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My Husband's Back on Job,
While I Pray

by Virginia Breen
Copyright December 10, 2001, New York Daily News, Inc.

At 1800 hours Thursday, my firefighter husband returned to work for the first time since he broke his shoulder Sept. 11. After three months of physical therapy and funerals, he was back at the job he loves, a job that has broken his heart. I'm trying not to be a wimp.

The details of that terrible day have already become family history. Tom worked the overnight tour at Battalion 32 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a Battery Tunnel ride away from the twin towers. Around 8:50 a.m., as I shoveled Cheerios into our 2- and 4-year-old sons, he called home before heading to the scene.

Unedited BBC footage, given to the Fire Department's Safety Operating Battalion and passed along to Tom, shows him arriving at West and Liberty Sts. He shakes hands with another battalion chief, who directs him to the south tower staging area. The chief turns to his aide and says, "Tell him what we got." Then you hear the rumble, and the camera pans up as the tower pancakes in a hail of crumbling concrete and steel. The camera swings wildly out of control, the roar grows and the screen turns black.

The blast knocked Tom down the street, and a piece of debris whacked him on the back. Choking in the black cloud, he thought he was dying.

Over the next frantic hours, I manned the phone, madly scrawling the names of missing firefighters I found out about on the back of an envelope and a paper towel. Lt. Dennis Mojica, Tom's friend of nearly 20 years, who had cleared the dance floor in a wild tango with his fiancee, Maria, at a firefighter's wedding only weeks before, was on the list. Dennis and Maria, blissfully in love, were to be wed last month. Everything was set: the vintage wedding dress, the Sheepshead Bay reception, the Hawaiian honeymoon. Maria now has 55 crystal vases purchased as guest favors, but no Dennis.

Several hours after the attacks, a social worker from Bellevue Hospital finally called to tell me Tom was being treated for a broken right scapula and torn tendons. I put the phone down and cried. Three entire companies in the 32nd Battalion were lost. Tom shared a firehouse with seven of those men, the entire crew of Ladder Co. 101, now known as the Seven in Heaven. Fifteen firefighters from his old house, Engine 54 and Ladder 4, perished.

That first week, our answering machine broke after being overloaded with messages. Neighbors showed up with fresh-baked banana bread, topiaries and several variations of lasagna. Our local Hartsdale Volunteer Fire Department brought a tray of ziti and attended Dennis' funeral for Tom. Pat Burke from across the street fertilized our lawn. Tom's brother Frank mowed it for weeks. We were inundated with cards, from long-lost friends and wonderful strangers. Third-graders from the North Topsail Elementary School in North Carolina, neighbors of my retired firefighter uncle, drew pictures.

Here's what we did over the last 11 weeks: wrote a will, collected a stack of prayer cards from too many memorial services, gathered acorns with our boys. I learned how to check the water level on the oil burner, drove Tom to physical therapy and stared at him a lot, wondering what I'd be doing if ... if.

At 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 16, Tom nudged me awake and led me outside on our front lawn to watch the Leonid meteor shower. It seemed imperative that we not miss it. I had expected something ominous, but the air was clear and crisp, and we held each other and watched tiny bursts of light zip across the heavens. I said a silent thanks to God for allowing us to stare at the sky in wonder instead of fear. I thought of Dennis and Ladder 101 and prayed their families would find peace.

So Tommy and Jack sent their daddy off to work as they always had, with a kiss and a traditional "safety-first salute." I won't think about homeland security czar Tom Ridge's holiday terror alert.

That's the deal. Tom will walk out the door, and I'll grab the old envelope and paper towel bearing the names of the dead items I've kept in my purse as talismans and ask those guys to watch his back.

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