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Leading the Lives They Died to Save
An essay by NPR's Scott Simon

audio Listen to Simon's essay.

NPR's Scott Simon
Scott Simon

Oct. 6, 2001 -- My wife and I were walking down the street in New York this week, and we saw a great number of stoutly shoulders outside of a church. Men and women were speaking softly in the street. Anonymous black cars ran their motors softly. White and yellow flowers were piled softly onto concrete stairs. It was the funeral for a firefighter. We decided to go in.

The man being buried had died risking his life for strangers, so it didn't feel strange -- in fact, it felt important to sit in that church among those who loved him. Gerard Barbara was 53 years old and an assistant chief of the Fire Department of New York. He died when Tower Two collapsed, leading men into a hail of smoke and glass.

Jerry Barbara sounded like a fierce and funny man, a husband, a father, a Yankees fan and an artist; he picked up smashed glass at fire scenes and set it inside of pictures he made of New York's skyline and neighborhoods.

We sat in pews among emergency medical technicians, men and women with thick-soled boots, blue uniforms and red eyes. Someone brought their son, a little boy who squirmed in his seat and didn't want to take off his Yankees jacket. He made us smile.

"The man being buried had died risking his life for strangers, so it didn't feel strange -- in fact, it felt important to sit in that church among those who loved him."

Scott Simon

The Communion line was long; more blue shoulders with red Fire Department patches, FDNY of course, but also Newark, Cherry Hill, Belwood, Boston and Chicago. Mayor Giuliani spoke, a man in a gray suit with red eyes. It was his fourth funeral that day.

"We must lift up our eyes," said the mayor, "and resume life. If Jerry and his men could be so brave, the least we can do is lead the lives they died to save." And then the mayor turned to Jerry Barbara's family to say, 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 stood. People applauded until their palms got red and sore and then applauded more.

"Go in peace," said the priest, "to love and serve the Lord."

Fifth Avenue was crowded once again as we walked out. So were the subways, the buses and now, again, bars and coffee shops. But there is a quiet among crowds now. For the moment, we seem to walk among each other gently.

Scott Simon is host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.