9/11 Firefighters to Attend Funeral of Woman They Once Saved

NY Times - January 20, 2011

by AL BAKER

The cloth interior of her blue steel coffin will be custom-embroidered with the image of a firefighter in full gear, walking hand in hand with an angel. Her prayer cards will display her smiling face on one side and the words of the Fireman's Prayer on the other.

And when mourners gather on Friday to say goodbye to Josephine B. Harris at a funeral Mass at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Greenwich Village, they will see New York City firefighters hoisting her coffin on their shoulders, much as they hoisted her on Sept. 11, 2001, when they slowly made their way down all those stairs at 1 World Trade Center - a journey of survival as the tower fell around them.

This will be a different type of journey, but one in which the firefighters of Ladder Company 6 and other units wanted to take part. Ms. Harris's younger sister, Thelma M. Johnson, asked the firefighters on Tuesday to be part of the funeral.

"We said we'd be honored to do it," said Deputy Chief John A. Jonas, who was a captain on 9/11, when he led a band of firefighters in rescuing Ms. Harris. "It would be kind of like we are carrying her home."

Until this week, it had not even been clear whether Ms. Harris, 69, would have a funeral.

Ms. Harris called 911 for help at 2:20 a.m. on Jan. 12, but paramedics were unable to revive her. She was pronounced dead, apparently after a heart attack, in her apartment on Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn.

When Ms. Johnson, 61, got into her sister's apartment a day after her death, she found evidence of serious medical and financial troubles.

Ms. Harris's body, meanwhile, lay in the city morgue for days.

Then, on Monday, Peter C. DeLuca, the owner of Greenwich Village Funeral Home, read about Ms. Harris and reached Ms. Johnson that evening. On Tuesday, he sent a car for Ms. Johnson at her home on Staten Island.

By Wednesday, they had set the funeral arrangements, with Mr. DeLuca offering to pick up the entire cost, more than $13,000.

Ms. Johnson said of Mr. DeLuca: "He's like a guardian angel to me, because there is no way I could have done that myself."

"I always felt a connection to the courage of firefighters," said Mr. DeLuca, 59, who has owned his business since 1977 and had arranged funerals for several victims of 9/11 — his funeral home is close to ground zero.

Mr. DeLuca's bonds are also personal. On Nov. 11, 1987, when his town house on Sullivan Street in the Village collapsed, firefighters from Ladder Company 5 rushed inside to try to save Mr. DeLuca's 13-month-old son, Peter Jr.

The boy did not survive, but Mr. DeLuca said he was always grateful "for their heroism in risking their lives in their attempt to save him."

A wake for Ms. Harris will be held at the funeral home, at 199 Bleecker Street, on Thursday from 2 to 5 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. The service at St. Joseph's Church is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Friday. Afterward, Ms. Harris will be buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, where her husband, Frederick, who died in 1993, is buried.

Msgr. John Delendick, a Fire Department chaplain, said the firefighters were by nature generous, compassionate and committed. Though they saved Ms. Harris on 9/11, they believe that had they not paused to rescue her, they would not have been in the precise spot to survive as the building fell, and they regarded her as their guardian angel.

"They are now returning the favor," Monsignor Delendick said, "and saying, 'We have to take care of her, even in death, because of what she did for us.' "