In the wake of suffering, we step up to the plate

September 11, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

When Major League Baseball canceled play after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was the smallest of losses in the midst of unbelievably immense ones for Bill Spade. After all, he was the only firefighter of the 12 men on duty at his station house that day to survive. When he saw the department-wide list of firefighters who perished, he counted 85 he knew on a first-name basis. And when United Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pa., Spade's uncle was aboard.

Yet as Spade was recovering from injuries from the World Trade Center rescue efforts, he was surprised by the void he felt during the few days without baseball. It was oddly heartening when the games resumed, and the New York teams emerged from their dugouts wearing NYPD and NYFD caps.

Such is the healing power of baseball.

Tonight at Camden Yards, Spade will throw out a ceremonial first pitch before the Orioles game against the Yankees, part of a lineup of commemorative events marking the five-year anniversary of 9/11 at the park and elsewhere.

I almost didn't recognize Spade when I went to meet him yesterday at his hotel in Baltimore. We had met several years ago when I did an article on his borough, Staten Island, and the outsized hit that it took on 9/11. Except for part of Manhattan's Upper East Side and Hoboken, N.J., Staten Island probably had the largest concentration of victims in the attacks, largely because of the number of police and firefighters who lived there.

Like much of his wounded community, Spade seemed rather shellshocked when I first met him. He saw a therapist for about four years after 9/11, and even now wonders why he survived when so many of his friends and colleagues didn't. After his lungs collapsed and were permanently damaged from what he inhaled at the trade center that day, and he had surgery to repair a ligament tear to one knee, Spade retired on disability from the department.

With all the anniversary coverage in the media lately, I'd been thinking about the New Yorkers I met while reporting on 9/11 and its aftermath. When the French newspaper, Le Monde, declared after 9/11, Nous sommes tous Am?ricains ("We are all Americans"), I always thought there was a domestic equivalent: We are all New Yorkers.

There's always been a sense of New York standing apart from the rest of America. Certainly the city wears its uniqueness as a badge of honor - there's that famous New Yorker cover that depicts the rest of America as a few negligible bumps between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean. And much of the rest of the country returned the favor, viewing that loud, rude, fractious city as not quite American somehow.

While I can't say I shared that view - I "heart" New York, I'm a bit abashed to say, and always have - 9/11 in many ways peeled away much of what Spade calls "that hard outer shell" of New York.

Spade, who like many Yankee fans plans a road trip or two to Camden Yards every summer, happened to notice on this year's schedule that his team would be in Baltimore on Sept. 11. He wrote the Orioles and asked if he could be part of any ceremony the team might be having that day. As a result, with some 40 friends and family in the stands tonight - including his 5- and 11-year-old sons - he'll be on the field and just hoping not to throw his pitch in the dirt.

He has represented New York and its fire department at a number of 9/11 memorials held across the country over the years - including one in Fargo, N.D., where the people were so nice to his wife and him and the city was so pleasant, even though it was eight degrees below zero, that he went back for another visit the following year. (That time, it was July and the temperature was 110 degrees.)

He finds comfort in how so much of America has embraced his city, and recognized its losses, and its valor, during 9/11, and is always happy to go out of town and thank other cities for rising up to help with the rescue and search efforts.

"It showed that people cared, no matter where they lived," he said. "Everyone wanted to help."

It's true. One of the many images I remember from 9/11 was driving up an eerily empty New Jersey Turnpike that day, trying to get to Manhattan. Amtrak had canceled train service, some of the highways had been blocked, at least temporarily.

Every once in a while, an ambulance would drive onto the turnpike, bearing the name of a small town in Delaware or Pennsylvania or New Jersey. Its lights would be flashing - this was truly an emergency after all - but otherwise it was silent as it headed up to see if the big city needed some help.

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