Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Service a way of life for Higgins family
A memory does not need to be given voice to explain its power.
Even after a decade, the images, sounds and smells remain as distinct as the moment they were registered.
It does not matter whether they've been shared or articulated.
In the house Robert Higgins; his wife, Susan; and their five children have shared on Long Island for three decades, there will not be an outpouring of words when the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks arrives. That doesn't mean it won't be a day of great import for the captain of Engine 231, the historic firehouse on Watkins Street in Brooklyn, N.Y.
It just means whatever memories he has, all that he saw and felt on that day, remain tucked away in the place where men and women like Higgins keep those things.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Christopher Higgins was a freshman at Yale. He would go on to earn ECAC Rookie of the Year honors that season and become the 14th overall pick by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2002 NHL draft the following June (marking the first time an ECAC player was taken in the first round of the draft since 1983).
Now a winger with the Vancouver Canucks, Higgins was just an 18-year-old en route to Spanish class that morning when he noticed something wasn't quite right on campus.
"You could feel something going on. People were not acting normal," he recalled in a recent interview with ESPN.com.
Courtesy of the Higgins familyChris Higgins and his younger brother Kevin insist they never spent much time worrying about their father and his job while they were growing up.
He raced back to his dorm, turned on the television and then called home looking for his father. His brother, Kevin, was a junior at St. Anthony's High School on Long Island. There was an announcement over the school's public address system that planes had struck the Twin Towers in Manhattan. Kevin raced to a pay phone to call home.
The boys' calls were too late, though. Even though it was a scheduled off day for Robert, he was gone.
"It was a pretty hard time because I knew my dad was going to be involved in some way," Chris said. "Obviously when the planes hit, they called everybody in. He went in and we didn't see him for weeks after that."
It was Chris' uncle whom he talked to that day to ensure his family was safe.
"I had been calling all day," Chris said. "I didn't talk to my dad for a long time, a couple of weeks maybe."
Although it might seem like a long time to have been without contact, given the circumstances, it was perfectly understandable for the Higgins family and hundreds of other families in the New York area.
"I knew that that was what he does, that's where he wanted to be," Chris said. "I didn't think of it any other way than that."
In those first chaotic hours and days, the boys' father returned home briefly from ground zero and Kevin asked if he thought they would find any survivors.
"He said, 'No.' And I just got the hint that I shouldn't bring it up," Kevin said.
Rescue workers like Robert set up shop in a bank across the street from the towers in what became an impromptu headquarters for the FDNY. There was food, equipment and showers.
"So guys didn't really have to leave and they would stay for god knows how long," Kevin said.
The first time Chris saw his father after the Sept. 11 attacks was at an exhibition game at Yale. The game became a way of bridging that event, a way of moving forward.
"Obviously, it has an impact on you," Chris said of the attacks and the impending 10-year anniversary. "Three hundred and forty-three firemen died. Firemen die all the time and you kind of get used to hearing that, but obviously this was a much bigger event than the normal tragedy. But I don't look at him differently. I didn't anticipate him being any different."
For the Higgins family, service isn't something you get in a restaurant, it's a way of life. Just don't expect an oratory on the topic.
"We've never really talked about it [the events of Sept. 11]. I would never ask," Chris said. "It's a horrible experience. Why would I bring that up with him?"
"I don't want him [his dad] to come across as some hard-ass," added Kevin, who is now a New York City police officer. "It's hard to explain. That's just the way he deals with it. Some guys deal with it in certain ways. He deals with it himself. That's just the way he is."
Robert Higgins attended college at St. Bonaventure in upstate New York and then returned to Queens, where he worked a number of different jobs before settling on becoming a firefighter. He worked out in his mother's basement in Flushing before taking the test to become a firefighter back in the late 1970s. He hasn't changed jobs since.
"He's been talking about retiring for the last five, seven years, but I don't see it happening," Chris said.
His father has risen through the ranks to become captain of Engine 231, one of the busiest units in the city. "And he's still leading his guys into battle," Kevin said.
Courtesy of the Higgins family"I'm way more worried about him [Kevin] than I ever was about my dad," Chris Higgins said of his brother being a police officer.
A couple of summers ago, Chris returned to the firehouse for the first time in years and rode along with his dad on a call, something he and Kevin would do as kids. As the engines approached the building, smoke visible from its windows, Chris was reminded of the feelings of his childhood, the sense of being humbled by his father's work.
"You feel really small and really insignificant when you see that," Chris said. "The older I got, the more I understood it. It wasn't until I got older that I realized how courageous a job it is and how important it is."
Kevin also recalled the visits to the firehouse, his father's home away from home, a place not just for waiting and reacting to the alarms, but also living. The firemen, as they do in a thousand other firehouses, take their meals together, work out together and rely on each other to watch their backs and keep them safe for the next call.
"For as long back as I could remember, I wanted to be a police officer," Kevin said.
That goal had its genesis in his father's love for his own job, the notion that if you love your job, you never have to work a day in your life.
"I've never had one day of regret about joining the department," said Kevin, who has been with the police force for six years. He works the midnight shift with the Midtown North precinct, whose environs include Times Square and Hell's Kitchen. "You see the best of people, you see the worst of people," he said.
Both brothers insist they never spent much time worrying about their father and his job while they were growing up.
"It just seemed to me like he was untouchable or invincible," Chris said.
"If there's one guy that I would trust to go into a burning building and come back out again, it would be my dad," Kevin added.
Still, the dynamics have shifted since Kevin became a police officer.
"I'm way more worried about him than I ever was about my dad," Chris said.
Not that Chris was surprised by his brother's path.
"That's just how it seems to go in my family," he said. "What's my dad going to say? You can't be a cop because it's too dangerous?"
In a world obsessed with knowing everything, with reporting everything as quickly as possible, the Higgins family's agreed silence on the Sept. 11 attacks may seem odd, perhaps even a little quaint. Regardless, it is simply the path they have charted in the aftermath.
"That's not really my dad. He's not a guy that goes in depth about feelings and emotions. Trust me on that one," Chris said with a laugh.
"We don't push it," Kevin added. "It's just an unwritten rule between Chris and I and the rest of our family."
Maybe no words can do justice to what was seen that day. Unless you have been in a firehouse, working shoulder to shoulder with men and women whose lives you depend on, or in a police precinct where the dynamics are similar, maybe it's hard to understand the motivation for any of it.
On that morning a decade ago, what was it that drew people like Robert Higgins to ignore the natural instinct to flee and instead go to a place that would become known as ground zero?
Maybe it's not necessary to hear those people talk about what it is that drew them to that place, but enough to be thankful they made the journey and to know that they would make it again tomorrow if need be.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.