New York Firefighters Mourn Their Dead at Annual Memorial Service

There was a time when city firefighters remembered Oct. 17, 1966, as their darkest day.

All told, 12 firefighters died that day fighting a fire at a drug store, making it the fire department's worst single-day loss of life. But the events of Sept. 11 magnified the tragedy many times over.

Members of Engine 16-Ladder 7 filled pews Saturday for an hour-long memorial Mass for their dead, an event they have held every year since 1967. The deaths of 343 firefighters on Sept. 11 — seven of them from Ladder 7 — reminded them that great sacrifices are far from a thing of the past.

The Rev. Jack O'Keefe, who lost his firefighter father in 1967, told the crowd it was normal to feel anger and despair, and even to lose faith in God.

"We are normal human beings and we are angry," O'Keefe said. "But the question then is, 'Where do we go from here?"'

Some silently wiped their eyes as he spoke.

"You have a legacy of service to this city that can never be touched," O'Keefe said.

Saturday's service was one of a long line of memorials and funerals held since Sept. 11. Tom Jensen, deputy chief of the third division, said 18 funerals were scheduled for Saturday alone.

"I don't even know how many funerals I've been to and it doesn't get any easier," Jensen said. "Since Sept. 11, you are either at work or you're at a funeral."

Firefighter Joe Finley, whose father also died fighting a fire, said Sept. 11 was "like a nightmare I can't wake up from."

"I knew what it was like not to have father and I try to make it up to my kids everyday," he said. "I give them a hug and a kiss and tell them I love them."

Also Saturday, 31 firefighters and five police officers from Indiana ran into Manhattan, finishing a 757-mile marathon to deliver $170,000 in relief donations. And Gianfranco Fini, deputy prime minister of Italy, presented New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with the Cavaliere di Gran Croce, Italy's highest civilian honor.

"I'm very humbled," Giuliani said.

The number of missing and dead in the trade center attack stood at 4,470 missing, 460 bodies recovered and 410 of them identified, the emergency management office said.

Many of the firefighters at Saturday's Mass wore navy blue dress uniforms and carried children in their arms. Some in the back rows wore turnout gear and radios that crackled quietly on their hips.

Near the ceremony's end, several pews cleared as firefighters dashed to another call.