Sons follow footsteps of dad killed 9/11

From left, Bobby, Ronnie and Tommy Gies, of

From left, Bobby, Ronnie and Tommy Gies, of Merrick, are shown at Friendship Engine and Hose Company in Merrick where their father once served. After the three brothers lost their father Ronnie E. Gies in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, they each chose to follow their fathers footsteps and become firefighters. The three brothers sit behind their fathers helmet and tools that was recovered during the search at Ground Zero. (June 23, 2011) (Credit: Chris Ware)

Ronnie E. Gies is never far from his three boys.

He's there, in the FDNY badge number -- 11524 -- that Tommy has worn since he began training at the fire academy in 2004.

He's there in his namesake second son, Ronnie J., who wears the bunker gear their father wore as he entered the World Trade Center's south tower just before it collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.

He's there in the bracelet that the youngest, Bobby, wears. It bears his father's name.

And he's there in the brothers' dedication to firefighting and the FDNY -- Tommy and Ronnie, teens when their dad died, are in Ladder 147 and Ladder 175, respectively, in Brooklyn. Bobby waits, determined to join his brothers although the 2009 class he was to enter was canceled. Like their father, all three men, now in their 20s, also are volunteers with the Merrick Fire Department, where Ronnie E. Gies served for 24 years, six as its chief.

"Nobody could fill his shoes or be who he was," said Bobby Gies. "I think we try our hardest to keep the name going."

Ronnie E. Gies spent 13 years in the FDNY, most of it at Squad 288 in Maspeth, Queens. The firehouse, also home to Hazmat Company 1, lost 19 men on Sept. 11, more than any other in the city. He had spared his sons the details of the job but shared the camaraderie. Just days before Sept. 11, he brought Tommy, 18 at the time, to the firehouse to spend the day with the squad and share dinner.

It was that night that helped Tommy make his final decision.

"I watched them drill. We went on a couple runs," said Tommy Gies, 28. "That night kind of guided me right into where I am today."

 

A seat at the table

All three men say the camaraderie of the job, the friendships, and the support they received after Sept. 11 attracted them to the FDNY.

"The best part of the job is the kitchen table," said Ronnie Gies, 26. "Every firehouse has a kitchen table. The kitchen table at my firehouse is gigantic and it fits 15 people around it. Everything gets talked about. Everyone either knows, or think they know, the answer. Someone's got an answer, whether it's right or whether it's wrong."

Despite the dangers of the job, their dad never thought about doing anything else.

"He didn't have a high-paying job but he loved it," Bobby Gies, 23, said. "He worked as hard as he could just to make sure we have everything."

To make ends meet, he took a second job building homes. In 1999, when their own home in Merrick burned down after a clothes dryer caught fire, he rebuilt it with the help of the boys.

Bobby was 12.

"It was so important to him for this family to be back in this house," Bobby said. "I made sure it was important to me."

As a reward for his hard work, Bobby got the biggest room in the rebuilt house. Tommy, the oldest, got the smallest room.

"I said, 'What is this?' " Tommy recalled. "My father was like, 'A. You did the least amount of work. B. You'll be the first to move out.' "

Despite his two jobs, Gies found time to coach his sons in T-ball and later baseball. In 2001, Tommy's team reached the playoffs under his dad's leadership.

He also coached Ronnie. "He'd get home from work, showered and changed quickly and we'd get in the car together and go to the field," the younger Gies said. "It was just the two of us. That's when we had our alone time."

After Sept. 11, it took some time before Ronnie enjoyed playing baseball again.

"They say you play for the love of the game," he said. "I lost the love of the game. People tried to fill his role. They came to the game. It was never the same, ever."

 

Honoring his sacrifice

It's hardly surprising that the boys, now grown men forging their own identities, would want to follow in their father's footsteps. Long before Sept. 11, Tommy had wanted to become a firefighter.

Ronnie had studied to become a sports agent but after three years of college abandoned that notion to join his brother in the FDNY. Bobby studied architecture and construction management at the New York Institute of Technology. He, too, ditched those dreams to seek a spot in the FDNY.

"He made a supreme sacrifice and I want to be a part of it also," Bobby Gies said. In a letter in December 2008 shortly after accepting Bobby into the department, the FDNY cited budgetary concerns in canceling the class that was to begin a month later.

While the loss of their father did not deter them from careers in firefighting, it made ever more apparent the sobering dangers of the job.

"A massive terrorist attack is not something that happens every day on the Fire Department. The possibility exists every day," Tommy Gies said. "It's always a little nerve-racking that I am doing something that my father lost his life doing. Then, it kind of became more of something like I am proud of doing something my father lost his life doing."

Their mother, Carol Gies, is always on edge.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about it, not a day goes by that I don't fear, that I don't worry about them. Not a day," she said. "I don't watch the news because of it. I don't want to hear about a firefighter being injured."

Still, she's never thought of asking them to do something else.

At work, Tommy and Ronnie monitor each other's calls. If Tommy heads to a fire, there is always a message on his cell- phone instructing him to call or text when he returns to the firehouse. It comes from Ronnie, who expects the same.

The brothers have made some concessions to their mom as well. When they leave for work, Tommy and Ronnie call her. At the end of their shifts they call again, to say they are heading home to Merrick, where Tommy is now married and the father of 2-year-old Madison.

"My family -- you don't hang up the phone without saying, 'I love you,' " said Carol Gies, 49. "You don't walk out of the door without saying goodbye. After 9/11 you don't know when that's going to be the last time."

 

Sept. 11, 2001

Before heading to the firehouse on the day of the terrorist attacks, Ronnie E. Gies took Carol for a 6 a.m. stroll in their neighborhood, as the couple did occasionally. Returning home, he showered and dressed for work.

Then, Gies, 43, did something out of the ordinary. He walked into Bobby's bedroom and awakened him.

"He never said goodbye to us . . . but that morning I do remember him saying goodbye," Bobby said. "I was in bed. He woke me up. He said goodbye."

That morning, Carol said she also did something she had never done in their 20-year marriage. After handing her husband his cup of coffee, kissing him and seeing him leave from the side door, she walked to the front of the house and watched his car disappear down Lexington Avenue.

She doesn't know why she did it.

The younger Ronnie was not feeling well and stayed home from school that day. Tommy was on the LIRR heading to class at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, where he was working on a degree in fire science.

"I remember a couple of people sitting on the train saying, 'Wow, that doesn't look right. That doesn't look right,' " he said. "We saw it [the first plane] fly directly into the building."

Tommy remembers thinking the pilot must have veered off course in some terrible accident.

Bobby was in class, third period English, when an announcement over the school's public address system alerted students that the World Trade Center had been attacked. He knew his father was probably at the site, Bobby said. But he didn't understand the magnitude of the danger.

Bobby called his mother, who told him to come home.

By nightfall, the family had learned that Ronnie E. Gies was missing.

The last image of him was captured by a videographer as he entered the south tower, looking determined, unafraid, his wife recalled. It was just what Carol would have expected.

 

Dec. 7, 2001

The knock on the door of the Gieses' home came around midnight. Workers at Ground Zero had found her husband's body.

She sobbed, telling the fire officials: "Oh, my God, you brought him home to me."

She gathered her boys and asked what they wanted to do.

"We want him home, now," they told her.

Sometime around 2:30 a.m., the body arrived, with police escort, at N.F. Walker Funeral Home in Merrick. Friends and neighbors soon learned of the return of the body, and began arriving there, also.

After a short service, everyone cleared out except for Carol and her sons. Then, there was just Carol Gies.

She held her husband's body in her arms.

Having his father's remains back left Tommy Gies filled with conflict: "He's ours now. He's not lost," he remembers thinking. At the same time, there was finality he wasn't sure he wanted. "I am never going to see my dad again," he said. "This was kind of it, you know. That was the end of hope."

 

Looking to the future

For everything that Ronnie E. Gies taught his sons about firefighting, loyalty and bravery, they most admire the way he treated their mother.

"Every time he left the house, he'd kiss my mother goodbye. Every time he came home he kissed my mother hello. Every time he got up from the dinner table, he'd kiss her and thank her for the meal," Ronnie Gies said.

And so it was that when Ronnie J. Gies made up his mind a year ago to marry Alyssa Franklin, 26, he drove first to the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury and bent in front of his father's grave.

"I told him that I was going to do it," he said. "I knew he would've loved her. I knew he would've been proud."

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