photo by Alan Simpson
“Gripping and poignant... a bittersweet and often riveting book.”
“A profound and powerful tribute to both the lost and the survivors struggling to cope.”
-Midwest Book Review
“The raw emotions and suspense fully involve the reader in this harrowing tale.”
- Library Journal
What began as a grad school assignment evolved into a sharply focused book on the FDNY bagpipers who played tribute upon tribute to firefighters killed on 9/11.
"The Bard of the Band"
BY MARY VOBORIL
NEWSDAY STAFF WRITER
September 2, 2004
It began as a routine journalism school assignment, but it morphed into a bittersweet and often riveting book - an inside look at the bagpipe band of the New York City Fire Department, themed to 445 memorials, funerals and related ceremonies for firefighters after 9/11.
Split into teams, the 70-member band played in every one, standing tall, marching on, skirling out mournful bagpipe music in ritual homage to men they often knew.
Their bard is Kerry Sheridan, who in September 2001 was a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Assigned to write a deadline story about 9/11 memorials, "I was at St. Patrick's Cathedral, covering a service for tradesmen who had died in the World Trade Center," recalls Sheridan, now 30 and a freelance reporter for Voice of America.
Inside St. Pat's, however, she found other hyper-competitive Columbia students pursuing the same story. Sheridan went outdoors in search of a fresh approach. On the cathedral steps, she found a drummer for a carpenters' union bagpipe band. Sheridan struck up a conversation, the drummer turned out to be from Northern Ireland - and voila, she had her story.
Her professor loved it.
Sheridan expanded the account during a second-semester book-writing class, moving on to the FDNY Emerald Society Bagpipe Band. The result is "Bagpipe Brothers: The FDNY Band's True Story of Tragedy, Mourning and Recovery" (Rutgers University Press). Parts of it are all the more gripping and poignant because two of the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11 were Durrell "Bronko" Pearsall, an "uproarious, laughing, animated" drummer in the bagpipe band, and Vinny Brunton, a fire captain and band member's brother.
"Firefighters are not just brash, macho heroes," says Sheridan, who at the moment is at the United Nations in her VOA office. Her desk faces away from a truly mesmerizing view of the fast-flowing East River, Long Island in the distance.
Firefighters, Sheridan continues, "have families, they cry, they're tough men. Not one-dimensional." The terrorist attack "taught us that you will face tests of character that you'd never expect, and you can never predict how you would act. I was very moved by the way these men did act."
Sheridan shadowed the bagpipers for an entire year, hanging out at firehouses, soaking up firefighter culture, eliciting sometimes-searing accounts of body recovery and, in several exceptional profiles, recounting inner angst.
It's a positive, sensitive portrayal that emerges after eight months of serial scandal in the FDNY, most recently the lurid mid-August episode in which several firefighters, including a band member, were accused of having sex with a woman in a Bronx firehouse. Three were suspended without pay, and 11 others have been reassigned to desk duty.
Sheridan's reporting and writing predates all that.
She attended, she estimates, between 50 and 55 services for lost firefighters. Sometimes, the band piped a funeral procession into one church, then raced, under police escort, to a second church to pipe in a second funeral, then raced back to the first to play "Going Home" and "America the Beautiful" as the casket was carried out. On one such day, there were 19 memorials and two funerals.
Sometimes, they played at a memorial for a firefighter whose remains had not been found, then days or weeks later again donned spats and kilts and tunics to play at a funeral for the same firefighter, a body part having been identified. That happened 65 times.
It was personal
One of those who worked at Ground Zero was drum major Liam Flaherty, who personally dug out his best friend Bronko, dead for more than six weeks.
Sheridan never asked the firefighters to take her to the steamy debris pile, which stank of ammonia and other by-products of decomposition, but she recounts the nature of the work with you-are-there presence and precision:
" ... Tommy was digging when someone nearby recognized the fabric of a firefighter's bunker gear and glimpsed a bit of boot. They lifted the debris to uncover the body.
"The firefighter's entire body lay on the ground, but he'd been so severely crushed within his bunker gear that his body looked to be barely an inch thick. He wasn't decapitated, but his face and skull were a mass of bloody flesh and bone. Seeing the body made Tommy think of a cockroach someone had just pounded on with a heel and squashed.
"Someone turned and choked.
"A friend turned to Tommy and said, 'What the - are you doing here? You don't want to find your brother like this.'
"Tommy looked at him, and down at the body.
"'You know what, you're right.' He turned and left the site. The next day, he rejoined his brothers in the band ... "
The Tommy here is Tommy Brunton. To this day, no trace of his brother Vinny has been identified.
The sometimes grisly descriptions - a makeshift morgue, Sheridan writes, carries "the sickly honey aroma of decay mingled with the meaty smell of a butcher shop" - didn't faze Brunton.
"It lets people realize what went on down there. What people went through. The devastation," Brunton says. "You could never pick that up watching that stuff on television, the scale and the horror of it all.
"If they had found my brother, and it said in the book that he was, like, an inch thick, I would be, like, 'Yeah, no - .'"
While he hasn't given the book a close and critical read, the sections devoted to his family are accurate and in context, Brunton says. As for having a reporter hanging around so much, "I never felt she was intrusive," Brunton says. "She knew when to speak to you and when to dissolve into the background."
Sheridan, he says, was "almost like a regular-guy type of girl. She could hang out, and you didn't feel uncomfortable with her being there. Most of the guys in the band took a liking to her."
Sheridan believes the firefighters regarded her as they would a little sister. That she was of Irish descent and possessed of an Irish name didn't hurt.
"Yeah," Brunton agrees. "She was like a sister."
Sheridan says of the firefighters, "I saw them at least once a week that whole year. I spent a lot of time at Rescue 4," in Queens. "I would spend six or seven hours there a lot of times. I was just around a lot. You hear a lot of things when you're around all the time."
They took her on fire runs, sometimes putting her in the "probie" seat, normally reserved for probationary firefighters.
Some firefighters admitted her to their homes. She was there when the Bruntons debated whether they should schedule a memorial service for Vinny or hold out for a funeral.
"I did cry that night," Sheridan says. Vinny's widow cried, his brother Mike, also a firefighter, choked up. "It would go around in circles," Sheridan recalls. "One person could cry a while, and people would go, 'Stop it, shut up, come on.' And then, 'I'm OK, I'm OK.' And then the next person would cry."
When Sheridan started tearing up, it was almost comic relief; Vinny's widow, Sheridan recalls, turned to her and said, "'You're not supposed to be crying; you're supposed to be objective ... '"
Sometimes, band members confided small acts of rebellion: When the number of firefighters digging at Ground Zero was cut back, some sneaked in anyway. When an overseer approached, one such firefighter hunkered down in the smelly rubble, disguising himself with a bucket over his head. Outwitted, the overseer passed by.
"What really makes this book singular, besides the focus on this unique institution - the bagpipe band - is that it understands that real heroism isn't cartoon perfection; that real heroism is painful and flawed and filled with heartache," says Samuel G. Freedman, the Columbia professor who had sent Sheridan on the assignment that led to the book.
Himself an author, Freedman also taught the book-writing class in which "Bagpipe Brothers" took shape.
Sheridan's reporting, Freedman says, "gets beyond all the cliches," and he touts it for its "mature tone."
He has a clear memory of reading the finished manuscript: "I was on the Metro North train, and I just said, 'Man!' I knew she could write a competent book, but this was so much better than I dared to expect.
"I was really dazzled. She went from 0 to 60 in nothing flat." And in the pantheon of post-9/11 books, Freedman believes, "Bagpipe Brothers" stands out. More than that, it has staying power.
"It will last because of some of the emotional truths that it gets to," Freedman says. Also, "it's a book whose time frame was almost 14 or 15 months after the attacks. So you get not only the story that has been told before, although rarely as well - which is what these firefighters did on the day of the attack and in the immediate aftermath - but at a point when other reporters went on to other things, she was still with them. And that let her see the bigger picture, the longer-term effects, in a way that other books, in their race to get into print quickly, didn't."
Some words - impuissant, immured, tendentious - may prompt readers to reach for a dictionary, but most of Sheridan's writing is clear, nimble, succinct. She also weaves in detail that is unlikely to be included in most 9/11 accounts.
One small controversy erupted over the use of doves at funerals: "Some families wanted to release them after the service as a symbol of their loved one's soul taking flight," Sheridan writes. However, "If they were kept in the box too long, sometimes they would become lethargic and wouldn't fly. ... If the firefighter assigned to release them did so too early, the birds could get sucked into the helicopter rotors during the flyover and chewed up, sending thousands of bloody bird parts raining down on the mourners' heads ... "
Though the account overall is laudatory, Sheridan doesn't flinch from reporting some less attractive aspects of the FDNY fraternity. Like any group, even those that don't suffer a loss of 343 members in a single terrorist event, their ranks include the hard-drinking, the profane, the suicidal, the overweight and double-chinned, those prone to bickering and marital discord.
Some may wish that Sheridan had focused her reportorial lens a little less sharply. She reports that the band was obliged to play at separate memorials for the same firefighter, one arranged by his ex-wife, one by his girlfriend. At a midnight mass at Ground Zero, someone spiked the communion wine with Irish whiskey. One firefighter says of Osama bin Laden, "I want to bite off his nose and dig his eyes out with my thumbs."
At one FDNY function, an unnamed 9/11 widow blithely refers to herself and others as "WWs" - wealthy widows. Band members yearn for the day on which 9/11 won't come up in conversation; on the occasion of the group's 255th service, one piper admits, "I'm so sick of doing this." Funeral attendance dwindles, though some services, Sheridan writes, become "enjoyable social events."
Spokesmen for the FDNY and the firefighters' union had no comment on "Bagpipe Brothers," saying no one had yet read it. Three firefighters featured prominently in the book did not respond to requests for comment, other than one saying that, "some of the guys had problems with some of the things that were written."
Sometimes, Sheridan says, "It's hard to read about yourself." She adds that one firefighter "was very angry" after reading the book, saying, "'You heard things you shouldn't have heard. I said things I didn't mean.'" There was concern that readers would take things out of context, that FDNY brass would find fault.
Author and former firefighter Dennis Smith wrote an admiring blurb for the dust jacket. Asked for further comment, he refers, in an e-mail, to "memorable stories of great character and human feeling that have grown out of the Ground Zero experience.
"Foremost among them, perhaps, is the story of how the FDNY bagpipers made a decision to play at every funeral, an Olympian task that brought further intelligence and inspiration to those heartbreaking times."
Tommy Brunton sees the book as a kind of history.
"If people are still here 100 years from now, it will kind of document what went on," he says.
What sets "Bagpipe Brothers" apart from other 9/11 accounts, Brunton says, is this: "It's much more personal. It gives you an insight into the guys themselves, what they were going through. It was a hard time in everybody's life."
And still the band played on, 445 times, often in numbing wind, bitter sleet, prickly, choking humidity.
"You know what? I think the guys in the band are proud of themselves for bearing up under everything, doing what they had to do, without going around and thumping your chest over it," Brunton says.
"In the beginning, it was pretty daunting. When it was finished, everyone let out a little sigh of relief:
"'We got through it.'"