From The Archive
The Fire Within
Continued (page 2 of 2)
Al Ronaldson's widow, Kim, laughs about her man's golf: "He was a hacker who played as often as he could, especially when his brothers called. Golf was a family thing for the Ronaldsons, from their father and mother on. He loved it. Very competitive, like all firemen."
Not that Kim fully understands the game. "I'm just learning to play now. So I see these guys, all serious. They toss up grass before hitting? Oh, God, like that makes a difference? Wait, one thing I really like about golf. The clothes I get to wear. I love the clothes."
Married 17 years, she has five children, the youngest now 16; one son is a firefighter, another plans to be. Kim Ronaldson says, yes, her heart was broken on March 5, 1991. Firefighters put it together again.
"You see 'the brotherhood' is real when you see them on the golf course, just the way they stand together, laugh, talk, play jokes," Kim Ronaldson says. "They do take care of each other. You got a plumbing problem, somebody knows plumbing. A roof, somebody knows roofs. The brotherhood overflows. The Ronaldson is a memorial, but it's not an unhappy day. It's a very, very happy day. The man's still in my heart."
She met him, in a way, through golf. Al Ronaldson's parents didn't leave Brooklyn just for Staten Island's golf. But that had something to do with the move. Before any bridge connected the boroughs, Joe Ronaldson so often took a ferry to the island's courses that he finally decided to cut out the trip and live on Staten Island. A fire department captain, a lifer who would do 33 years before retiring to a Florida golf course, he used days off to tee it up.
It was at Staten Island's Susan E. Wagner High School that Al Ronaldson met Kim Nelson. Shortly after graduation, they married. As his father before him -- "Whatever their father did, the boys wanted to do," his mother, Ann, says -- Al became a firefighter and golfer.
"The kind of guy Al Ronaldson was?" says Nick Giordano, also in special ops. "Steady, determined, fun-loving, a million stories."
And this, the ultimate measure of a firefighter: "If I'm down, I know Al's coming to get me."
From hell to Pebble BeachKevin O'Brien on the phone: "Pick you up at your hotel at 9."
Someone asks, "What kind of car?"
"A truck. Red. With 'FIRE' on the side."
O'Brien is 48 years old, his brown hair going gray, his face weathered, the sort of stuff that comes to men after 20 years fighting fires. Twice in the past year, he says, he's been in building collapses of the kind that killed Al Ronaldson. He's gone to "more than a hundred" funerals after September 11.
"From that morning on, we were on the site 72 hours straight," O'Brien says. "We had no idea what was going on outside us -- not until we left, like zombies, and all those people, thousands, were waiting on the streets to see us. Hundreds of thousands, cheering." When a celebrity golf tournament needed a FDNY representative, O'Brien got the call. "Had to leave the next day," he says. A wink. "Private jet." In the FDNY van, heading down Broadway to Ground Zero, O'Brien adds two more words: "Pebble Beach."
There on the Monterey Peninsula where a firefighter could never afford to play; there where Tiger Woods once screamed a profanity following an 18th-tee drive jerked into the Pacific Ocean; there on the 18th tee Kevin O'Brien thought of his old boss, Ray Downey, who had played some golf.
"I'd say he was 'an enthusiastic learner,' " O'Brien says. "He had a lot of hockey in his golf swing."
Downey was FDNY's deputy chief of special operations. His men did the department's most dangerous work. They called him God. Walk through fire the way that man did, you've earned the name. At age 63, with 39 years on the job, Downey had fought every fire every way and done rescues no one else imagined. Days off, he'd been a left wing and captain of the FDNY hockey team.
"He was the most famous firefighter in the world," O'Brien says, "and the smartest guy I ever knew. Nothing he couldn't do. One time I introduced Ray to a priest saying, 'Here's God. He's a little different from the one you know, but he's the one we know.' "
Downey was at the World Trade Center on September 11. Of FDNY's 450 special-operations men, 94 died that day with him.
There on Pebble Beach's 18th tee -- as grand a stage as golf gives its people, high on a cliff's edge above pounding surf, the game's most beautiful par 5 in front of him -- there Kevin O'Brien took off a silver memorial bracelet bearing Ray Downey's name. He tacked it to the split-rail fencing around the tee.
Then he hit a big drive. Knocked his second on. And quit. Walked away. Someone shouted, "Kevin, aren't you going to try the eagle putt?" The firefighter shook his head no. Said, "Let Ray finish it."