N.Y. Return Floods Coach's Memories

N.Y. Return Floods Coach's Memories

 N.Y. return floods coach's memories
By Sean Keeler, Post staff reporter

Every morning, the twin towers would be there, gleaming benchmarks to the might of the Big Apple, beacons hanging over the Staten Island mist. They reassured Kevin Coyle, even as his chest burned and his knees pummeled into the concrete of a morning jog around Richmond Terrace, that all was right. Coyle loved the World Trade Center towers even more the farther, the longer he was away from Staten Island, his boyhood home.

Now the reassurance is gone. His chest will still burn and the knees will ache and he'll hear the seagulls and the pinging dinghies and . . . something will be missing. That's why Coyle, 45, doesn't know if he'll visit ''Ground Zero'' this weekend when the Bengals head to New York City to play the Jets.

''I have mixed feelings about that right now,'' the Bengals' first-year cornerbacks coach says with a sigh. ''It's really not something I definitely want to do. I think I will at some point . . . more as an acknowledgment for the people that have passed away, out of respect.''

For victims of the Sept. 11 attacks such as Jackie Connolly, a Staten Island guy and brother-in-law of Harry Coyle, Kevin's younger brother. For CHUCK MARGIOTTA, a firefighter who played football with Kevin at Staten Island's Monsignor Farrell High School.

He'll go for Harry, too. Harry, 43, a firefighter for 13 years. Harry, who made it. Harry, who saved hundreds of lives that chaotic morning when the towers came down. Harry, who he usually talked to once - maybe twice - the whole football season.

''People would always be asking me, "How's Kevin doing?' '' Harry recalls, his voice a raspier version of Kevin's, his Staten Island brogue intact. ''I don't know how my brother's doing. He's just so busy.' Now we talk every week. Since this happened, we talk every week now.'' And they'll talk in person this weekend in the Meadowlands, just a few miles south of Ground Zero, just a few miles west of home. Harry, his wife, and four daughters are part of a cadre of about 25 Coyle friends and pals attending Sunday's Bengals-Jets game at Giants Stadium. Kevin spent Tuesday morning pouring over Jets tape. Harry was at the house of a 9-11 widow, the widow of a firefighter, in remembrance of the three-month anniversary of the East Coast terror attacks.

Honoring Jackie. Honoring CHUCK. Honoring John Giordano.

Giordano was an old friend that Harry had bumped into in the lobby of the south tower the morning of Sept. 11, the middle of the chaos and the din. Giordano, a hazardous materials guy, another Staten Island guy. John, whom he kissed and told to be careful, man. John, whose name turned up among the missing that Tuesday afternoon.

''It doesn't feel like 90 days. It feels like 90 and then it feels like 900,'' Harry said. ''I still get vibes.'' How could you not? It was a morning that jolted adrenaline to every fiber as it numbed the aching soul. It touched every sense. Ninety days later, Harry can still see the blackness, can hear the roar that sounded like a freight train. He can smell and taste the ash.

Harry got the call around 8:48 that morning, a call that a plane had crashed into the south tower. Some crackpot, Harry thought at the time, some crackpot in a prop plane, doing some stupid stunt. 'I thought it was one of those clowns that try and land on top of the thing,'' he said. When Harry's fire truck came out of the tunnel and had to steer around the remains of a large plane engine, Harry knew it was something bigger. Beyond crackpot. Beyond horrible.

''When we pulled up in front there were already jumpers,'' Harry said. ''We knew then, it wasn't a regular fire. It was an eerie feeling, to say the least.'' But they had a job to do. Ladder 18 reported to the supervisor and rushed to join the evacuation process. Harry was on the fifth floor when the second plane crashed into the north tower. At the time, Harry didn't know this. They'd gotten most of the lower floors cleared - the floors they could reach - when his unit reconvened in the darkening, crumbling lobby below. A call came for more volunteers and Harry headed back up one of the clear stairwells, ready to take one more shot. He was halfway up the floor when he bumped into another firefighter who was hurtling down the steps. He told Harry that the north tower had just come down.

''Get out. Now.'' Harry ran.

''We just took off, all of us,'' Harry said. ''And then, within a minute, we weren't out of there a minute, the building went.'' Harry ran as far, as fast as he could, torn between instinct and cool. He knew he'd never outrun the crash, so after a block-and-half, he ducked behind a fire truck, a truck from Ladder 25. WHOOOSH! He closed his eyes. Blackness. He crossed himself. He prayed.
''Hey,'' Harry said, ''it never hurts. We didn't know if we were in the middle of the thing, the bottom of the thing, or what.''

After about five minutes, heads began to stir within the blackness. Eyes were rubbed free of debris, followed by spitting. ''After the thing was over with, you had to take the (stuff) out of your mouth with your fingers,'' Harry recalled. ''It was like somebody put a dirt bomb in your mouth.''

Ladder 18 made it. Many didn't. Harry estimated that more than 340 firefighters were killed that morning, 95 from his division. He went back to the rubble of both towers, tired and numb, dousing one hour, digging the next. A survivor was found right away, bringing the digging to a crescendo of hope. False hope, Harry said. Giant beams were liquified. Metal desks and computers were mere dust. Gone. Cripes, how could a person survive this?

That afternoon, Harry called his wife, then his parents, who in turn rang Kevin, his other brother and their two sisters. Harry worked at the site until midnight. He remained in Manhattan as part of regular shifts until late Friday night. But it wasn't until he visited Ground Zero three weeks later, as a civilian, that it sunk in, that it began to hurt.

''That was a reality check,'' Harry said. ''When you're in there as a fireman, you don't want to let your guard down. It was a real nice day and I could just sit back and . . . and let my feelings out. It felt good. It's a wake-up call. We were spoiled, you know? Still, tough way to become a better person.''

Harry and Kevin did not see each other again until Oct. 12, at a family wedding in Hartford, Conn. The coach and his sisters talked about making some kind of speech honoring Harry at the reception.
''And then I talked to his wife at the reception and she told me he'd already been through so much,'' Kevin said. ''That this was going to be a weekend where, hopefully, he could just sit back and enjoy the family.''

But a funny thing happened once the lights went down and the speeches were done. A request was put in for the song, ''Wind Beneath My Wings,'' with a dedication from the family to Harry.
Did you ever know that you're my he-ro . . .
''We all were dancing with our spouses and then all of a sudden, all his children come up,'' Kevin recalled, eyes welling up a bit. Harry's kids formed a big semi-circle around their father, followed by a sister and her husband. Then another sister. Within minutes, there was a mass of Coyles, a giant group hug at one corner of the dance floor.

''Just this big huddle on the dance floor, the whole family,'' Kevin said. ''No one had to say anything. It was a very personal moment. Everybody just had somebody by the hand.''
So they held on.

For Jackie. For CHUCK. For John. For hugs they never gave. For smiles they never knew.
For Harry, the hero. Harry, the loved.
Publication date: 12-13-01


 Sean Keeler / Post Staff Writer