Remember Lt. Brian Ahearn — Part II of my 9/11 trilogy

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.

On September 11, 2001, Lt. Ahearn was working at Engine Company 230 in Brooklyn, where he’d been assigned after his promotion. John Guarino described what happened that day:

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.

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  • Ymarsakar

    “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”
    But you know what. I bet your little boy won’t remember all the social activities he had in the day, but he will remember that conversation about his favorite superhero. Because his excitement etched it all in.
    With a little more life experience and wisdom sprinkled in, it will be one of numerous stones that build his foundation.

  • jj

    Two things about the NYC Fire Department about which you’re absolutely correct: to this day it remains a family career.  I have no idea how many people I know who are the sons and grandsons of firefighters, but it’s a pretty good number – fourteen right off the top of my head and if I keep thinking about it that’ll grow.  Second, and also to this day, I bet the largest single nationality in the department is just what it was a hundred years ago: Irish.
    Our small-town volunteer fire department north of the city had five members who were NYC Firefighters.  (Oddly enough, this is almost unique to New York.  Most cities around the country have fire department unions that are pissy about their members also serving as volunteers somewhere, and don’t permit it.  The biggest, most active, most well-trained and best fire department in the country doesn’t have a problem with it at all.  Go figure – but volunteer departments all over Long island, Westchester, Putnam, Fairfield County CT, and northern New Jersey benefit from having NYC guys as members.)  None of our members happened to be working that day, but they were all very quickly down in the city.
    New York City has – again with the full cooperation of the unions, etc. – an emergency plan in which the surrounding volunteer departments are fully integrated.  On September 11th, everybody slid south.  All the NYC houses on Manhattan shifted southward toward the Battery, the houses in the Bronx shifted into the now-empty Manhattan houses – and volunteer departments all over southern Westchester sent engines and crews south to fill in the houses that remained empty in northern Manhattan and the Bronx.  The neighborhoods couldn’t just be abandoned – there still needed to be fire trucks in the houses, in case something as prosaic as an actual fire broke out.  I ended up taking an engine and five guys down to an empty firehouse on the Fordham Road.  The two guys left behind to show us how to get around if the alarm went off were not the least bit concerned that we were non-union volunteers.  (They were bothered by being our guides in case of emergency; they wanted to be down at the Trade Center – but somebody had to be there to show us where the hell we were going if an alarm came in.)  I backed the engine into their house and, like everybody else in the country, we watched TV.  Very quiet day: not one single alarm came in, and nobody over the age of six was on the streets.  EVERYBODY was inside watching TV, with occasional trips outside for a minute to look at the tower of smoke rising off to the south.  To our south and east, NYC houses located in Queens were shifted westward to Manhattan, and their places, too, were being filled by crews and apparatus from volunteer departments on Long Island.
    One of our guys, then a lieutenant in the NYFD (and a Master Sergeant in the Air National Guard crash and rescue crew based at Stewart Air Force Base – three times in Iraq, twice at Aviano in Italy), and the grandson and son of NYFD lieutenants has now retired with damaged lungs from spending weeks crawling around the wreckage at Ground Zero recovering bodies.  Dave is Irish, naturally.  He lives in an oxygen tent, and his life expectancy has been fundamentally altered.  He regrets nothing –  he isn’t a regretter – and would do it again tomorrow.  (As, I suspect, would all the other guys in the NYFD who destroyed themselves by devoting weeks to pulling the bodies of comrades out of the mess.)
    Another of our guys, Bobby, was a captain in the NYFD on September 11th.  The city had been bugging him for several years to become a battalion chief, a job in which he had no interest because it makes you – in his estimation – a paper-pusher rather than a firefighter.  When Terry Hatton, the captain of NYC Rescue 1 died in the towers, they made Bobby the captain of Rescue 1 – which means that Bobby was recognized as being maybe the best urban and all-around situation handler and rescue operations guy in the country.  Maybe one of the two or three best in the world.  Rescue 1 does everything, everywhere – from hanging off the tops of skyscrapers to scuba diving.  (All of the crew are certified rescue divers – on top of everything else they’re certified to do.)  Bobby’s second generation in the NYFD – his grandfather came over from Ireland, his father was in the department, and his son Rex is an NYC firefighter, one of our volunteers in our little town – and on the crew of Rescue 3.  (Not quite as elite, but someday…)
    Joe is now retired , also as a lieutenant in the NYFD.  (None of these guys held any rank at all in our volunteer department, by the way – they were grunts!)  Joe is also a gunsmith, but most importantly he’d one of those people who know how things work.  His neighbors don’t seem to know what the job of gunsmith is – he gets calls all the time from neighbors whose pool pumps crapped out right before everyone arrived for the big party, or people whose grandfather clock stopped, or someone with a car that died, or someone with a dead oil burner and it’s a freezing night so the oil company guy’s so busy he can’t come for five hours and the baby’s sick – and Joe trots off on an errand of mercy to fix whatever busted.  And does fix it.  One of those magical guys who just knows how things work.  He was out of town on September 11th, which was good for us, because had he been in or anywhere near NY it’s certain he wouldn’t have survived the day.
    Fascinating people, and a privilege to have as friends.