The problem with an assault and a tragedy that is the magnitude of 9/11, and that now lives nine years away in our memories, is that, as a writer, I become more and more at a loss of words with each passing year. It seems to me, therefore, that the best I can do is keep alive the memory of those who died. Each of the three about whom I’ve written annually was a fighter — one a firefighter who raced into a burning building, one a soldier who died joyfully saving the lives of thousands of others, and one a woman who lived with vigor and who I am sure, knowing her personality, was one of the ones who fought to take Flight 93 away from the terrorists. This is the story of fire fighter Lt. Brian Ahearn:
My son, when he was little, was obsessed with superheroes. One of his favorites was Superman. After all, when you’re a little boy, battling your way through the world, what could be more exciting than the possibility of being “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” I’m was bombarded daily with questions about Superman’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures, his flying speeds, his ballistic capabilities and, most importantly, his bravery. It was as to that last point that my son and I ran into a conceptual problem. He thought Superman was brave because he gets involved in situations that involve guns, and flames, and bad guys. I argued — a silly argument to make with a little boy — that the fictional Superman, while good, was not brave, because he took no risks. Superman’s indestructibility meant that his heart never sped up, his gut never clenched, and he never paused for even a moment to question whether the potential benefit from acting would be worth the risk. In other words, if facing a gun is as easy as sniffing a rose, there is no bravery involved.
The truly brave person is the one who knows the real risks in a situation, but still moves forward to save people, to fight a good battle or to remedy an intolerable situation. The attacks against America on September 11, 2001, revealed the true superheroes among us — those New York firefighters who pushed themselves past those second thoughts, those all-too-human hesitations, and sacrificed themselves in the hopes of saving others. Lt. Brian G. Ahearn was one of those superheroes.
Lt. Ahearn grew up within the Irish Catholic community in Huntington, New York, out on Long Island. He got a good grounding in Catholicism (and, I bet, an excellent education) when he attended St. Hugh of Lincoln School. I think he must already then have been a good person, since his classmates remember him fondly. One woman who attended St. Hugh with him said that “He was perhaps one of the nicest boys in our class.” This was not a unique opinion. Another woman used virtually the same words to describe the young Lt. Ahearn: “I remember Brian being such a nice boy.“
I don’t think anyone who knew Brian Ahearn was surprised when he decided to become a firefighter. After all, his father was former Ladder 42 Lieutenant Edward Ahearn. Somewhere along the line, whether before or after he chose his career, Lt. Ahearn married Deborah. Given how close his ties were to his childhood community, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she wasn’t his high school sweetheart. As the years went by, they had two children: Christopher and Lauren.
Brian Ahearn didn’t live a flashy or public life. There are just faint whispers about him on the internet, but they are still sufficient to piece together a picture of a decent, hardworking, kind, and witty man. The same concern for his fellow citizens that is reflected in his career choice showed up in other areas of his life. As one memorial site remembered, “He cared for the citizens in the neighborhood of his firehouse by running the annual Senior Citizen Christmas dinner at St. Anselms Church for many years….”
His Irish culture mattered to him and, I gather, was an important backdrop to his social life. His best friend was a guy named Mike. Because it was a guy friendship, Mike teased Brian a lot, most memorably about Brian’s fair Irish skin and the fashion mistakes he made in the name of protecting that skin. Still they were such tight friends that Brian was the first person Mike told when Mike got engaged and, naturally, Brian was the best man at Mike’s wedding. When Brian made friends, he made them for life. That’s unsurprising, perhaps, because those who knew him best carry with them the memory of his upbeat personality and his wit, as well as his gentlemanlike behavior. People like to be around someone like Brian.
So there you have Brian Ahearn: An all-around nice guy, remembered lovingly by friends and family. A kind man, who was active in his church and his community. And of course, he was a firefighter.
Guarino and his crew had just returned from another call when someone yelled out to turn on the TV. They saw what everyone in the nation was watching – a tower on fire. They ran to the roof to see how bad it was when the call came in to respond.
Guarino’s crew mounted Engine 230 and headed for the bridges over to Manhattan. They had to take alternate routes because roads were being shut down quickly.
When they finally arrived, the crew of six (Lt. Brian Ahearn, Fire Fighter (FF) Ed White, FF Gene Whelan, FF Jeff Stark, FF Frank Bonomo, and FF Mike Carlo) dismounted and ran into the towers.
Guarino had to stay with the engine. A police officer told Guarino to move his engine up because other crews were arriving. He moved the engine up about two blocks and when he came back his crew was gone. Along with the towers.
That was it. It was that simple. Fully aware that an airplane had crashed into the First Tower, and knowing that the inside of the building must have been an inferno, Lt. Brian Ahearn and five of his men put aside their own fears and ran into the building to save others. After all, that was their job. We all know, though, that not everyone will do his job when the job becomes so dangerous. But the superheroes do. Brian Ahearn and his men never shirked, and we remember him today, along with the 2,995 others who died on September 11, 2001.