Lead Lives Firefighters Died To Save, Widow Urges

Host Scott Simon talks with Joanne Barbara, the widow of New York Fire Department Assistant Chief Gerard A. Barbara, who died on Sept. 11, 2001, as he led the rescue effort from the lobby of the south tower of the World Trade Center.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: A few days after September 11, 2001, my wife and I walked past St. Patrick's Cathedral and saw scores of stout blue shoulders with patches that said FDNY. We'd stepped into the funeral for a New York City firefighter. We didn't know the man and started to leave, then we reminded ourselves he had died risking his life for us so we stayed to pay our respects to the man and those who loved him.

He was Gerard Barbara, as assistant chief who was 53, a solid smiling man with a dashing moustache. Chief Barbara was also an artist. He took smashed glass from fire scenes and made beautiful stained glass windows for the firehouses where he served. The mayor of New York turned to Gerry Barbara's wife, Joanne, and his son and daughter and said as bluntly as a commandment, you have a name that is part of the history of this city and now I would like everyone to stand and show how grateful they are to your father.

We applauded until our hands hurt and then kept applauding. As we approach this 10th anniversary of September 11th, we're joined by Joanne Barbara from Staten Island, New York. Joanne, thanks for being back with us.

JOANNE BARBARA: Hi, good morning.

SIMON: What are these anniversaries like for you?

BARBARA: All summer long, while you enjoy the summer, while you enjoy, you know, family gatherings and being with your family and friends, you know when the weather starts to change that that's the anniversary. And you don't want the anniversary to come. You don't want it to come. And you know it's going to happen and then you just preparing your life, your daily routines that you'll do before the anniversary or after the anniversary.

You know, I can't do it until after the anniversary. And a big parcel of your life is on hold during the anniversary. You're actually on hold. You're suspended. You're just waiting. You're waiting. You're waiting for September 12th, 'cause then maybe you could have a sigh, you know, a little relief.

SIMON: Remember you told me a story once about someone who'd seen Gerry in an elevator trying to reach the missing floors.

BARBARA: Yeah.

SIMON: Could you share that story with us?

BARBARA: Yeah. The day of the - the impact of the first plane, the chiefs were in headquarters, city-wide tour commanders, chief of the department, chief of operations, deputies, they were all in headquarters and they all, along with their aides, were getting down to the garage of headquarters in Metro Tech to go to the building. And they wear their dress blues. That's what they wear. They don't wear their turnout gear. And the story was told to me that when the elevator door closed, you saw the reflection in the chrome.

And someone said to my husband - and I'm sure the language was salty. All right. I'm sure the language was salty. But what I was told was, you know, why are you fixing your tie? What the heck you fixing your tie for? You know. And he just wryly smiled and said, you always got to look good for the public. Yeah. And the gentleman that I'm speaking of that related this story to me said, and then the doors opened, Joanne, and we were in the garage and everybody went to their own car.

And, you know, I do have tidbits of conversations with some firefighters that were there. And sometimes they're afraid to tell you because they think that it's going to upset you, but it's not. It's not upsetting. You want to hear everything that happened that day.

SIMON: Now, Joanne, I will never forget when Mayor Giuliani turned to your family. I wrote it down. He said, we must lift up our eyes and resume life. The least we can do is lead the lives Gerry and his men died to save. Have you been able to do that?

BARBARA: As best as I can. As best as I can. I have difficult days, but I have days where I laugh. I have days where I'm happy. When you are married for - Gerry and I were married for 30 years. You had a plan, you know. You were - you had a plan. You had your children. You raised your kids. You put them through college. You wanted them to become productive adults and then you had time for yourself. And Gerry and I were very fortunate because we had a lot of time for ourselves.

We did. We really enjoyed our lives. We traveled. We went out. It was a time for us. I don't really have a plan anymore. Plan was taken away. I'm doing great. I think I'm doing good. I'm not doing so good this month, though. I have to tell you. But on a whole, I think I'm OK.

SIMON: Joanne Barbara in Staten Island. She was married to Assistant Chief Gerry Barbara of the New York Fire Department who died on September 11, 2001, leading a rescue party into the burning towers. Joanne, thank you so much.

BARBARA: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my husband.

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