Monday, September 11, 2006

Assignment 9/11: Glenn Wilkinson, firefighter, father

I signed up with the 2996 Project, a tribute to the victims of 9/11. The idea was to get 2996 bloggers to volunteer, and to have each write a post devoted to one person who was killed by Islamist totalitarian terrorists on that day.

Name assignments were random, and I drew 46-year-old Glenn Wilkinson, one of the firefighters who answered the call to go to the burning World Trade Center to try to save lives, and who ended up losing their own.

Remembering the wonderful NY Times series "Portraits of Grief" that featured short, moving biographies of the victims, I searched at that website for Wilkinson. To my surprise, there was nothing about him. I had thought all the victims had been included, but it turns out that the Times only covered 1800.

There was, however, a little information about Wilkinson in a short article from Newsday, featuring this photo of Glenn, his wife Margaret, and their three children, taken a few years before 9/11:

The picture doesn't say everything there is to say about Wilkinson's life, of course. But I realized it still said an awful lot, and maybe it even shows the essence of his life. Because the two things that seem to have been most important to Wilkinson are there: firefighting and family.

Back when I was getting my degree in marriage and family therapy, I once did a project on how family photographs can reveal family dynamics. And now, as I looked at this photo, I couldn't help but notice Wilkinson's beaming face, his firefighter's uniform, his evident pride in his brood, and the warmth and ease of the interactions between them. Yes, the little girl looks a little shy, but see how her father stands protectively and encouragingly over her.

Here's the entire text of the Newsday article:

Fire Lt. Glenn Wilkinson had just ordered his company, Brooklyn's Engine 238, out of the lobby of the crumbling World Trade Center's Tower Two Tuesday morning when he took a roll call and discovered someone was missing.

"He gave a mayday and he ordered his company to move to a safe location and he returned to the building," Wilkinson's widow, Margaret, recalled yesterday. "And he didn't make it back."

The body of the 46-year-old Bayport resident and father of three - a 14-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department - was recovered early Wednesday, ending a day of uncertainty for Margaret, whose first fears watching the news on television that morning were only for other victims and for the horrors her husband would have to bring home with him.

"My thoughts were, 'They are from Brooklyn, they can't possibly be in the midst of it,'" she said Friday, standing in a house full of family and neighbors who had come to bring food and run errands and keep the three Wilkinson children from thinking too much about what had just happened to their family.

Margaret Mackey Wilkinson, a teacher's assistant in special education at Blue Point Avenue Elementary School, worked all day Tuesday and came home to an answering machine with 16 messages on it. "I skipped and skipped and skipped through them hoping to hear his voice," she said. There were no messages from him.

But there will be plenty of memories of bike rides and basketball and father-daughter dances to comfort Wilkinson's children, Kelsie, 13, Craig, 12, and Kevin, 8, as they grow. Wilkinson jogged regularly and the boys had recently started to join him on his runs, his wife recalled. When he came home at night, he'd be summoned to the bedroom of straight-A student Kelsie and be on the rug helping her work out math problems.

"He was very, very loving," Margaret said. "The thing he loved best in life was being a dad."

You can see it in the photo, and hear it in his wife's words.

And I think he must have loved his job, even though it was hard, very hard. That last day, it must have been exceptionally hard. But firefighters do that--they go against every instinct built into us to run, screaming, as fast as we can, away from burning buildings, not into them. And not only do they go into burning buildings, they go--as Wilkinson did--back into burning buildings, to save those as yet unaccounted for.

Wilkinson was only one of the 343 active and 3 retired firefighters who died on 9/11, by far the single most dreadful day in the history of a profession that has known its share of mass death and tragedy. Prior to 9/11, the highest death toll of firefighters in New York in a single incident had been twelve. And the total number of firefighters lost on 9/11 was greater than the total number of New York City firefighters who'd died on the job since WWII.

I recall hearing the news of the shockingly high number of firefighter deaths late in the afternoon of 9/11, after a day of ever-escalating horror. Even then, after we'd heard so much, the numbers seemed unbearable. It was unimaginable that so many firefighters had died at once; and yet it was sadly, and most terribly, true.

I wrote that Wilkinson was "only one" of the firefighters who died. But there's really no "only" about it. Each and every one of them was a hero--an overused word, but an appropriate one in this case--a hero not only on that day, but on every day they came to work.

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