Until this past week when I was contacted through a “new cousin connection” who had read about our family in this blog, I didn’t know that I had a cousin, a second cousin once removed to be exact, who had died a hero! In my last couple of posts, I have recounted the new ‘cousin’ connection. One of the many bits of new information passed on to me was about another cousin, Lt. Michael Warchola (pictured to the right) of the New York City Fire Department. Michael’s great grandmother was Agnes (nee Sweeney) Mitchell Branchfield, my second great grandmother.
Michael, or ‘Mike’ as he was known, was born, raised, and lived his life in New York City. Like his older brother, Dennis, Michael joined the NYFD. Just two shifts before his retirement, the paperwork completed, Michael died saving the lives of others on September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Centre.
The events of that horrific day are indelibly marked in my mind as is the case with most of us. Yet, from the relative safety of my office in Canada, it was too easy to feel somewhat distant and removed, after all, I really didn’t know anyone in New York City. Now, learning that a cousin, one of my cousins, was there and that he died saving the lives of others in his role as a ‘first responder’, a role he undoubtedly loved and worked hard at, makes the tragedy of the day hit ‘home’ that much harder.
I never met Michael but wish I had had the chance. I have learned from a number of tributes posted about Michael that he enjoyed history, especially stories of the strange and bizarre, a passion reputed to have developed from reading British tabloid newspapers at his grandmother’s house. Michael was a Golden Gloves boxing champion who went to university in Buffalo around the same time I was in university in Toronto, just a 90-minute drive away. Mike and I both graduated from university in 1976 and, in 1977, after years spent on the waiting list, Mike joined the New York Fire Department.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Lt. Michael Warchola led his crew from Ladder Company 5 into the ‘B’ stairwell of the North Tower at the World Trade Centre. On the 12th floor, he stopped to help a young woman who was experiencing chest pains. When the call went out to the emergency responders to evacuate the building, Michael was seen by other firefighters still tending to the woman, promising that he would soon also evacuate.
After the collapse of the building around him, Michael was heard over the radio, “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Ladder Company 5, mayday. We’re in the B stairwell, 12th floor. I’m trapped, and I’m hurt bad.” Michael was able to call out two additional maydays but his would-be rescuers were unable to reach him due to impassable debris.
Michael’s body was recovered on Friday, September 14, 2001 and was carried out of the rubble by surviving members of Ladder Company 5. The world had lost a hero!