Bay Area Books

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Forgotten heroes of Sept. 11: women

Stories of the heroes of Sept. 11 seem to have a masculine flavor. As the authors of ``Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion'' (Alpha Publications, 316 pp., $22.95) note, ``the media presented story after story about the `return of the manly man' and made daily, unapologetic references to `the brothers' and `our brave guys.' ''

In this moving, disturbing and uplifting collection of interviews and photos, Northern California authors Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba showcase female firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and Port Authority personnel and a female journalist who were on the scene that day. In the manner of Studs Terkel, the authors wisely let their 30 subjects talk uninterrupted and at length. The power is in the minute-by-minute graphic accounts of these women doing their jobs.

Twenty-seven-year-old police officer Patty Lucci talks about being on the scene when a firefighter's body was found: ``I remember walking off thinking that they'd just found somebody's brother. Somebody's son. Somebody's father.''

Lifelong New Yorker Lois Mungay, the most decorated female firefighter in the FDNY, lost members of her crew in the collapse of Tower 2: ``The worst thing, in the very beginning, was escorting the families to get tested for DNA. They all came down with personal stuff that belonged to the guys -- toothbrushes, hairbrushes. Parents and children had to give saliva samples.''

Perhaps the most unnerving story comes from police officer Maureen Brown, who grew up in Queens in a family of firefighters and police officers. Her assignment was at the morgue. ``I've seen a lot of death. I've seen people stabbed, shot, decapitated, everything. . . . Seeing someone's half scalp or someone's shoulder blade. I'll never get that out of my head.''

The authors have an emotional tie to their subjects. Hagen is a Sonoma County firefighter and emergency medical technician; Carouba is an investigative social worker. Their own dangerous and intense work allowed them to recognize that women would bring a vivid and unique perspective to these stories of near-death, courage and compassion.

The book closes with profiles of three women who sadly did not survive the day. Black-and-white photographs by Joyce Beena capture the strength and warmth of all the women at ground zero.

© 2002 San Jose Mercury News