For the next two weeks, as a member of New York's Urban Search and Rescue team and as site operations chief for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Chief Downey was far more than a helping hand. He was an inspiration of unrivaled expertise. He was also a man whose beaming smile lightened some very dark hours. I am honored to say he became my friend.
On Tuesday, Chief Ray Downey rode the collapsing World Trade Center down to his death. We in Oklahoma fear that many more of our friends from New York gave their lives in Tuesday's rescue effort. If our prayers weight a bit more heavily than those from other states, it's because we came to know so many New York firefighters and police officers in 1995. The New York USAR team was one of the first FEMA groups deployed to Oklahoma City after the Murrah Building bombing, and they were with us through some of the most difficult days and nights of the rescue and recovery effort - a period much like New York is experiencing now, with mixed hope and despair.
Those feelings are all coming back to us in Oklahoma this week. Some of those who survived the 1995 bombing are having an especially difficult time with the events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. It's a nightmare replayed, on a much larger scale, and our wounds are still raw. But our grief is tempered by memories of the good men and women who stood with us six years ago. On Tuesday, as I watched the endless replays of those tall towers collapsing, I couldn't help but think of Ray Downey. Somehow, I knew he was there.
Ray Downey had been a firefighter for 39 years. He was the most decorated member of the New York Fire Department, perhaps the nation's top expert in what firefighters call "collapse rescue." In Oklahoma City, he diagnosed the tottering, rain-soaked Murrah Building with a practiced eye and worked with us to shore up the structure so rescue and recovery operations could proceed.
Ray named the huge concrete slab that hung ominously overhead. "That's 'Mother,'" he said simply, as if it had no power to fall on him. He worked with local firefighters and other FEMA teams to place support beams that prevented the rubble from shifting. I have no doubt that he saved lives in Oklahoma City.
I looked forward to seeing Ray each day at the bomb site, and I hope he felt the same. We bantered about our shared Catholic religion, and when some nuns from Germany sent some rosaries to my office, I went in search of Ray to give one to him. A year later, when I visited New York to pin yet another decoration on Ray Downey and his fellow fire and police heroes, he was still wearing that rosary.
I hope he had it with him Tuesday.
When the New York USAR team filed their after action report on their tour of duty in Oklahoma City, they ended it with four words: "God Bless You All." Today, Oklahoma returns the sentiment to New York, and especially to all those members of the police and fire service who died, or were injured, or who remain missing.
Not long ago, Ray Downey attended the funeral of another New York firefighter who died in the line of duty.
"Sometimes," he told a reporter. "good-bye is really good-bye."
I refuse to believe that, Ray. You, and those who so proudly wore the badge and principles for which you died, will always be with us in Oklahoma.
May God Bless You All.