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The Firemen's Friar

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Grimmest task: Rescuers carry Mychal Judge's body from ower One, Tuesday, September 11.  

Bill Cosgrove, a lieutenant in the Manhattan Traffic Task Force, was in a car on West Broadway when he heard on his radio about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. He raced to Tower One to help guide rescuers in and out of the area. Later, inside the building, he found a group of firemen, including Christian Waugh, clustered around a granite desk at the tower's emergency command post. "I was just about to tell them which way to drive," says Cosgrove. "That's when the whole building shook. The lights went out. And there was this giant vacuum sound." Waugh dropped to the ground. Others, including Cosgrove, ducked into the nearby stairwell. "We thought it was our building that was collapsing," says Cosgrove. "It wasn't." He's now pretty sure it was Tower Two. "The pressure was sucking the windows out of Tower One."

The men waited in total darkness. Abruptly, they were enveloped in plumes of smoke, fireproofing, and pulverized cement. "You couldn't breathe," says Cosgrove. "You couldn't see. It was totally dark. Someone shouted, 'Everybody hold hands!' "

Gasping, their eyes stinging, the men reached out for one another and started a slow, awkward march out of the stairwell and back through the lobby. They had proceeded no more than twenty paces when it happened. Cosgrove tripped over something.

A body.

Everyone stopped. One of the firefighters aimed his flashlight low across the ground. A halo of light framed a man's face. Everyone saw it. "Oh, my God," they began to shout. "It's Father Mike."

He wasn't buried under much rubble; his body, even his face, was still perfectly intact. They took his pulse. Nothing. "I took an arm," says Cosgrove. "Someone else took an arm. Two other guys took his ankles." Waugh grabbed him by the waist, and together the men carried him out of the building. They found a bunch of broken chairs on an outdoor plaza and nestled Judge in one of them, so that they could carry him down a staircase to the street. That was the moment a Reuters photographer, Shannon Stapleton, snapped the picture that Christopher Keenan, one of Judge's closest friends at the friary, now calls "a modern Pietà."

"He was very in touch with human vulnerability. Good ministers have an outsiderness to them. And he did, more so than anybody else."

Judge was born in Brooklyn in 1933, two days before his twin sister, Dympna. His parents were Irish immigrants from County Leitrim; he lost his father, a grocery-store owner on Dean Street, at 6. Judge was a charming, plucky kid, the type who reveled in the city, wandering everywhere and setting up a shoeshine stand in front of the Flatiron Building just to make a few extra bucks.

For as long as Dympna can remember, Judge wanted to be a priest. Faith came naturally, effortlessly to him; he was an altar boy in elementary school and joined the Franciscan friars at just 15. He took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in 1955, was ordained in 1961, and spent the next 25 years hopscotching between parishes in New Jersey. He settled in New York in the summer of 1986, at the friary of St. Francis of Assisi Church.

He became the Fire Department chaplain in 1992, after his predecessor, another friar at Assisi, died of cancer. "Priests and firemen both enter people's lives at a point of crisis," muses Duffy. "And they have similar outlooks on life -- it's the need to help, to rescue. So you have Mike Judge wanting to do that in a spiritual way, and them wanting to do it in a physical way. It was a natural match."

At the friary, Judge's room was immaculate and spare. Every morning, he'd wake up at around 6:30 and give thanks for his sobriety. At morning office, he sat in the first row, always on the right, and prayed aloud for the city's workers: its bus drivers and subway workers, its councilmen and mayor. He liked to preach from the first pew as well.

"This was very significant," says Brian Carroll, a friend and fellow friar. "Because when you step out of the sanctuary, you're down with the people, eyeball to eyeball with them. That was the New Yorker in him. As he often said, 'It can get messy, it can get crazy, but it can be an awful lot of fun.' "

Younger friars often looked to Judge as their role model. He was heartily spiritual, never ashamed to introduce God into ordinary conversation. He compulsively blessed people -- the pregnant, the homeless, the random traveler on the bus. "While the rest of us were running around organizing altar boys and choirs and liturgies and decorations," Duffy told the mourners in his homily, "he was in his office listening. His heart was open." (But occasionally not his eyes: Duffy later confessed that once, at their New Jersey parish, Judge was so exhausted he fell asleep while a parishioner was unloading his troubles; he apologized and asked him to please return the following night.)

He walked almost everywhere, briskly. There were days he'd start at the friary and go all the way to Coney Island via the Brooklyn Bridge, a dignified figure in leather sandals and a friar's habit. He never left his room without a wad of $1 bills to distribute to the homeless.

Judge loved being at the center of things, loved being in the media glare. His colleagues often teased him about it -- that and his vanity about his thick gray hair, which he was forever combing. As soon as TWA flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic, for example, Judge was racing off to Long Island, tending to the victims' families, leading them in prayer. He also befriended Steven McDonald, the cop who was rendered a quadriplegic after he was shot by a teenager in Central Park in 1986.

The friendships he made with these people were lasting and deep. Judge stayed in touch with many of them until the day he died, writing Mother's Day cards to women who'd lost their children and birthday cards to children who'd lost their mothers. He and McDonald took three trips to Ireland together -- both were very committed to the Catholic cause -- and two to Lourdes.

"He rarely talked about himself," says McCourt. "He would essentially get you talking about your problem, and the next thing you know, you were talking about your solution -- he'd be quietly guiding you toward it. Almost a spiritual therapist, in a sense."

Though Judge famously triple- and quadruple-booked his afternoons, his first priority was always the Fire Department, which kept him in the loop by beeper and radio. If there was a fire of three alarms or more -- beep, beep, beep -- off he'd go, in a large sedan the men kept for him at Engine 1-Ladder 24.

"Most of his life," says Christopher Keenan, "he lived with a great deal of stress about what he couldn't respond to -- the times he had to say no." Two months before he died, Judge had changed the message on his answering machine. "This is Mychal Judge," he said. "It's so good to get your call. But if you're calling about a wedding or a baptism or funeral, I am so sorry, but I will not be able to do it, because my primary commitment is to the Fire Department."

By nine or ten at night, he would return to his spartan room and spend the next three or four hours on the phone, returning calls, touching base, making sure that the batty shut-in in New Jersey was surviving or that the homeless person he'd found housing for had figured out how to hook up her telephone. He'd write in his journal. And he'd write letters -- Carroll calls them his "midnight notes" -- to the friends he'd seen that day or the people he was most concerned about. (He made a special point of keeping the letters coming to David Dinkins, especially when the former mayor was going through a rough spell.)

Some nights, he'd conclude with a 1 a.m. phone call to the men at Engine 1-Ladder 24. As soon as a firefighter picked up, Judge would wander over to his window, facing south over 31st Street, and wave.

As the first tower continued to burn, Waugh, Cosgrove, and the others carried Judge over to the corner of Church and Vesey and laid him out on the sidewalk. An EMT pronounced him dead. Cosgrove, pulsing with adrenaline, began to shout at the top of his lungs. "Somebody get this man a priest! This man is a priest!" The firemen ran back to the scene.

At that very moment, José Alfonso Rodriguez, a 28-year-old third-year cop on the downtown beat, was rounding the corner.

"I know where there's a church," he told Cosgrove.

So off he went -- up to Church and Barclay Streets, and then into the 163-year-old St. Peter's. A woman inside was tearing up sheets, handing them to people who needed something to cover their mouths. "I need a priest to give someone last rites," he panted.

"They're all out," she said. "Are you Catholic?"

"Yes."

"You're allowed to give someone last rites."

Cosgrove had laid Judge's black fireman's jacket neatly over his head. Rodriguez reappeared and grabbed the lieutenant by the arms. "All the priests are gone," he shouted. "But the lady told me that if you're Catholic, you can do this. Are you Catholic?"

"Yes."

"Me too."

The men looked at each other for a split second. They were both wheezing, covered in ash, and trying desperately to see through the smoke. Tower One was minutes away from collapse.

They knelt down on the sidewalk.

Rodriguez gingerly grasped Judge's hand. Cosgrove laid his hands on Judge's head. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven . . .


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