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Rangers pay tribute to NYC firefighters

by Dan Rosen

NEW YORK -- Rangers coach John Tortorella barely blinked as he walked through the memorial room inside the firehouse at Engine Co. 4/Ladder Co. 15 on South Street.

With his focused eyes visible behind his clear glasses, Tortorella fixated on every word, every plaque, every picture and every piece of equipment commemorating the 14 brave New York City firefighters who served in that house until they paid the ultimate price for doing their job on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

The normally steely-eyed, intense coach of the New York Rangers was now an honored and emotional guest inside the downtown Manhattan firehouse Tuesday.

"This is 10 years past, and you go in there, it's like it just happened. Wow, it's frightening," Tortorella said from the front entrance to the firehouse, inches from the falling rain that pelted the city Tuesday.

"The one that got me is when I read the cardboard clipping of you're in the cab, you're in the ladder, you're upstairs, you're on the roof. I mean, that is their assignment for the World Trade Center. That's the one that really nailed me."

Tortorella was part of two busloads of Rangers and families from the Garden of Dreams Foundation who paid tribute to the city's Bravest Tuesday by stopping at three downtown firehouses before heading to Tower 7 at the World Trade Center site for a reception.

Between the three firehouses (Ladder Co. 3/Battalion 6 on E. 13th Street, Engine Co. 4/Ladder Co. 15 on South Street and Engine Co. 24/Ladder Co. 5 on Sixth Avenue), a total of 37 firefighters died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

The New York City Fire Department lost 343 in total. There were almost 3,000 victims, including more than 2,600 at the World Trade Center.

"The thing I respect most is how that day everybody charged in to help," Tortorella said. "They knew the magnitude of it and they went to work, and they ended up losing their lives to protect us."

With the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks that changed the world only five days away, this week is especially emotional and taxing for the men who made it out of the rubble and the new firefighters who have heard the stories, seen the pictures and met the families of the ones who did not.

However, Lt. Kevin Hayes of Ladder 3/Battalion 6 said the visit from the Rangers brought the perfect mental respite at just the right time.

"It makes us feel appreciated that the Rangers, the whole organization, would take time out of their day to recognize us," Hayes, a 21-year member of the FDNY, told "We're spending all week cleaning and prepping our firehouse for a memorial Mass on 9/11 so it's a nice break in the routine. We're cleaning and scrubbing, so to have the Rangers pop in like this it's a nice mental break."

Firefighter Al Spinelli of Engine 24/Ladder 15 echoed Hayes' sentiments, telling, "It definitely lifts our spirits."

Little did Spinelli realize the impact he had on the players, specifically forward Ryan Callahan and defenseman Marc Staal, after he told them that Sept. 11, 2001 was his first day on the job with the FDNY.

"I graduated the academy on Sept. 8, and that was a Saturday. I jumped right in," Spinelli told Callahan and Staal, who were both left with mouths agape, stunned expressions on their faces. "I wasn't even in a firehouse yet. I was home in Staten Island when I heard about it. I grabbed my gear and drove right down to the Staten Island Ferry. There were about 70 firefighters waiting there to go over."

As if that wasn't enough, what really got Callahan and Staal was what Spinelli told them next.

"I stayed down there for 33 hours."

The Rangers were left speechless.

"I'm sure it's not an easy time for a lot of them, but it's pretty touching coming in here," Staal told shortly after hearing Spinelli's first-hand account of his unforgettable first day on the job 10 years ago.

"I've never been to a firehouse in New York before, so being to one so close to the towers, one that was heavily affected by 9/11, I don't know what there is to say about it. It's tough."

But it was also eye-opening, especially when you consider: That Staal was a ninth-grader walking the halls of his high school in Thunder Bay, Ont. when the towers were struck and collapsed.

That Michael Del Zotto was 11 years old, living in Stouffville, Ont. when the United States was attacked.

That Henrik Lundqvist was in Sweden with his teammates with the Frolunda Indians on a bus to a preseason game when one of his teammates got a text message that read, "Manhattan is on fire."

That Brad Richards was on the ice in Tampa sweating through a practice run by Tortorella as the news was spreading across the world.

That Callahan was in high school in Rochester, N.Y., a five-hour drive from Manhattan, when the towers fell.

"I just think this (touring the firehouses) lets them know where they're at," Tortorella  said.

Which, of course, is living and working in a city that remains greatly affected by the events of Sept. 11.

The Rangers recievedg that reality check Tuesday.

Tortorella said it better have been a life-changing experience for all of

"We're always looking for heroes in sports -- the winning goal, the touchdown -- that's it there, that's the real stuff," the coach said, pointing at the firehouse. "Let's face it, in the sports world we live in a bubble -- that's the real stuff there.

"They're the real heroes, not us. "You're darn right it's emotional."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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