A father lost, a family copes

Fire Marshal Ron Bucca died on the 78th floor

2001 / 2006

9/11 Five Years

September 09, 2006|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun reporter

During his 23 years with the New York City fire department, Ron Bucca lifted people out of elevator shafts, carried them from subway tunnels and dragged them out of rivers. People's lives depended on his clear head and steady hand in a crisis.

Five years ago this Monday, Bucca arrived at the South Tower of the World Trade Center as smoke gushed out of its upper floors. He climbed the stairs up to the burning 78th-floor sky lounge, where scores were injured. As he started to fight the fire, the building collapsed. He died along with the people he had hoped to save.

Bucca was a former Green Beret, a paratrooper and scuba diver. He broke his back in a five-story fall from an apartment building's fire escape. The fire department cited him five times for bravery.

But after Bucca's death, it was his wife and children whose courage was tested. "My dad had a way of making you feel very protected," says his 28-year-old daughter, Jessica Bucca. "And all of a sudden he wasn't there."

Since 9/11, Jessica says, she has learned to rely more on herself. Eve Bucca, Ron's widow, says she has adapted to life without the man she called "my go-to guy."

Ron and his son, Ron Jr., were so close that they got matching tattoos on Ron Jr.'s 19th birthday. The 26-year-old is still shocked by the loss of his father and bewildered by the motives of his father's killers.

"It's not even like you're going after military targets," he says. "You're just killing for the most part 3,000 civilians: fathers, sons, daughters, wives ... people just going to work. That's not fair. They didn't expect this."

But like his mother and sister, Ron Jr. was determined not to become another victim of 9/11.

The Buccas have found the courage to make hard choices, to grow and to change.

"One of the things the three of us learned after that event was just how strong and just how resilient the three of us were," Eve says.

And their journeys have taken them in directions they might never have expected to go.

Five years ago, Ron Jr. was just starting his senior year at Tulane University in New Orleans. He was on his way out the door and heading to campus when he saw the burning towers on television. He knew instantly that his father would head to the World Trade Center.

After a career as a firefighter and rescue specialist, Ron Sr. had joined the fire marshal's office in 1992. He was one of the first on the scene after Islamic radicals tried to bring the towers down with a truck bomb in February 1993. He had been warning city officials ever since that others would some day return to finish the job.

Ron Jr. called his father's cell phone but couldn't get through. By late that afternoon, everyone at the fire marshal's office on Lafayette Street in Manhattan was accounted for, except Ron Sr.

All flights were grounded, so Ron Jr. drove from New Orleans to New York in a friend's Ford Explorer in 16 hours. When the speedometer hit 110 mph, he says, the SUV wouldn't go any faster.

He wandered through the towering, smoking wreckage. Fires still burned in spots. He had convinced himself on the long drive north that he could find his father.

A month later, searchers finally discovered Ron Sr. in the wreckage of one stairwell. At the tent that served as Ground Zero's temporary morgue, Ron Jr. recognized his father's body by the tattoo they shared.

"It was one of my rougher, rougher experiences," he recalls.

Ron Sr. had told his son to stay out of the military. Go to college, he said, get a degree and a white-collar job in an office building. The unspoken message: Don't risk your life for a living.

Ron Jr. did what his father would have wanted him to do. He graduated from Tulane with honors the next May. He started a job with a brokerage firm and was on his way to a career as a stock trader. But he was miserable.

The U.S. had driven the Taliban out of much of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden had slipped away at Tora Bora. Ron Jr. wanted to help track down his father's killers. "I felt it was my war, it was something I needed to be a part of," he says.

So he enlisted in the Army. He was inducted in March 2003, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In part, he admits, he wanted revenge.

"I wanted to kick everybody's ass," he says.

But Ron Jr. says that anger has ebbed. Mostly, he wants to do what his father did. He wants to protect the lives of others.

"It's not that I'm trying to kill as many terrorists as possible," he says. "I've lived through a horrible experience. If I can prevent that from happening - a kid losing his father, a father losing his son - I'll do whatever I can."

Ron Jr. has fought in cities filled with Sunni insurgents, with now-notorious names: Al Asad, Fallujah and Ramadi. He served in the holy city of Najaf, which was controlled by Shiite militiamen.

Twice, insurgents have hit his Humvee with roadside bombs. Both times he escaped serious injury.

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