The story the friend tells his fellow soldiers is of a New York City firefighter who was terribly burned in 1998. Timothy Stackpole could have retired on a tax-free disability pension amounting to full pay, but he was determined to return to the job he loved. Stackpole spent three often-agonizing years of therapy and exercise until he accomplished what many had thought impossible. He returned to full duty only to be killed by the collapsing south tower exactly six months later. Now, two years afterward, his childhood buddy was telling his story and showing his picture to soldiers who had become dispirited by the ordeal in Iraq. "There is not much whining after that and people move out with a sense of purpose," the E-mail reported. The childhood buddy went on to say that he had felt Stackpole looking over him when he found himself much closer to an explosion than anybody would ever want to be. "Not only did he shield me from the bomb blast, but he was also kind enough to cover my ears as most had ringing of the ears and some blown-out eardrums," the E-mail reported. "A true miracle, as I did not get a scratch and not even ringing of the ears.
The next sentence was as heartrending a sentence as was ever written. Tara had difficulty reading aloud the 10 simple words. "I wish I could have done the same for him.
"Those words were followed by a half-dozen blank lines, as if there was nothing that could be said immediately afterward. But the writer could not just end there. The message continued and the start of the next sentence had two dropped words. The writer's nerves then seemed to steady. "Most Americans are the kindest and [most] generous people [on] Earth, as demonstrated by those here in Iraq, and your family back home.
Tara read on. "I consider myself the luckiest man on Earth to have the family and friends I do. I have a lot to be thankful for, and you and your family are a big part of that.
Tara then came to another tough sentence. "I pray you are doing well and have tears rolling down my cheeks thinking of the empty place at your table.
The E-mail ended as quietly as a falling teardrop. "God Bless You and your family and I look forward to seeing you soon.
Tara happened to have heard news reports of the particular explosion the E-mail mentioned. Some instinct had told her at the time that her husband's buddy had been there. "I know he is," she had told a friend. Then, when she checked her E-mail, she saw the childhood buddy's screen name in the address column. The message had been sent at 12:18am.
on Nov. 27, the first minutes of Thanksgiving. "Subject: Happy Thanksgiving.
Watching over loved ones Tara has one son off in the Navy and a teenage daughter who was off being a teenager. Tara read the message to the three youngest, and afterward they trundled to bed with the knowledge that their father was still on full duty, if not fighting fires then looking over his boyhood buddy and steadying our soldiers in a distant war. Of course, those duties in Iraq never for an instant keep Timothy Stackpole from watching over his family. Dad was certainly with his youngest son when the boy awoke to his ninth birthday yesterday. Dad will also be there today when the 12-year-old and the 11-year-old play a big football game. Dad will be rooting for a touchdown in Brooklyn even as he keeps half an eye out for bombs on the other side of the world.
The courage and dedication of 9/11 first responders is etched in the national consciousness. Polls throughout the last decade reveal that near the top for “most admired profession” in America is the firefighter. We want to be reminded of the heroic among us in order to restore our faith in mankind. Our belief in the inherent goodness of mankind, and a search for its whereabouts, led me to one of my own personal heroes.
I found my living hero—not a public figure, just a model human—in the late spring of 2001. I had read an unforgettable story in the Daily News about NYC Fireman Timothy Stackpole, detailing his miraculous recovery from critical burns he had sustained after falling waist deep in fire in June 1998 and triumphant return to the job he loved. I later learned his nickname among brothers in the department was “Jobs” because he lived for the work.
Stackpole’s story of resilience so moved me that I found his home number through Information and found myself speaking to kind Tara, his wife—so open was she to a stranger, now stumbling to find the right words of thanks. Her Timmy wasn’t home she told me, but she knew he would be so pleased to hear I called. Her words spilled out with unmistakable pride for this husband and father of five who endured unfathomable pain—pass out kind of pain—from burns sustained to over 30 percent of his body, followed by months of skin grafts and physical rehabilitation.
Timothy “Jobs” returned to light duty just as soon as he was allowed, the article had pointed out, despite being eligible for full medical disability, so severe were his burns. On that ominous day in June, 1998, Ladder Co. 103 lost two of its own: Lt. Jimmy Blackmore, and, weeks later, Captain Scott La Piedra.
“We fell ten feet into a crackling orange furnace. I thought no one would ever find us…I remember the pain in my ankles, burned to the bone. And I remember just praying to God: ‘just let me die bravely,” he said in the Daily News article.
Our conversation took on the quality of old friends as Tara shared freely about how Timothy had been productive during the long months since the fire: Completing a Bachelor’s Degree at St. Francis College along with daily physical therapy and gym workouts. He prepared himself for the dream; a return to full active duty. And, I learned the definition of hero when Tara explained that her husband started each day with a phone call to a neighbor who was suffering her own nightmare of pain and depression from debilitating illness. He cheered her on through his own suffering.
Just recently, I discovered that Timothy also taped a public service announcement for Cornell Burn Center where his life was saved. He said: “ The greatest high you can get in life is by helping somebody.”
I remember asking Tara to please tell her husband that I would keep his story alive by repeating it to the students at my elementary school, where I worked as an Instructional Assistant. I did share his story that spring, with second and third graders. In their eyes, I saw that he was a superhero; a real life superhero, brave and true, with the power to save others and to make their spirits soar.
School was just starting up again, and my delight was showing when I read another newspaper story announcing Timothy’s promotion to captain. The photograph of Timothy in his white captain’s hat and crisp uniform surrounded by a glowing Tara and children, captured a man at the pinnacle, who had climbed out of the depths of darkness.
He was doing what he loved best when the Towers collapsed. Tara was rushing home after the planes collided with steel and humanity to await his phone call. On the way, a detour led her directly past 2530 Atlantic Ave., the Brooklyn building where the fire had raged three years ago, nearly taking brave Timothy's life.
She knew then.
"So I’m not going to be bitter at how he died. Because this was the kind of thing Timmy was born to do, to help people at a time like this," she said in the Daily News.
Entering the funeral parlor to pay my respects that September evening meant passing through a line of mourners that extended as far as the eye could see; a line filled with all of Brooklyn, it seemed, standing patiently and reverently. Firemen, too many to count, stood looking dazed and restless as they hopefully searched the faces for brothers still unaccounted for. I remember the flowers everywhere and the scent of roses, and the shaken, noble firemen in their dress uniforms. On the closed casket rested his captain’s hat and all around there were photographs of a wonderful man living his wonderful life. I felt in the presence of a Medal of Honor recipient, and in my hand I held his award: A batch of letters of thanks from my daughter Kristen Therese, and her seventh-grade classmates. I presented the letters to Tara, felt truly astonished by her strength, and I promised to keep her husband’s name alive and to honor his sacrifice.
My hero—our hero—was taken too soon. Courageous in living and in dying, Timothy embodied human kind’s capacity for goodness. He walked through fire. He captained the ship through its sinking. He loved and laughed and lifted up all who knew him.
The next day, he was one of the hundreds of firemen who answered the call after the World Trade Center was struck by two airliners — and one of the 343 who was killed when the twin towers collapsed.
Stackpole, who was a legend in the Fire Department after surviving the 1998 fire, was dedicated to his job to the end.
"The greatest high you can get in life is by helping somebody," he said in a public service announcement that was taped before his death. He taped the message for the hospital that helped him recover from the terrible burns he suffered in the 1998 fire.
Two Passions: Family and Fire
Stackpole grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Marine Park, the same area where he would eventually raise his own five kids.
His family was his top priority, said his wife Tara. "That was like a million dollars to him. He just enjoyed being with the kids every day," she said.
Stackpole was also passionate about his job. While fighting a four-alarm fire at a Brooklyn rowhouse in the summer of 1998, he heard that a woman was trapped inside. Without hesitation, he and two colleagues did what firemen do: they ran into the flames to save someone.
While the three firefighters were inside, the floor collapsed without warning.
"My whole body was trapped up to my neck," Stackpole says in the PSA. "The fire was still roaring all around us … I remember the excruciating pain in my ankles, burned to the bone. And I remember just praying to God: Just let me die bravely."
Stackpole and his colleagues, Lt. James Blackmore and Capt. Scott LaPiedra, were trapped in the fire for almost a half-hour.
"I had this tremendous sadness that I wasn't going to see my children again, growing up, walking my daughter down the aisle," he says.
Thirty-four of his colleagues put their own lives at risk to save the three men. They got them out, but Blackmore died at the scene. Stackpole and LaPiedra were rushed into ambulances with terrible burns.
Firefighter Michael Brady rode with Stackpole. "In that moment, he was still Timmy," Brady recalled. "He was still comforting the EMT, who were shocked with what was going on, and cheering them on: 'Thank you brother. Thank you for helping me.' His zeal could never be squashed."
The Will to Walk
Stackpole was taken to the New York Weill Cornell Burn Center. With burns over 30 percent of his body, he was near death for many days. At best, his wife thought he would never walk again.
"The pain he suffered was incredible," she said. When doctors attempted to get Stackpole back on his feet, he fainted from the pain.
After 66 days, Stackpole limped out of the hospital to a hero's welcome, returning to work soon afterward. Though he could have retired from the department and gotten a pension, Stackpole chose not to.
"It was his life, his calling," said his wife. "He couldn't not do it. This is what he felt he was supposed to do in his life.
His Last Day at Work
Tara Stackpole remembers Sept. 11 beginning as a normal day. "It was a normal routine Tuesday. He kissed us goodbye and told me he loved me," she said.
When she heard about the attack on the World Trade Center, she immediately raced from her mother's house to pick up her children.
"I stopped at a light and I realized I was right in front of the building he was injured in in 1998, and I just had an awful feeling he wasn't coming home that night," she remembers. "It's a sign. I mean how odd could it be that I ended up there? It was almost like a reminder to me that I had had those three years."
The City Mourns
It turned out that Timmy Stackpole was among the first to get to Ground Zero. He led a team that ran into 2 World Trade Center to rescue victims after it was struck. He and the others all perished when the tower collapsed.
Recovery workers found his body a week later
"They told me they draped a flag and when they turned to walk out, all the people at the site formed an honor guard and saluted. It was beautiful," said Tara. "They came straight from the site to tell me they found him and brought him home."
Ten thousand people attended Stackpole's funeral, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who called him "one of the most exceptional human beings I've ever met."
At the station house on Sheffield Avenue, they painted Stackpole's name on the front of the ladder truck — along with his nickname, "Jobs," because he loved what he did so much.
"He was the pride of Sheffield Ave.," said Lt. Kevin Schamberger of Ladder Company 103. "He was. He always will be. He made us rise to the occasion."
A sudden gust of wind whipped through the sea of firefighters who lined a Brooklyn street to say farewell to Fire Department legend Timothy Stackpole. "That's got to be the spirit of Timmy," his friend, Ladder 132 Firefighter Vinny O'Grady said, tears glistening in his eyes as the branches of maple trees bent in the breeze. "He was my mentor."
"I feel honored to have met Timmy," added his wife, Tara O'Grady.
Thousands of people felt honored to have met Stackpole, judging from the masses along Avenue S in Marine Park as a rig from Ladder Co. 103 draped in purple-and-black bunting carried his coffin to Good Shepherd Catholic Church yesterday morning. Stackpole was the miracle firefighter, the man who clawed his way back to full duty after he was nearly killed in a monstrous Brooklyn blaze. He was the Great Irish Fair's Irishman of the Year, the Catholic "Bishop" who counseled countless firefighters. But most of all, he was a fireman who loved fighting fires. "We called him 'Jobs' because he was always talking about the fire job we had the day before, the week before, the year before," said his friend Lt. Gerard O'Donnell, a 37-year FDNY veteran who retired last week. "He never stopped talking about fires.
"Grief is shared Firefighters in dress blues comprised the bulk of the sprawling crowd, but there were plenty of cops, community members and fellow parishioners. "This is a very sad day for our parish and our city," former FDNY chaplain Msgr. Thomas Brady, now the pastor at Good Shepherd, told the throngs who packed the pews and stood in the aisles for Stackpole's Mass. Minutes earlier, Stackpole's wife, Tara, followed his coffin up the marble stairs of the church, clutching the hand of her 6-year-old son, Terrence. The couple's four other children, Kevin, 18 - on a brief leave from the Navy - Kaitlyn, 15, Brian, 10, and Brendan, 9, followed close behind, carrying their father's fire helmet. On the front of Stackpole's coffin was a brass plaque emblazoned with the date of his death - Sept. 11, 2001. Stackpole had formed a company of firefighters that ran into the inferno at 2 World Trade Center to rescue victims. When the tower collapsed, it killed him and his team instantly, FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen said. "He now becomes part of the lore and the history of the Fire Department," Von Essen said. Stackpole's incredible story of perseverance and dedication to the Fire Department has already been etched into the department's history. On June 5, 1998, Stackpole rushed into a burning East New York, Brooklyn, rowhouse to search for a woman mistakenly believed to be trapped inside. The floor collapsed, plunging Stackpole, Lt. James Blackmore and Capt. Scott LaPiedra into a maelstrom of flames. Stackpole recited the Lord's Prayer aloud. Blackmore died at the scene. LaPiedra died 29 days later. Burn center ordeal Stackpole was hospitalized at Weill Cornell Medical Center's burn unit for 66 days. His injuries would easily have qualified him for a pension, but after years of painful surgeries and skin grafts, Stackpole returned to full duty in March, and was promoted to captain this month. "People ask why he came back," Firefighter Michael Stackpole, his brother, said during his moving eulogy. "But the people who knew Timmy best knew . . . whether it was helping a lady down two flights of stairs or running into a burning building, that was him."
"Stackpole's wife and children say they are grateful he was back in their lives for three years. In a letter, his only daughter, Kaitlyn, wrote to her dad the day firefighters found his body in the World Trade Center rubble, she said: "I can't imagine my life without you in it. . . . I'll always know where to find you, in our hearts. My whole life I've always known what a good person you are. "I believe God gave us three more years. There is a little bit of you in all of us, especially in Mommy, the boys and me," she wrote. "I love you. Thank you, Daddy."
Mayor Giuliani called Stackpole "extraordinary."
"He was in fact one of the most exceptional human beings I've ever met," said the mayor, who had visited Stackpole in the burn unit after he was critically wounded in 1998. "I fit him in the category of some of the real heroes that I have seen."
The 20-year FDNY veteran was among scores of New York’s Bravest who made the ultimate sacrifice in the World Trade Center disaster.
A neighbor who requested anonymity said Stackpole had gone into the burning 7 World Trade Center building and “came out just in time for it collapse on him.”
Yesterday, American flags hung from makeshift poles in front of 18 homes on the street in Brooklyn’s Marine Park section where Stackpole lived with his wife, Tara, and five kids, aged 7 to 18.
“Anybody who knew Timmy loved him,” said neighbor Noreen McGuiness. “He was a great man, a great husband, and a man of great faith. He’s a wonderful man. Oh my God, as if Tara hadn’t been through enough already.”
Stackpole, 42, had been promoted to captain just a week ago. And he was also named man of the year for the annual Great Irish Fair in Coney Island.
Stackpole’s loss was made all the more tragic by the devastating injuries he suffered in a June 1998 inferno, his courageous battle back from the brink, and his intrepid return to duty this year.
He was nearly killed while trying to save a woman from a roaring East New York fire that claimed the lives of two FDNY lieutenants.
When the floor gave way, he and his comrades plunged through the building into an ocean of fire. His body engulfed in flames, he was buried beneath floor beams and a burning radiator.
“All I kept thinking was I wasn’t going to see my children again,” he said later, describing how he was tempted to rip off his face mask and die quickly. Then he got a message from a higher authority.
“God told me to hold the mask to my face so I’ll breathe fresh air,” he said. “He told me in my prayers, in my mind, to hold on.”
He was burned over 30 percent of his body, to the bone on his legs, and underwent two months of painful surgery, skin grafts and rehabilitation.
Neighbor Michael Fontana recalled how Stackpole recounted his 1998 brush with death.
“After the fire burned through his suit, he realized he was trapped and prayed the Lord’s Prayer, screaming it and repeating it again and again,” Fontana said, breaking down in tears. “You had to see his legs from the first accident – just bone. He just willed himself back to work.”
When Stackpole left the hospital on his own two feet that August, his voice cracked with emotion as he talked about his dream of one day returning to Ladder Company 103.
“We were hoping he’d be given a desk job, but that wasn’t him,” Fontana said. “He was hoping to go right back. He said ‘No, no. You have to lead the troops right back.'”
At the time, Stackpole, who had brothers working for the FDNY and NYPD, explained his commitment to firefighting by saying: “It’s my calling.”
He got his wish 2 ½ years later, reporting for duty at the Sheffield Avenue fire house as his colleagues’ and supervisors’ hearts burst with pride and love.
Yesterday, those same hearts were broken as word circulated that Stackpole, the Fire Department’s ultimate survivor, had been killed. Their only consolation was the knowledge that he died doing the job he lived for.