Honoring two American heroes

The badges, with photos of two of their faces, arrived in the mail Thursday.

“Christian Michael Otto Regenhard — Firefighter, Ladder 131.”

“Anthony Rodriguez — Firefighter, Engine 279.”

Below each photo in bold red letters: “NEVER FORGET.”

I’ve been hearing the names of these two heroes, in particular, since not long after that tragic day in 2001.

Now here I had plastic ID-style badges displaying their mugs — so young and vibrant, so handsome and real, yet, sadly, so frozen forever in a time of unsurpassed national loss.

Regenhard and Rodriguez were among the 343 New York City firefighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

They were two of the five fallen brothers of the Ladder 131/Engine 279 firehouse located in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The station was among the first to respond to the WTC on the day of the terrorist attacks.

Christian was a “probie” with Ladder 131, freshly graduated from the Fire Academy on July 27, 2001. The 28-year-old former U.S. Marine and probationary firefighter was covering for a member of Engine 279 on 9-11.

His rig sped to Lower Manhattan with six men aboard. Only one made it out of the horror alive.

Anthony was also a rookie. The 36-year-old father of five had only been with the FDNY for six months. The family man had served 10 years in the U.S. Navy. His wife was nine months pregnant with his sixth child on Sept. 11; the baby expected any day.

“Hope” was the nickname given to the baby girl, born Sept. 14, 2001.

Hope that her daddy would somehow miraculously be found alive.

That prayer-enforced hope beyond hope would eventually be shattered. It had become evident: “The poor guy’s never gonna see his child.”

Those were words spoken by Firefighter Keith Kaiser in January 2002, during our first conversation in the still so-raw months following the day that changed America.

I was interviewing him at the time for an article that appeared in the March 2002 issue of the Sons of Norway’s Viking magazine, commemorating the six-month anniversary of Sept. 11.

Keith, a seven-year member of Ladder 131, was a 38-year old father of a 2 1/2-year-old girl named Kirsten Bleu and a baby son, Erik, on 9-11.

He told his story by phone of that day’s nightmarish hell in a voice so sad the internal wounds were palpable.

As their truck raced to the WTC that fateful Tuesday morning, the men aboard watched as United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the south tower.

They arrived to a sickening scene; pavement muddled with the unrecognizable remains of those who had leapt to their death. They dodged the bodies of human beings who were yet falling around them.

Keith and the Ladder 131 crew survived the collapse of both towers, but not without physical and emotional injuries.

Keith remembered how the “sky grew abruptly black” when the south tower plunged down around him in a deafening roar. He recalled choking on the smothering ash, and although nearly blinded, working to lead wounded, disoriented, dust-coated people away from the rubble.

He talked of the how the incessant voices of firefighters making Mayday calls over the radio suddenly ended, falling into an eerie silence once both towers collapsed.

Keith had taken a terrible spill, suffering a severe back injury while slipping on a piece of glass to avoid a chunk of plummeting metal.

That outer trauma was one thing. But he was innerly marred, and not just in the immediate aftermath of 9-11.

I spoke with him again, by phone from his home in Staten Island, leading up to the 10-year anniversary. “This anniversary is killing me,” said the retired firefighter, forced to leave the department due to his back injuries.

And he implored: “If you write anything, please, make it about those who made the ultimate sacrifice.” The firefighters and emergency workers who gave their lives while rescuing others.

o

On Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of 9-11, I was supposed to be at the Colorado 9/11 Stair Climb at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Morrison, Colo.

Each year, thousands of participants — including firefighters from dozens of departments garbed in full gear — ascend the iconic steps of the open-air amphitheater formed by a huge natural rock structure. The seating at the park was built by Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps laborers. From the top, looking down on the stage where so many legends have performed, you can see the Denver city skyline some 10 miles away.

The climbers pay tribute to the fallen FDNY firefighters by hiking the equivalent of the 110 stories of the WTC, raising money for the FDNY Counseling Services Unit and programs provided to families by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

I had wanted to walk in honor of Keith and in memory of his buddy Christian Regenhard, as well as Anthony Rodriguez and their other fallen comrades.

But sometimes life gets in the way, and for a second time over the past few years this planned trip had to be canceled.

A very gracious woman with the Stair Climb named Stacy said she would send out our T-shirts, along with a couple of the commemorative coins marking the 10-year anniversary of the Colorado walk, one of the largest of such 9-11 events in the country.

And in the box she included the badges of the two 9-11 heroes. They were meant to be clipped to a shirt or a hat while doing the climb.

I would have liked to have walked the nine times up and around the loop wearing the images of two of the heroes from the Red Hook firehouse.

It would have been a beautiful way to honor Christian Regenhard, an adventurer who loved running marathons, scuba diving, creating art, writing and rock climbing.

He had enlisted in the U.S. Marines on his 19th birthday, and after five years of distinguished service, earned the rank of sergeant. He received 12 medals and awards for excellence during his time in the Armed Forces.

Christian was also a knife collector and constantly carried with him a treasured Benchmade knife. Keith contacted the knife company and had a commemorative piece made, which he presented to his friend’s father at a Manhattan knife show.

That led to an idea to create knives using steel from the World Trade Center. A slab from the south tower was cut into several pieces, which bladesmiths crafted into seven one-of-a-kind knives, representing each of the seven WTC buildings.

And it would have been a beautiful way to honor Anthony Rodriguez, a talented handyman who had carefully designed the nursery for his daughter on the way, proudly showing off his handiwork when it was finished.

The father of children ages 3 to 17 was getting off a shift at the fire department and was about to head to his home in Staten Island when the first plane hit the WTC.

He called his family to tell everyone not to worry. When the second plane hit, Anthony called again, saying he was going back to work.

The crew from Engine 279 had charged into the south tower, and had made it far up the building. They perished when the tower collapsed.

The engine company’s pump operator, who had been hooking up hoses at the rig, was the only survivor.

A memorial at the firehouse, complete with turnout jackets belonging to each of the men, bears the names of those lost. Anthony Rodriguez and Christian Regenhard, along with Lt. Anthony Jovic and firefighters Ronnie Henderson and Michael Ragusa.

o

When it became clear Anthony Rodriguez was never coming home, his infant daughter was given the name her father had wanted: Morgan Antoinette. She is now 17 years old.

Keith’s children are growing up, as well. Kirsten is in her second year of college; Erik is a senior in high school.

Life carries on.

But the firefighters of Ladder 131/Engine 279 who gave of their lives on 9-11, all of the 343, and those whose internal wounds will never go away — I promise you this. I will always remember you.

Christian and Anthony, perhaps next year I can carry your badges up to the top of Red Rocks to take in the captivating view — red rock formations all around — among Mother Nature’s finest.

Perhaps the badges of your other fallen brothers from Red Hook can come along, too.

Anthony, Christian, Lt. Jovic, Ronnie and Michael — Keith Kaiser and all your brave fellow firefighters — I honor you: For your service, for those of you who made the ultimate sacrifice. For teaching America what a true hero is.

You will never, ever be forgotten.

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