Strength, honor to the end

NY Daily News - December 19, 2004

by Michael Daly

The envelope that awaited Firefighter John Curtin when he reported to his Co-op City firehouse on Oct. 29 had a return address in the upper left corner.

C. Engeldrum
169th Infantry
Somewhere in the desert

The three-page letter inside was from Firefighter Christian Engeldrum of Ladder 61, who helped raise a torn American flag at the fiery ruins of the World Trade Center on 9/11. He was now serving as a sergeant with the 1st Battalion of the 69th Infantry Regiment, New York Army National Guard.

October 24, '04

Hey J.C.,

What's up, brother? How are all the boys doing? My wife told me you came by the house. I want you guys to know that I really appreciate what you're doing for us.

Curtin understood the letter was addressed to him in particular only because he lived near Engeldrum and had stopped by his home. The words were meant for all his comrades in the firehouse. Some 30 or so firefighters had participated in what they called "Project Engeldrum," installing a new roof and doing whatever else Engeldrum's wife, Sharon, needed done.

I told her to give you guys the money for any materials you will be using. She said the Bull [Firefighter Mike Schiraldi] said no to any money. But, I think it's only right that we pay for any work materials.

The first page ended with the sentiment that made Engeldrum the core of the firehouse, the one who brought them together and made them what he dubbed "the Co-op Crew."

The real reason I'm writing is to express how I feel about you guys and the firehouse as a whole. I transferred to Co-op City because I love the place. Yeah, there are places that do more work, that have more history, but to me Co-op is the place. The first day I stepped foot in the firehouse I felt like part of a family.

The letter's second page began with big news.

I don't know if you have heard but I impregnated my wife during my last leave, oops! I hope it's a girl. But as long as it's healthy I'll be happy.

His last leave had been in September, just before Engeldrum headed for Iraq. He already had two teenage sons. Right now I'm sitting in Kuwait about six miles from the border. We are going to make the push up north on the 29th. They expect us to get hit pretty hard on the way to . . .

Engeldrum had begun to give his destination, but had then crossed it out and written (undisclosed location.) He continued:

If you don't hear from me again it means we got hit harder than I would have liked.

The second page ended with one more sentence.

Well, I have to go now and cut some more steel to armor up our vehicles.

Those words would flash back to Curtin six weeks later, after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited this same staging area in Kuwait. A Tennessee National Guard soldier sparked a controversy by asking why they had to scrounge scrap steel from junk yards to armor their Humvees and trucks.

Curtin would wish that Engeldrum had offered more details about the makeshift armoring, such as the thickness of the steel. But, as he continued to a third page, Engeldrum moved on to a subject of prime importance to any true Bronx boy.

Sounds like the Red Sox are going to win the World Series, that sucks.

Engeldrum took a moment to speak of those dear to his heart before he headed off to cut more steel.

Tell the boys I love them especially my boys. Bull, Mark [Klinger], Steve T. [Turcotte], Tony Ferante, Steve Faith, Bobby Lorenz, Danny O'Sullivan, Mike Bonner, Mike Owney, etc., etc., etc. Oh yeah, even the engine.

His Ladder 61 has a friendly rivalry with the other company in the firehouse, Engine 66.

Seriously I love you all equally. He signed off with two words that guided his life.

Strength and honor,

Chris.

One month and five days later, on Nov. 29, Engeldrum and Wilfredo Urbina were killed when a bomb tore through their Humvee. Curtin searched his house for the letter but could not find it until he was getting dressed for the second night of Engeldrum's wake. He found the letter in a pair of jeans and read it aloud to the Co-op Crew at the funeral parlor that night.

The firefighters are now following up Project Engeldrum with the Chris Engeldrum Foundation to benefit a family that faces a first Christmas without him and the birth of a child he will never see. Donations can be sent to the same address that was on the envelope that arrived at the firehouse with those words of strength and honor from somewhere in the desert.

c/o Engine 66/Ladder 61
21 Asch Loop
Bronx, N.Y. 10475