Paul Mitchell hasn’t been home for 51 days. His co-workers saw him leave work at 9am. He didn’t call his wife to tell her he’d be late. He hasn’t called his two daughters to tell them he loves them. He hasn’t shown up at any of his friends’ houses to help them with home repairs or to make dump runs. He hasn’t been to church. He hasn’t walked over to his Mom’s house to ask if she needs anything. His garage door business has been idle.
No one ever thought this would happen. Paul always comes home.
On the morning of September 11th, New York City Fire Lieutenant Paul Mitchell finished his scheduled night shift at Engine 5 in Manhattan. He was on his way home when planes struck the Twin Towers. He was off duty. He could have joined all the people who streamed over the city’s bridges and waterways to escape the horror on the Mall. But he was different from them. Paul was a 14 year veteran of FDNY. Paul turned around and went back.
He stopped at his old firehouse, Ladder 110, and rode with the day shift to the World Trade Center. They were glad to have him. Things had always turned out well when “Big Daddy” had ridden with them. He was a 6’3”, 250 lb smoke eater with hands like bear paws, an experienced “jake” who ruthlessly drilled the rookies on safety techniques. He rode Ladder 110 to the World Trade Center with guys he’d die for. He was one of the answers to the prayers of thousands of civilians fleeing the towers. His was one of the faces that gave them hope. He was inside when the towers collapsed. He’d answered his last call on the truck he’d ridden to his first call.
Paul’s wife Maureen and their girls, Jennifer and Christine, waited a long time for him to come home. They waited when he was late from work. They waited when they learned he’d gone into the Towers. They waited for the man who could smash through doors and climb into smoke filled buildings to step from the ashes and rubble alive. They waited when officials declared the rescue mission a recovery mission. They waited a week, two weeks, a month. They wait- ed for someone to find him. They waited for someone to find his boots, or his ring, or any proof that he really had been there, and that he really is gone.
They waited a long time.
Paul’s and Maureen’s 21st wedding anniversary was November 1st. Paul’s wake was also November 1st. Hundreds of people stood in line to comfort Maureen, the girls and Paul’s mother and sisters. Paul would have been proud of the way his family greeted every mourner with a hug and a thank you, and of the way they tried to comfort the people who didn’t know what to say.
On November 2nd, All Soul’s Day, two ladder trucks faced off in the street outside the church where Paul worshipped. A 20 foot American flag was hung between the extended ladders. Hundreds of firefighters and cops, some from places like Maryland and L.A. County, stood in formation as bagpipers led the procession into the church yard. Hundreds of civilians stood silently. Only the flags of the honor guards moved. Paul’s family walked a corridor of firefighters to enter the church where they would say goodbye. There was no casket. There was no need. Paul will not rest in a Staten Island cemetery where his family can plant flowers. Paul will rest where God buried him, where he and his colleagues answered one last alarm and thousands of desperate prayers.
Inside the church, Paul’s friends and family gave up any hope that remained after 51 days. Some of Paul’s buddies couldn’t be there because they are still with him. Their wives have been waiting, too. Like Maureen, they will have an American flag and a firefighter’s helmet to add to their memories. They will have a closet full of uniforms that won’t get worn.
Outside the church, the weather-proof speakers were drowned out by conversation as old friends embraced and new friendships were formed. Cops and firefighters leaned on fire trucks draped with flowers, drank coffee and told war stories. It wasn’t disrespectful. It was necessary. There have been too many funerals, too many formations and too many sad days. One man has attended 92 funerals. He has a bumper sticker on his truck that reads, “FDNY – Still the Greatest Job on Earth”. Paul would agree.
Paul was going to retire in four years. He was going to move to Cape Cod to start a garage door business, drink Reserve St. Martin wine, add to his collection of fire history books, play golf, hang out with his buddies on the local fire departments and spend summers with his girls when they were on break from Boston College. Maybe he’d coach basketball and organize games for the neighborhood kids. But that dream is over. Paul was 46 years old when he answered that last bell. He did his job. He gave up his dreams. He gave up his life. He didn’t want to. He didn’t have to. But he was Lt Paul Mitchell, so he did.
Members of two Cape Cod fire departments (Dennis and Harwich) traveled to New York to attend the memorial services for Lt Paul Mitchell, a long time friend.
The Dennis Fire Department has changed the number of its ladder truck from Ladder 108 to Ladder 110 in his memory.
Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts.
She can be reached at JKWragg@yahoo.com.
She can be reached at JKWragg@yahoo.com.