On Tuesday, the largest group of children of firefighters killed on September 11 or from related diseases joins the city's Fire Department. Here are their stories.
They were just children when their fathers ran toward the twin towers on September 11, 2001. They grew up revering parents — firefighters and police officers — who were killed that day, or died years later from the toxic dust.
When a reporter starts to ask them "How old?" — wanting to know their current age — many reflexively answer "7" or "5" or "10," their age when their families were upended by a terrorist attack that remains painfully etched in the city's collective memory.
On Tuesday, a record number of these children of slain rescuers will take an oath, like their fathers did, to serve New York City.
Of the class of 301 trainees graduating as probationary firefighters, 21 are children of men who died in the line of duty. Their ranks include 12 sons and one daughter of firefighters killed on September 11; six sons of firefighters or police officers who died of diseases linked to their time on the pile; and the sons of a firefighter and a police officer who died on the job.
Never before has there been a class filled with as many children of September 11 victims.
"If it were to happen again — it was their job and they went to save people — I would probably do the same thing," said Leonard J. Ragaglia Jr., whose father died the day of the attacks and who is graduating from the Fire Academy with his brother, Anthony.
Much like the growing number of US troops in Afghanistan who were born after September 11, 2001, the critical mass of trainees, known as "legacies," is a testament to the passage of time. But it also represents the durability of loss, and its power to inspire.
"It's all I wanted to do all my life," said Scott B. Larsen, 22, one of the youngest trainees. "To help other people."
He was just 4 when his father, Scott A. Larsen, was killed after responding to the attacks from a firehouse near South Street Seaport. Mostly, he remembers "everyone freaking out" at his grandparents' house in Glendale, Queens, and the birth of his brother two days later. But his family's sacrifice became part of his identity.
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"We don't talk about it much," he said. "But everybody in the neighbourhood knows."
Two trainees declined to participate in this story. The rest told their stories here:
Manny Mojica, 23
Son of Manuel Mojica, Squad 18, Manhattan
Mojica remembers his father, killed on September 11, as the ultimate protector. The elder Mojica was a burly man with a Marines tattoo who rode a motorcycle to work and showed up to school pickup in Bellmore on Long Island, with a big English mastiff named Jake. Learning how to break through doors and haul hoses, his son said, "has answered all the questions I had growing up, about the day-to-day atmosphere of what he was doing."
"It's a dream come true," said Mojica, who worked as an auto mechanic before starting his training. "It's all I've ever wanted."
Mike Florio, 24
Son of John J. Florio from Engine 214, Brooklyn
John J. Florio's firehouse in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn is nicknamed "The Nuthouse." Although Mike was only 6 when his father was killed on September 11, he has fitting boyhood memories of his father playing Metallica and "getting everyone rowdy."
"I've always known that type of life is something I see myself doing," said the younger Florio, the father of year-old twin boys. "I'm not an office-type of person."
Rebecca Asaro, 27, and Marc Asaro, 25
Children of Carl F. Asaro, Battalion 9, Manhattan
Two siblings, Rebecca and Marc Asaro, already have two older brothers in the Fire Department. Growing up, Marc Asaro remembered thinking, "My dad has the coolest job in the world!"
The Asaro siblings recalled a loving father and a devoted Grateful Dead fan who took them on fishing trips with a seemingly endless number of unofficial Fire Department godfathers and uncles. Rebecca Asaro, a former paramedic, and Marc Asaro, a former construction worker, now tease each other about who did better in training.
"It doesn't feel real," Rebecca Asaro said. "My dad sat in this classroom. And my brothers. It brings us all a little closer to our father."
Thomas Heedles, 29
Son of Dennis Heedles Sr., Engine 151, Staten Island
Heedles, like many of those who have lost firefighter fathers to September 11-related illnesses, finds it strange how quickly cancer killed a man who had seemed invincible. He recalls his father as a funny man who "liked to bust people's chops. Like mine. A lot."
The elder Heedles' death in 2015 left his son a bittersweet gift. A few years ago, Thomas Heedles had narrowly missed qualifying for training through the Fire Department's competitive exam. On his last try, he made it. He credits his "legacy points," awarded to candidates who have lost a parent in the line of duty, with giving him this chance to follow his father.
Brendan Regan, 30
Son of Lt. Robert Regan, Ladder 118, Brooklyn
Regan grew up in Floral Park on Long Island, where his father coached his baseball team. Regan was 12 when his father was killed on September 11.
"Some people don't get 12 years of any dad," he said. "I got 12 — that's how I try to look at it."
"Those years are a jumble," he said of the aftermath. "We were sad, but also I was super proud. There was a ton of support from the Fire Department, the community, the city. Everyone else was hurting around you. Even if we were hurting a little bit more, you never felt completely alone."
Anthony Ragaglia, 25, and Leonard J. Ragaglia Jr., 28
Sons of Leonard J. Ragaglia, Engine 54, Manhattan
The Ragaglia brothers, from Staten Island, were 7 and 10 when their father was killed on September 11, one of 15 men from the same firehouse to die. "I had to step up and help my mum," Leonard recalled. Anthony eventually got a tattoo of their father on his arm.
"If it were to happen again — it was their job and they went to save people — I would probably do the same thing," Leonard said.
Family photos depict their father cuddling and roughhousing with this sons, and posing in front of a fire truck with a young Leonard.
Robert Tilearcio Jr., 29
Son of Robert Tilearcio, Engine 266, Queens
Tilearcio's father died in 2017 of brain cancer attributed to his rescue and recovery work at ground zero. Before his training, the younger Tilearcio made it his mission to help others who fell ill after working on what became known as the pile. He worked for a law firm, reaching out to emergency workers' families to help them get health care and payments from the victim compensation fund.
He remembers being in seventh grade on the day of the terror attack, and knowing that his father would be headed to ground zero. The elder Tilearcio did not return home for seven days. For months afterward, "I don't think he ever had a day off," Tilearcio recalled.
Matthew Jovic, 28
Son of Lt. Anthony M. Jovic, Engine 275, Queens
As a boy growing up on Long Island, Jovic loved hearing firehouse stories, and he absorbed his father's ethic "to live your life serving other people."
But only now, after training in smoke, does he understand why his father often had a runny nose. The mundane details of learning the job mix with memories of the surreal day he lost his father in the September 11 attacks. After his mother picked him up from school in Massapequa, the news on the car radio "sounded insane," he recalled. "That two-minute car ride felt like a day."
Pete Carroll, 26
Son of Peter J. Carroll, Squad 1, Brooklyn
Recently, Carroll said, he and his girlfriend were looking at his third-grade yearbook from Public School 4 on Staten Island. "Everyone put what they wanted to be when they grew up," he said. "All the other kids put 'NFL player' and stuff like that. Mine was 'firefighter.' "
For Carroll, as for many trainees, firefighting is a family affair. His older brother, Michael, works as a firefighter with Rescue 5 on Staten Island. Pete Carroll, previously an electrician, said he now has his chance to "step up."
Brian Phillips, 29
Son of Raymond R. Phillips Jr., Rescue 3, Bronx
"My brother wanted to be the firefighter and I wanted to be the cop," Phillips said. "But we swapped."
Growing up in upstate New York, he rarely visited his father at work in the Bronx, he said, but he still experienced the closeness of the fire community during holiday gatherings. After his father became sick with a September 11-related illness that killed him last year, there was "a revolving door" of visitors, Phillips said. "I wanted to be part of that, the fraternity."
Robert J. Foti Jr., 29
Son of Robert J. Foti, Ladder 7, Manhattan
Foti went to school around the corner from his father's firehouse on East 29th Street, and spent a lot of time among the firefighters, before and after his father was killed on September 11. "When I stop by, they still treat me like I'm 10 years old," Foti said.
Foti worked as an electrician while waiting for his chance to train, and he is thrilled to be able to join them on the job. His mother, who was hoping he would choose a career with fewer risks, is less enthusiastic, he said, but finally gave her blessing, saying, "'I can't stop a grown man from doing what he loves.'"
Greg Kumpel, 28
Son of Kenneth B. Kumpel, Ladder 25, Queens
Growing up in Cornwall, Kumpel never thought he would be a firefighter; that ambition belonged to his younger brother, Carl, who already works for the Fire Department in Harlem. Greg Kumpel wanted to play professional baseball. But the more he heard about the job from his brother, the more he wanted to stand "in my dad's shoes."
Kumpel knew his father, killed on September 11, mainly as strict and serious — "We butted heads" — but he got to hear stories during training about his father as the firehouse "jokester and prankster."
Kevin Kerr, 23
Son of Kenneth W. Kerr, Engine 90, the Bronx
Kerr was 4 when his father died, on November 15, 2000, of a heart attack after responding to a call. There are many reasons to join the department, he said — great benefits, great camaraderie — but his main reason was the calling handed down from father to son.
"I wanted to live up to the man," he said, "and to go down the path I thought was morally correct."
Emmet Meehan, 28
Son of Lt. Edward T. Meehan, Ladder 22, Manhattan
Meehan's father died last year of a September 11-related illness, a reminder, he said, that the attacks are still claiming victims. Meehan was in fifth grade in Nyack when his father rushed to the city to help in the aftermath. It was characteristic of his dedication, the son said.
"He lived on the job for 35 years," he said.
Dylan Boesch, 25
Son of Detective Alfred Boesch, NYPD
Boesch was a baby when his father died on duty of a heart attack. But somehow, he said, he absorbed or inherited his father's aptitude for a hands-on service job.
"I tried real estate, but it wasn't for me," Boesch, who grew up on Long Island, said. Firefighting, he added, "is so much harder than the average job, but I have such an easier time doing it. I feel a strange connection to any firefighter and to my pop."
Now, he said, "I'm excited to get out there and continue to learn."
Liam Ryan, 24
Son of Sgt. Michael W. Ryan, NYPD
Ryan's family is full of police officers, so he decided to "do something different" by joining the Fire Department. His father had spent fateful months alongside firefighters combing the wreckage of the twin towers to search for remains, a painful task.
"He used to talk about it sometimes," Ryan recalled.
His father died in 2007 of aggressive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma tied to his 80-hour weeks on the pile. Till the end, he volunteered as a football coach in Hauppauge, where a street has been named for him.
Scott B. Larsen, 22
Son of Scott A. Larsen, Ladder 15, Manhattan
Larsen's father loved to pack the family into the car and drive 12 hours from their home in Glendale, Queens, to Disney World, stopping at Dairy Queen as often as possible along the way.
The elder Larsen's firehouse was just blocks from the World Trade Center. After he died, it was decorated with tributes. Back in Queens, Larsen recalled, the neighbourhood embraced the family and its legacy.
Now, he said, he is taking on the job he has wanted since childhood: "I'm literally living a dream."
Written by: Anne Barnard
Photographs by: Calla Kessler
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES