Missing Jews of FDNY remembered for their heroism

NEW YORK — On firefighter George Healy's first night on the job at Rescue 1, an elite unit of the Fire Department of New York, he was assigned to a long vigil at a Madison Avenue building whose facade had collapsed. Finally back at the station, Healy was approached by a fellow fireman, who recognizing that he was tired, offered to finish his shift for him.

Healy was reluctant, but David Weiss insisted, citing his seniority.

When Healy returned to the station, he learned that Weiss, too, was a rookie, and had no authority to send him home.

"He had Weissed me," Healy recalled Sunday at a memorial service at Central Synagogue, using a phrase coined by fellow members of the squad to describe Weiss' mischievous but good-hearted antics.

For more than two hours at the packed Midtown synagogue, fellow firefighters and relatives praised Weiss, one of more than 300 firefighters still missing under the rubble of the World Trade Center. Since Weiss' body has not yet been recovered, pallbearers entered the sanctuary carrying one of his helmets and a folded American flag as kilted bagpipers rendered "Amazing Grace."

Weiss, who grew up on Long Island, was one of a handful of firemen known to be Jewish who were lost in the Trade Center disaster. According to the Ner Tamid Society, the fraternal organization for Jewish fire personnel, there are some 400 Jewish firefighters among New York's bravest.

Other missing members of the society include Alan Feinberg of Engine Co. 54 in Midtown and Steve Belson of Battalion 7, also in Manhattan.

Outside Engine Co. 54 on Eighth Avenue, where flowers, candles and posters form a makeshift memorial for missing men, Feinberg's name stands out among those belonging to Irish- and Italian-Americans, the mainstay of the Fire Department.

Posted on one exterior wall was an essay by Feinberg's daughter Tara, 18, a freshman at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Written two weeks before the Sept. 11 terror attack, the words describe Tara's pride that her father regularly saved lives for a living, and his role as an active parent.

"When my father wasn't out fighting fires or saving the world, he was busy running the household and taking care of my younger brother and me," she wrote, recalling that he coached sports teams and was the "class dad," taking charge of the search for missing students on field trips.

The dark side of the job, however, was that Tara would "cry hysterically when my dad had to leave for work, wondering if this would be the last time I ever saw him."

Feinberg, a Brooklyn native, later moved to Marlboro, N.J., where a memorial service was held last week. Feinberg also left a son, Michael, 15, and his wife, Wendy. His body has yet to be recovered.

Weiss, 41, a former ironworker and volunteer with the Freeport, N.Y., fire department, had been decorated by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Fire Commissioner Thomas Van Essen in October 1997 for rescuing a man who had driven his car into the East River. Weiss was off-duty at the time and driving overhead on the East River Drive when he spotted the accident, stopped his car, climbed down to the pier and dove into the water.

During his 12-year career, Weiss was awarded a Class 2 service rating and received two unit citations.

"He lived for this," said close friend and Rescue 1 colleague Thor Johansen. "He was always ready, unstoppable. The salt of the earth. He had knowledge, experience and determination."

Healy, choking back tears, noted that Weiss had traveled to Iowa for Healy's wedding party despite a debilitating injury.

"With all due respect to David's Jewish faith, I consider him St. David," Healy said. "Please look out for your friends and brothers. One day we'll be with you again."

Weiss is survived by his wife, Carla, and two teenage children, Michael and Elissa.

Giuliani said Weiss and his fellow firefighters had died while "executing the most heroic and effective rescue mission in the history of the U.S.," having evacuated some 25,000 people from the Twin Towers before they collapsed.

"They died defending freedom," the mayor said. "To me they were like the sailors at Pearl Harbor or the Marines at Iwo Jima. God knows what kind of casualties we could have faced if not for David Weiss and his brother firefighters."

Paul Tauber, president of the Ner Tamid Society and chief of Battalion 50 in Jamaica, Queens, said while the organization was looking into whether some of the other missing firemen were Jewish, "We really don't delineate. Firefighters are firefighters. We go by decency and dedication first, denomination second."

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Fire Department's Jewish chaplain, said he expected to attend numerous memorial services in the coming months as bodies are unearthed or families decide to seek closure.

"The toughest situation is facing those kids who are left behind," said Potasnik. "It's nightmarish."

But he said the fallen Jewish fireman had upheld the finest traditions of their heritage.

"Jews throughout history have proven that we are very much a part of the community," the rabbi said. "Our tradition tells us whatever community we live in, we must be an active part of our community."