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 at the time.
As I scrambled about the office at work that Tuesday morning, my secretary told me that she heard on the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. “That’s awful,” I said to her in passing, assuming that a small private plane had somehow been unable to avoid clipping the building.
I had no idea of the magnitude of the events that were unfolding.
Much later in the day, when all the meetings were done, when I had a chance to sit in front of a television and watch the news reports, only then did I understand the tragedy and devastation.
And that awful day hit home when I discovered that I lost a cousin that morning.
A second cousin I had never met.
My cousin was Michael Warchola, or ‘Mike,’ as he was known.
Lt. Michael Warchola, NYFD, Ladder Company 5
Mike was five years older than me, born February 20, 1950 in Brooklyn, New York.
After Mike graduated from high school in Brooklyn, he shuffled off to Buffalo where he graduated from university in 1976.
Although he had a teaching certificate from university, in 1977 Mike joined the New York Fire Department like his older brother Dennis had done some time earlier.
After 24 years, Mike had risen to the rank of Lieutenant in the Fire Department. Perhaps more importantly, he had just two shifts to complete before retirement. The paperwork was all done and travel awaited. The first trip was going to be to Australia.
On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, Mike was the officer in charge of NYFD Ladder Company 5. Mike and his team of firefighters answered the call. They not only responded to the World Trade Center site, Mike lead his team into the North Tower.
Mike knew that he couldn’t save everyone but he was determined to make a difference and save one life. He made it to the 40th floor where he assisted someone, a “civilian,” experiencing chest pains. He was on his way back down, on the 12th floor, when the evacuation order for all firefighters was given.
On the 12th floor landing of the North Tower ‘B’ stairwell, Mike was continuing to help his ‘civilian,’ a young woman experiencing chest pains. When that call went out to the emergency responders to evacuate the building, Mike was seen by other firefighters still tending to the woman, promising that he would soon also evacuate.
Then the unthinkable. At 10:28 a.m.
Like the South Tower before it, the North Tower collapsed. Somehow, fourteen people in the ‘B’ stairwell survived the collapse. Mike was heard over the NYFD radio following the collapse, “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.” Mike was able to call out two additional maydays but his would-be rescuers were unable to reach him due to impassable debris.
On Friday, September 14th, the body of my cousin, Lt. Michael Warchola was recovered from that debris. He was carried out of the rubble by surviving members of NYFD Ladder Company 5.
The world had lost one of it’s heroes.
Learning that a cousin, one of my cousins, was there, on that infamous day 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 we shared a common ancestry leading back to Greenock, Scotland.
Each year, as the 9/11 date rolls around, as I watch the inevitable television documentaries that capture the events of that day, I cannot help but think of my cousin and feel profound sadness for the loss of his life yet also feel profound pride knowing that Michael Warchola is part of my family.