October 9, 2001

Remembering the Rescuers

Past disaster victims honor cops, firemen

By Rocco Parascandola STAFF WRITER

Construction worker Marihenda Tunkara remembers little from the 1999 Harlem building collapse that pinned him beneath mounds of rubble, breaking his knee and hip and knocking him unconscious.

By the time the West African immigrant awoke, the Emergency Service Unit police officers who had saved his life were standing over his hospital bed, wishing him well and urging him to be careful when he returned to work.

"At the time I didn't speak any English, and I was so weak," Tunkara, 30, said in an interview last week at his Bronx apartment. "I wanted to say something, to thank them, but I didn't have any strength."

Moments later, the officers who rescued him, including Sgt. Michael Curtin, were off to their next job.

Today, Curtin, assigned to the Emergency Service Unit 2, is among the 23 officers who have apparently lost their lives in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

All across the city, those whose lives have been saved by police officers or firefighters in incidents before Sept. 11 do not have to be told how heroically the city's Finest and Bravest performed that day.

For at least three such people, however, coming to grips with the loss of their uniformed guardian angels is not easy.

Tunkara, for instance, was visibly shaken when told Curtin was still missing and needed a few moments to assess what the loss means to him.

"I would tell his family [that the police] are good people and he is a good person," Tunkara said in Sonike, a language in his native Mali, as a friend translated.

"I could have died in this country," he said. "Because of [Curtin] I'm still alive today."

In Jackson Heights, Maria Rivera, whose 3-year-old son Richard is still an emotional wreck after nearly suffocating last December, reacted as if the expertise exhibited by Officer Paul Talty then made him immune to death at the Trade Center one month ago.

"They acted so fast," Rivera said of Talty and his ESU partner, Officer Stephen Blihar. "They were so good saving my son I wouldn't think anything would happen to either of them. It is so sad."

And in Fort Lauderdale, Peter Lewis, one of two men plucked from a burning Manhattan building in a daring rope rescue 10 years ago, questioned the rationale he has heard since the World Trade Center was attacked.

"It's very strange," Lewis said. "People say, 'It's your time to go' or 'It was God's will,' but I don't believe that. I don't believe it's your time to go, especially if you're running in there to save somebody. just got caught up in a very bad situation.

"I don't think God meant for them to die."

Lewis, who recently moved south, was a recording engineer with Quad Recording Studios when a fire trapped him and another man, Jose Gallegos, on the 12th floor.

But Capt. Patrick Brown and Firefighter Kevin Shea, both with Rescue 1 a decade ago, lowered themselves down the outside of the building from the roof one floor above, grabbed the men and lowered them to safety on the 11th floor.

Lewis remembers being remarkably calm and unafraid, though he later learned that when he grabbed Shea the rope Shea was gripping nearly slipped out of the hands of the firefighters on the roof.

Shea later cheated death a second time when he was injured inside the World Trade Center when it was bombed in 1993. That Brown was not so lucky on Sept. 11 only cemented in Lewis' mind the heroism he and other firefighters showed that day.

"These guys set an example for generations to come," Lewis said about all the lost firefighters. "These guys are going to be missed."

Rivera feels the same way. Her son was only 2 when he lodged himself in a narrow gap between a garage and a large shipping container in his back yard. Talty and Blihar rescued him using the Jaws of Life, an extricating tool that enabled them to move the container a few inches.

His mom says that although Richard escaped with only cuts and bruises, he still has nightmares and difficulty speaking.

But he also has, she says, a genuine affection for those in blue.

"Every time he sees police he waves and says, 'Hi, police,'" his mom said.

Tunkara has not been the same either since he plunged five stories when the floor joists inside a Lexington Avenue building collapsed during a renovation.

He is still in physical therapy, has not been able to return to work and depends on his friends for money to help support his wife and son back home.

As he watched the horror of Sept. 11 unfold on television, Tunkara flashed back to the day he nearly died.

"I thought of what happened to me and how it would feel for those people to go through what I went through," Tunkara said. "And I thought about the police and firefighters trying to save a lot of people, like the police who saved me."