Today, I stumbled into Ronald R. Spadafora's funeral. Walking toward 59th and Fifth Avenue, I saw dozens of police and fire department vehicles, all pointed in the direction of Trump Tower. I could see the large NYC Sanitation Department trucks blocking Fifth Avenue two or so blocks south of the Plaza.
At first, I thought it was an anti-Trump rally. After all, there have been a lot of them lately. I immediately headed back to retrieve my cameras, which Evelyn was kind enough to bring to me as she met me at the corner of 59th and Seventh. Off I went.
Upon emerging onto Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower, much to my surprise, I saw several hundred people in dress blue shirts lining the street, with some ceremonial fire department equipment in front of St. Thomas Church, where a funeral was about to begin. My first thought: It must be for a very important person. Fifth Avenue closed on a Friday morning in mid-town Manhattan? It would remain closed for close to four hours, with two fire trucks parked on the east and west side of the intersection at 51st Street, with a gigantic, billowing flag suspended from the fire truck ladders extended at 45-degree angles into the hot air.
New York Fire Department Chief Ronald R. Spadafora was being celebrated by the City. At 63, Spadafora was the 178th fireman to die from 9-11 related causes. Spadafora spent the nine months following 9-11 overseeing the recovery operation at the World Trade Center site as the Department's Chief Safety Officer. One federal labor official called the site "potentially the most dangerous workplace in the United States." Many of those recovered were fellow fire fighters, who were brought out in Stokes baskets, draped in American flags, according the New York Times.
Bag pipes played as the fire engine carrying Spadafora's body slowed at the church entrance. The City brass was out in force, so the street was closed to pedestrian and all but two or three photographers who had NYC Police media credentials. I photographed what I could, and waited for about two hours for the funeral to come to an end so that I could photograph the procession to the cemetery.
Hundreds of blue-shirted fire fighters lined somewhere between three and four blocks. They fell into formation, creating a ceremonial path, where first police motorcycles roared toward 50th street, before turning east. Then the bagpipers emerged, and then the three ceremonial fire engines, one with Spadafora's body resting on top.
By all accounts, Spadafora was quite the guy. According to the Times, he supervised the removal of chemicals from deep within the bowels of the ruined buildings. Some of the chemicals were so toxic that they could be used to cut glass. It was exposure to the toxins left behind that ultimately cost Spadafora his life. In December 2015, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid cancer. Despite his illness, Spadafora continued working pretty much to the end, delivering a speech on fire safety several months ago.
Spadafora certainly didn't rest on his 9-11 laurels. The New York Post reports that he was head of the Fire Department's Logistics section during the 2003 Blackout and that he led preparations for Hurricane Sandy. He also assisted the New Orleans Fire Department as it dealt with Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
It was good to see New York City reprise the solidarity that existed throughout the country following 9-11. One thing is for sure: It was the perfect day to be a burglar in the City, but you didn't want to experience a house fire. it seemed like the every fireman and police officer in the employ of the City was either at the funeral or out on the street.
It was and should have been Spadafora's day, but the proximity of his funeral to Trump Tower certainly was not lost on me. Talk is cheap, as is the phony patriotism exhibited by Trump. It is also worth noting that son-in-law Jarred Kushner's disastrous investment--666 Fifth Avenue--is pictured in one my images (quite intentionally). Unlike Kushner, Spadafora didn't sell his country out in an effort to obtain financing from an Arab state in the Middle East .
By All Appearances, the City Didn't (Courtesy of Sidewalk Artist)
A Canyon of Flags and Blue Shirts
On the Way to the Church
Standing at Attention Before the Funeral Begins
The Honor Guard Outside the Church
"All Gave Some--Some Gave All"
God Rays Filter Down on the Flag
Not Everyone Could Attend the Funeral Service
Taking a Break During the Funeral
Writing Down the Route
Standing in the Shade Outside the Funeral Service
Sometimes Funerals Bring Old Friends Together
Taking a Short Break on a Solemn Occassion
Scrambling into Position
A Very Hot Day for Everyone Involved
Hands Behind Backs
A Fitting Sculpture for the Day
They're All Saints
Overseeing the Troops
The Flag Over Fifth Avenue, with St. Patrick's Cathedral in the Background
The Final Journey Begins with a Roar
The Reverend Canon Carl F. Turner Leads the Procession
The Body Goes By Accompanied to the Sounds of Bagpipe Music
Chief Spadafora's Body Atop a Fire Engine Heading to the Cemetery
Accompanying a Friend on His Final Journey
Even Bert and Ernie Say Goodbye in Their Own Way
Photographer's Notes. No press access for me on this one. It would have been nice to spend fifteen minutes inside St. Thomas. The New York Times had some superb photographs taken from a balcony and on the street just outside the church.
And next time there is a public funeral, please put your cellphones away. It is very disrespectful. I've got images of people reading screens behind a banner displaying Spadafora's image. It looks terrible.