One On 1: On 10th Anniversary of 9/11, FDNY Ceremonial Unit Head Joseph LaPointe Looks Back
Updated: 09/05/2011 08:28 PM
By: Budd Mishkin
Though it's been 10 years since September 11th, Lieutenant Joseph LaPointe, head of the Fire Department's Ceremonial Unit, is still deeply affected by the events of that fateful day. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
As the head of the Fire Department's Ceremonial Unit, Lieutenant Joseph LaPointe is always on call, even when he's trying to refinance his house.
"I apologize to him. You're in the middle of doing a closing, but I gotta take this call, City Hall is calling, and he's probably, ‘yeah, City Hall is calling, sure,’" says LaPointe.
City Hall was calling because President Barack Obama was scheduled to come to the World Trade Center site to lay a wreath.
That morning, the White House told Lieutenant LaPointe that he would be carrying the wreath. After some confusion, he even offered the president advice on how to hang it.
"He's pulling it up ‘cause he’s trying to hang it through the inside, unaware of the wire. So I'm like, ‘Mr. President, there’s a wire on there.’ I said it twice low, then the third time I had to raise my voice a little bit. As he’s pulling it up, I'm pulling down and the flowers are falling off. I'm like, ‘oh my God, this thing is going to fall apart.’ After the third time, he heard me. We hung the wreath. As he was walking away, he said ‘thanks for the help with the wreath,’" says LaPointe.
Lieutenant LaPointe is assigned to Ladder 114 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, but he spends much of his time running the FDNY's Ceremonial Unit, coordinating all types of events for the department.
He was first asked to work for the Ceremonial Unit in the aftermath of September 11th, when 343 members of the FDNY were killed.
"There was time for emotion, but there was a job to be done," says LaPointe. "Before I got involved in this, I was always the guy with the big mouth, it just got put to good use.”
Lieutenant LaPointe proved a quick study, coordinating scores of funerals and memorial services. He learned how to deal with clergy, families and funeral directors, incorporating the department's traditions and an ability to offer sober advice to families in their time of sorrow.
"The ultimate way it would work perfect is if we could meet at their home, discuss things before they go to the funeral home, because I explain it's like discussing buying a new car in front of the car salesman," says LaPointe.
The job could be overwhelming. LaPointe recalls one day with thirty funerals and memorial services. The department had never gone through anything like this, so much was learned by trial and error.
"We reserved four or five pews for the family to sit, and the family pulled up with like a 100-car procession. So, we realized there was not enough room in those for pews, so we started removing people from the church. Those people were not happy," says LaPointe.
Nevertheless, LaPointe garnered enough respect to be put in charge of all of the funerals and memorial services in Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Initially, he was skeptical.
"He told me he heard a rumor I was going to start doing the Brooklyn, Staten Island ones during 9/11. I said, ‘Me? How did my name come up?’" says LaPointe.
He says that at the time, there was no protocol for having a service with no remains, as was often the case after 9/11, so some families tried to improvise.
"They were making these flower boards, boards with floral decorations on it, and they would have guys carrying it like they were pallbearers,” says LaPointe. “Some priests were okay with it, some were like, ‘that's not happening in my church.’"
The wishes of the family have always been paramount. LaPointe recalls one service where the widow insisted that the monsignor of the church be absent from the proceedings.
"Now there's an abnormally long delay, we can’t figure out what's going on. Well, monsignor so-and-so was on the altar, and she told him, ‘if you don't leave, we're leaving.’ Mayor Giuliani is outside, dignitaries, 4-to-500 guys, so we basically had to go in and speak to monsignor and say he has to leave his church,” says LaPointe.
Lieutenant LaPointe was born in the Bronx and raised primarily on Staten Island. His father was a firefighter.
LaPointe graduated from Tottenville High School in 1978 and served for two years as a correction officer. He then switched over to the police department, patrolling 42nd street in Times Square in the 80s.
"Everybody was an ex-inmate. I was standing out there. ‘Yo, CO , you're the real police now?’ I was 22 and the guy next to me was 20. ‘How do you know all these guys?’” says LaPointe.
After six years, he moved over to the fire department. He immediately noticed the difference between being a New York City police officer and a firefighter.
"Cop is a tough job, it’s a thankless job. A lot of your interaction with the public is negative," says LaPointe. “As the fire department, 99 percent of the time you’re coming to help somebody. There’s really not a negative reaction. I remember first switching, riding around on the truck, first few tours, people waving to me. I'm still thinking like a cop, ‘what are they waving at?’"
LaPointe was at home on Staten Island on the morning of September 11th. He and other firefighters then headed to the World Trade Center site on the Staten Island ferry, where he watched the second tower come down.
“Just knowing what we do, you're saying to yourself ‘there had to be ton of guys in there,’" says LaPointe. “We had a priest come on the ferry and give you absolution. That was a little, ‘this is the real deal.’"
LaPointe worked on the pile at the World Trade Center site for a few weeks until he was assigned to the Ceremonial Unit.
He lost friends and colleagues on 9/11, but his closest friend to die in the line of duty was John Martinson, known to all as Johnny Nice Guy.
Lieutenant Martinson was killed fighting a building fire in Crown Heights in January 2008. LaPointe was given the option of not coordinating the funeral.
"Commission Cassano asked me, ‘I know he's your good friend, do you want to step out on it?’ I said absolutely not. Nobody's running this. You know what I mean," says LaPointe.
There are happy events to coordinate as well, like graduations and promotions, but whether he's at home with his wife and kids on Staten Island or with his other family — the men of the firehouse in Sunset Park — September 11th is always there lingering.
LaPointe calls working on all of those funerals and memorial services 10 years ago an "honor."
"Years ago in the 70s, they referred to them as the war years for the fire department as far as all the fires, the amount of fires. Those particular times after 9/11 were like the war years as far as funerals. The amount of funerals we experienced is unbelievable," says LaPointe.
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