Michael Reilly always wanted to be a firefighter—a New York City firefighter. Even at 4 years old, when his family moved to New Jersey, he complained it wasn’t Brooklyn, “where the action is.” Reilly seemed to have an almost predestined calling to put his life on the line for a higher purpose, and the NYFD offered the perfect opportunity. “What sealed the deal was 9/11,” his mother, Monica, recalls. “He said, ‘This is it, this is what I’m gonna do.’ ”
Reilly came from a family of middle-class Republicans, and at age 19, already a volunteer firefighter outside the city, he joined the Marines and became a reservist. Enlisting offered similar high-adrenaline, high-calling work, and a good credential to land the NYFD job he’d always coveted. In 2004, Reilly was called up and served nine months in Iraq as part of an aircraft crash-rescue fire unit. He told friends his assignment involved too much waiting around at airfields to fight fires and not enough action. “He said he wished he could have done more,” says Mike Burns, a former co-worker. When he came home, Reilly talked about transferring to a busier unit and going back.
While Reilly was away, however, the NYFD came calling. He’d taken the exam a few years earlier, and they were ready for him now. At the academy, Reilly downplayed his Iraq experience because he didn’t want to be treated differently. “He wanted the whole experience,” says Erik Endress, a former supervisor. Reilly ranked among the top ten cadets last summer and won a squad-leader spot, allowing him his pick of firehouses. He chose Engine 75, one of the busiest companies in the South Bronx—the undisputed fire capital of the city, and perhaps the world.
On August 27—a humid, rainy Sunday morning, less than two months after Reilly’s graduation from the academy—a refrigerator exploded in the rear of a 99-cent store on Walton and East Mount Eden Avenues. The workers got out and called 911, and by the time Reilly’s truck arrived, fire had engulfed the place. In he went with four of his company mates. Reilly, the team’s probie, is thought to have been at work on the nozzle, trying to get water on the fire, when witnesses across the street saw a rooftop air conditioner fall in, crashing through the floor beneath. Reilly and four others fell through the ground floor and were pinned in the basement under rubble.
A firefighter’s oxygen supply lasts up to 45 minutes. Three of the men got out in time, but it took 90 minutes to dig out Howard Carpluk and Reilly. Reilly’s mother has been told of a taped transmission of Carpluk saying, “Save my probie, he’s underneath me.” Some 130 firefighters were called in the rain to help get them out. By the time Reilly arrived at the hospital, he was pronounced dead from heart failure. Carpluk died a day later. But the fire was contained. “I know it meant a lot to him to help people,” says Monica, “to protect his country and do the right thing at home. He knew the risks. He was happy. He had his whole life laid out. He knew what he wanted. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.”