past few weeks have not been on the faraway lands of Afghanistan, Pakistan or the Middle East, but on the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the closer-in suburbs of Long Island, where families of many firefighters live. The sense of loss and grief in those neighborhoods must be unbearable and unspeakable. I am very sorry for their loss and mourn with them. To paraphrase Will Rogers’ eulogy of President Woodrow Wilson, on September 11 the world lost 300 of its greatest friends. Tellingly, it now appears that about 10 percent of those who died at the World Trade Center died trying to rescue others.

Firefighters in all cities share many admirable qualities. They are, for the most part, good family men and women. They love kids, and are good with, and make time for, them. They make great Little League coaches, Peewee football coaches, and CYO basketball coaches — much more so than doctors, lawyers, investment bankers and the dotcom crowd. Because they face death with the ring of every alarm bell, they appreciate how valuable and precious life is — each life. Above all else, they are extraordinarily brave.

When my father died in 1996, a reporter from one of the New York newspapers asked if he could deliver the eulogy at his funeral Mass. In the early 1970s this reporter had witnessed my father, then the pilot of the Firefighter (the world’s largest and most powerful fireboat), make a rescue in New York Harbor after a freighter and a container cargo ship collided near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Scores of people were incinerated in the collision. My father had maneuvered the Firefighter between the two burning ships and rescued about 25 crewmen, who were trapped and jumping overboard. The heat was so intense that it melted the paint off the Firefighter’s decks. The reporter, a safe distance away on a tugboat, thought the Firefighter was going to catch on fire, explode and sink. The reporter recounted this rescue in the eulogy and concluded by saying: “Your father was the bravest man I ever knew.” My brothers and sisters and I were very proud to hear this tribute to our father.

In the upcoming days and weeks, there will be funeral Masses and services for all of these fallen heroes. I hope that at these Masses and services someone will tell the children of each one of these deceased firefighters that their father or mother “was the bravest person I ever knew.”

Although America can be, at times, a country with a short memory, I am sure that America — indeed the entire world — will never, ever forget the bravery that the men and women of the New York City Fire Department displayed on September 11. I am confident that when those firefighters reached the top of that stairway to heaven, Our Lord and Saint Peter were likewise in awe of their bravery.

Matt Fitzsimmons can be reached by e-mail at