The money becomes the person (Part 2 of a 4-part Sept. 11 anniversary series)
By James Fuller
Cliff Russell knew he could not find peace until he found his little brother.
It was Sept. 11. Engine Company 55 was responding to a gas leak just a few blocks from the World Trade Center when the first jet smashed the North Tower.
They were among the first rescue teams to arrive and four of the men ran into the tower. One stayed outside with the truck, as was procedure.
By the time the day was over, 353 firefighters died, but helped save 25,000.
The dead included five from Engine 55, including 40-year-old Stephen Russell. His body was buried with the rest of his fire fighting corps in that apocalyptic pile of concrete, twisted metal and human flesh.
Cliff Russell, an operations engineer and Stephen’s older brother, lacked the training to work on “The Pile,” where rescue teams already gingerly picked their way around the shifting rubble. But he knew where to get it. To find his little brother, he must become his little brother.
Russell never spent much time at Engine 55, but he knew where it was. Knocking on the door, he introduced himself and was taken to the captain. Capt. Tom Toomey stared at the hard-eyed visitor. Toomey, a gritty man with a take-charge attitude had already bucked protocol that morning, tired of waiting for orders that were slow in coming. With the firehouse only eight Chicago-blocks from Ground Zero, he sent his men back to the site to begin rescue and recovery.
“You want to look for your brother?” he said finally. “OK.”
Cliff Russell took Stephen’s boots, pants, coat and helmet from his brother’s locker and put them on. He was in the same 6-foot range as Stephen. His gut protruded a bit farther over the belt, but the gear was nevertheless a good fit.
Toomey and the available firemen put Cliff through a crash course. He wouldn’t have to become a firefighter overnight, just pass as one. When they finished, his newly acquired lingo and manners paired well enough with his brother’s gear to get him past the police guards and onto the site. For a month and a half, Cliff Russell dug alongside the crew from Engine 55, wondering from moment to moment if the next severed hand, battered leg or crushed head he uncovered would belong to his little brother.
* * *
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Those words never painted a more accurate picture than they did on Sept. 11. In the weeks and months afterward, people rushed to donate money. Meanwhile, the recipients learned money never meant so much and so little at the same time.
In the year since Sept. 11, the Chicago area has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the families of the five fallen Engine 55 firefighters.
Residents here have supported the efforts of Barrington singer and stockbroker Joe Cantafio, who embarked on a year-long concert tour to raise money directly for the families of Engine 55 instead of routing it through established charities.
One of the men had a wife and young children. Another was already a grandfather. The others had parents, sisters, nieces and nephews. And all of them left behind their brothers at Engine 55.
Chris Mozzillo was the youngest member of the firehouse to die. He never reached his 28th birthday.
His lineage mapped out both his future and love of adventure. His father, Mike, now retired, was a New York firefighter. Chris’s toys were die-cast fire trucks and little fire helmets. His idea of a good time included feeding sharks while swimming with them or pounding anyone who gave his sister, Pam, a tough time.
He could get up a staircase in full gear in seemingly a single bound. The men of Engine 55 believe Mozzillo climbed higher up into the towers than the rest of their crew.
That may be the reason his body is still missing, the only Engine 55 man not recovered.
Bobby Lane, 28, was always in motion. In addition to being a fireman, he was a Special Olympics volunteer, a member of the department’s hockey and softball teams and a former college football player. When he wasn’t doing all that, he loved to cook.
He hammed it up in firehouse photos, in one donning little, pink-rimmed sunglasses for the sake of a laugh.
The families of Mozzillo and Lane will use the money they receive to establish scholarships in their sons’ names.
Faustino Apostal was the senior member of those lost. He rode in Engine 55 for more than two decades but was recently transferred out. On Sept. 11, he arrived at the scene, saw his old rig, grabbed a 55 helmet and raced into the burning towers behind the three who were already inside. He never came out.
He was a family man who married his high school sweetheart. A grandfather at 55, he would baby sit and mow the lawn. He couldn’t bring himself to hang up his gear even as his colleagues retired. Firefighting was just too much fun. His family will likely use the money they get to establish a college fund for his grandchildren.
Lt. Peter Freund was also a family man. In his younger days, he was a hippie and never lost his kind, gentle ways. On the day he died, at age 45, he was known mainly as Daddy by his three young children.
In the confusion that marked the days after Sept. 11, Freund’s colleagues were tormented by several reports that he was sighted working in the wreckage.
All proved bogus when his body was later discovered.
His wife, Robin, is thinking about using the money she gets to buy an athletic field and name it after Peter. A touching gift, but some of the firefighters worry what she’ll do when the money is gone.
Lastly, there is the man they called MacGyver for his ingenuity around the firehouse. As the towers burned Sept. 11, Marie Russell stepped out onto the dock behind her house in the Rockaways section of Queens. Stretching out into Jamaica Bay, it provided a clear view of the fiery twin towers.
Peering through the viewfinder of her hand-held video camera, the white-haired, spectacled woman knew her son would be there, saving lives. She would make a video scrapbook of his bravery during a historic moment.
Then, one by one, the towers fell.
Marie went inside and closed the curtains. The windows remained shrouded for weeks. Her baby was gone.
* * *
For seemingly endless days, Cliff Russell chased ghosts. Somewhere in this unnatural graveyard was his brother.
The area to search was extensive and treacherous. Metal and concrete were not meant to lie this way. In some areas it rose as high as 50 feet above the street. Debris created chasms and mountains so steep that rescue workers had to sit and slide to get anywhere. Some pockets still blazed with fire, others radiated intense heat coming from no visible source.
But Cliff Russell avoided the most dangerous tasks. All he wanted was a shovel. If Steve was mixed in with the steel and blood, he would find him or go crazy trying.
For a week after Sept. 11, Cliff Russell worked every day. After that he came back several times a week, whenever he could, digging and bagging body parts.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 22, the call came.
“Engine 55, get up here!”
Steve was found. He was dead, but Cliff could finally begin to live again.
Cliff Russell’s basement is filled with mementos. In one corner is a large, homemade poster. On the right side is a photo of Stephen Russell in his fire gear, smile on his face. On the left side, a photo of Cliff Russell wearing that same gear, fatigue on his face.
The relics he collected from the site are priceless in memoriam. A chunk of glass from a World Trade Center window sits near a small, round, polished box with Steve’s name on it. It contains dirt from ground zero, and there are only about 3,000 like it in the world, each with a different name.
“It’s what you have and if you were never recovered, it’s still all you have,” Russell says of the box.
Then comes another box.
Out of a small plastic container, Russell pulls out a hand-sized, Africa-shaped chunk of cement. It’s part of an area known as stairwell 6b. It feels chalky. Visitors sniff the rock gingerly, like checking something in the refrigerator. A bitter taste shoots up the back of the tongue and remains for several seconds, like sucking on a hot penny. The smell is comparable to lighting a thousand sparklers and letting them burn all the way down at once while holding them.
It is the odor of 3,000 dead people mixed with molten metal and pulverized concrete.
To complete the journey, Russell displays an album of photos he took with disposable cameras. Everything in the pictures has an inch of powder on it, an unseasonable snow. There is a fire truck sitting in the middle of West Street with no tires on the rims. Melted.
Russell found bodies in various conditions depending on their location.
“Just like sleeping men,” Russell said of one group of dead firemen.
Of another set of photos, he says, “On this day it was really bad because that’s when we found legs, arms, torsos, and nobody ever had a head. Nobody in the street ever had a head.”
“There’s a lot of things that were answered,” he added about the day they found Stephen. “He’s not wandering around. He’s not in the hospital and doesn’t know who he is. I know where he is and we got him back and I can put him to rest. I made my peace. I don’t have to talk to the ghosts that I used to talk to every morning.”
As he flips through the album, music plays in the background. It’s “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd. Cliff Russell looks sleepy, yet he bounces around with great energy. His heart is numb, but the mind still remembers. There is no full recovery, just acceptance.
It seems to be more than his parents have.
“People who lost somebody are not going to want to ask for money,” Russell said of the charity efforts, Cantafio’s included. “My mother gets a check, she gets upset. If the money that was in the check ever gets spent in its total, she’s going to be very upset.
“There’s a connection. Now the money becomes Steve. Everything becomes the person. It’s whacked.”
Steve had a bungalow apartment connected to his parents house. Now, Cliff Sr. and Marie tend to it, watering the plants he left behind but touching nothing else. Except for the contents of the refrigerator, the interior is frozen in time. The calendar in the makeshift office still reads September. Steve was scheduled to go skydiving the week of the 17th.
Cliff Russell and his mother spend several minutes arguing about the disappearance of a card from the desk. It was yellow with a cat on it and a depiction of the World Trade Center towers burning – a joke card created before Sept. 11.
“It’s there, but then it’s not there,” Cliff Russell says to his mother, miffed about the disappearance. “Somebody moved it.”
“Nobody moved it,” she responds, rifling through drawers. “It’s here.”
The money becomes the person. So do his belongings.
In the middle of the living room is a huge plant, more like a tree. It is 30 years old, an offshoot of a plant Steve gave to his mother when he was just 10. Mrs. Russell only enters the apartment to water the plant and look over the many trinkets reminding her of her son.
“I die every time,” she says.
It is to that realization that the charity efforts go. It keeps the memory alive. For some, it keeps their dead loved one alive.
The Russells also have established a scholarship in their son’s name. A part of it will never be spent. It would be like losing him all over again.
* * *
There is guilt among the surviving firefighters. They’ve helped the fatherless, sonless, brotherless families as much as they can, emotionally and financially, but they can’t do it forever, not for a lifetime.
Such is the life of the families of Engine 55’s lost men. Death is life. Newspapers, television, countless books and memorial after memorial hammer home the loss on a daily basis. It is an endless funeral.
For the majority of the world, 343 firefighters died. For these families, it was Chris Mozzillo, Lt. Peter Freund, Faustino Apostal, Bobby Lane and Stephen Russell. Five family members wiped out.
At some point, the organs will stop playing and the charity will cease. But for the Mozzillo, Lane, Freund, Apostal and Russell families, the smoke from the World Trade Center has yet to clear. The money fuels memories both good and bad. The scholarships and other gifts and purchases in the name of the fallen firefighters carry on their legacy as men devoted to helping others.
The money will not bring their loved ones back, but, in hearts turned desperate from death, it will keep them alive.