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Remembering Ray Downey, FDNY 9/19/37 - 9/11/01

Author: Harold Schapelhouman, CA TF3

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2002 issue. 

The stiff cold wind of a New York December bites into me as I stand at attention in front of Ss. Cyril and Methodius Church in Deer Park, Long Island.  The sound of the FDNY Pipe and Drum Band playing amazing grace draws closer, on command thousands of firefighters salute as the Fire Engine carrying a flat of red white and blue carnations with a single white helmet sitting on top of them is removed and taken into the church.

A police sniper appears on a building overhead and looks down, as first, the family, then relatives, friends and firefighters follow the colorful remembrance of a great man into the church.  His body still unfound, Raymond Matthew Downey Sr. was last seen shortly before the collapse of the second World Trade Tower, over three months ago on September 11th, 2001.

All those who died that day will forever be heroes, but Ray Downey’s life prior to that day had already made him a hero to so many who had know him.  At 63, he was the Deputy Chief in charge of Special Operations Command (SOC) for the largest urban Fire Department in the world.  His contributions to the Rescue community had made him a legend, and he was respected as a leading authority on Structural Collapse Rescue all over the Country.

I had first met Ray over 10 years ago when we were both selected to help develop the boilerplate for what would later become the National Urban Search and Rescue Program (US&R) under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Only earlier this year we had reminisced about how we were two of only a handful still actively involved with the program who had been part of that initial effort.

As a young firefighter at that time, I can remember the awkwardness I had felt being thrust into an effort that would take me for the first time to the National Fire Academy in Maryland.  Perhaps sensing this, Ray befriended me, something I would never forget.  As the National System developed we often crossed paths, and when the Oklahoma City Bombing occurred we were able to finally work together, albeit indirectly.

Years later, when I became the Western Regional Representative for the National US&R System I finally got to work directly with Ray.  He was a great mentor, an honorable man, and a tremendous advocate for the National US&R System.  We also worked together on a US&R Federal Incident Support Team (IST).

Ray Downey, among other FDNY medal recipients on June 8, 1988.  Downey received a medal for rescuing the victim of a 4-story building collapse.  At the time of this photo he was weraring service bars from medal citations on 18 previous occasions. Photo: Joe Louderback.

I will never forget Ray’s reaction at a National US&R exercise, over a year ago.  There was some confusion over how the IST Rescue Specialist position should be used, should it be a function of the Command Post or utilized in the Field?  As the Operations Chief, Ray left no doubt in anyone’s mind that if he had anything to do with it (and he did), they would be in the field - as he put it, “where the action was.”

That statement will forever endear and define who Ray Downey was for me.  With 39 years of service to FDNY, 21 citations for valor, he was the most highly decorated fireman in the Department, which means that he probably was one of the greatest firefighters who ever lived.

I take my seat in one of the wings of the church among dozens of other US&R Task Force Leaders from all over the nation who have traveled thousands of miles to pay their last respects to our friend, and his family.  Seated directly in front of us are the many FDNY SOC personnel who survived September 11th and who work on the squads and rescues.  In front of them I can see the faces of Ray’s family, his wife of 40 years, Rosalie, his sons Joe and Chuck, both with FDNY, his other son Ray Jr., a teacher, and his daughters Kathy and Marie, and all the grandchildren.

Fire Commissioner Von Essen delivers an emotional eulogy; he is followed by kind words from Governor Pataki, Mayor Giuliani, and a letter from President George Bush.  Ray’s friends, and sons and daughters talk about him.  And then Ray’s granddaughter, Nicolette Rose, speaks.  Hers is the voice of innocence, and I find myself struggling to keep months of anger, frustration, sorrow, and emotion under control.

I look up to see Ray’s guys, Special Ops firemen, many who still have their heads bowed, some wiping at their eyes and I think about how hard it must be for them.  343 brothers…some husbands, some fathers, or grandfathers, some sons, some uncles, all friends and all gone.  I bite down hard on my tongue, afraid to release something that I’m sure I can’t control, something so deep and so painful its enormity scares me.

I led one of the California National US&R Teams to New York after September 11th.  Unlike the Oklahoma City Bombing, this one was personal.  I can still remember a conference call with the other seven State Task Force Leaders the evening of that most dreadful of days.  Mark Ghilarducci, Deputy Director for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services came on the line, his voice full of emotion, to tell us that Ray was gone.  They had been close friends.  I didn’t sleep at all that night.

A part of me wanted to just go find Ray when we finally got on site, but we had a job to do and it would have been a disservice to Ray to not be disciplined, focused, and creative - and to show what well trained and motivated National US&R Teams could do.  How ironic that our greatest champion, our devoted leader, would be lost among the wreckage of this hell on earth.

Late one night, while on the pile, we were asked by FDNY to clear the plaza work area while some other work was done to pull over the wall on one of the towers.  It gave me a rare moment to be absolutely alone in the center of the 16-acre site surrounded by devastation as we cleared hundreds of workers from the area.  Words will never be able to describe those few moments, but I thought a lot about Ray.  I knew that Ray’s sons, although we never crossed paths, have all taken turns working at the site looking for their dad.  

Nicolette Rose finishes her speech by saying she will miss her “best poppy in the world.”  Ray Jr. closes the family tribute by saying “I didn’t need September 11th to tell me who my hero was.  As great a fireman my father was, he was a better dad.”

We exit the church and once again stand in formation.  We salute as the flat is loaded back onto the engine and the family exits the church.  The Marine honor guard fires a 21-gun salute as a number of helicopters flyover and one breaks off.  The family loads into black limousines as the bagpipes play the Marine Corps hymn and then God Bless America.  

The next morning, as my flight gains altitude, the plane banks and I can see the skyline of lower Manhattan.  It occurs to me that I have failed to do one simple but important thing, say Goodbye! 

Raymond Downey, it was an honor to have known you, and you will forever be in my heart.  Your presence will be sorely missed.  Know that we will carry on your work and your dream, so that the vision that is US&R will never die.

At the time this was written, Harold Schapelhouman was a Captain in the Special Operations branch of the Menlo Park (CA) Fire District, and the Task Force Leader of CA-TF3.  He is now the Fire Chief of his agency and continues to be a leader in firefighting and US&R operations and management, with more than 30 years experience in the fire service.

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