By Ann Rowland
The iconic photo shows then 5-year old Joey Wylie in a fireman’s hat saluting his father’s flag-draped coffin as it is carried down the church steps. On Monday, December 9, Joey’s mother, Randi, sent now 24 year old Joey off to his first day on the job as a FDNY firefighter at Ladder 3 in Manhattan with a big hug. She believes he is more than ready for the job that awaits him.
“He gave me a big smile and told me he loved me,” she said.
Joey Wylie graduated last Thursday as part of the most diverse class of FDNY graduates in the history of the department. Included in his class are eight members who had lost a firefighter father or brother in the line of duty, all but one related to 9/11. Joey’s father, Tommy, was number eight and this story is about his legacy.
Tommy Wylie, 30, was working at the Food Emporium market in Manhattan as the meat manager when he got his call from the FDNY. Becoming a firefighter required him taking a pay cut and Randi went to work to help support Joey and his two younger sisters. Tommy valued what it meant to be a firefighter more than the loss of pay.
Tommy had only been a FDNY firefighter for a few days when, along with the rest of his company from Ladder 18 in Manhattan, he responded to a five-story tenement fire in New York’s Chinatown on December 29, 1994. This would be Tommy Wylie’s first and only fire.
Despite the fact that the first 911 caller gave the wrong address, firefighters arrived at the scene in time to rescue a baby. Firefighters, including Tommy, continued searching the smoke-filled interior of the building for other people who might have still been inside. Tommy, along with a veteran firefighter, became trapped in underground cubicles where immigrants were living. By the time his fellow firefighters found Tommy, he was close to death from carbon monoxide poisoning.
At the hospital, a CAT scan showed that he was essentially brain dead. However, when Randi asked him to squeeze her hand if he could hear her tell him that she loved him, he did just that. An entire city rallied behind Tommy praying for his recovery.
On January 3, a mass was held for Tommy Wylie at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Following the mass, Randi told reporters “No matter what the doctors say, I believe in miracles,” Randi. “And if everyone says one prayer for Tommy, maybe he’ll pull through.”
Three hours after the mass, Tommy passed away. Randi later told reporters that all of those prayers “helped send Tommy to a better place.” “And that’s getting me get through all this,” she said.
Mayor Giuliani gave Tommy’s eulogy and as the FDNY Pipes and Drums band played, 6,000 firefighters and little Joey saluted. As Joey and the rest of his class marched into their graduation ceremony, he once again heard the FDNY Pipes and Drum band playing. He had requested and received his father’s badge number.
“4981, It really brought me back 19 years. But I couldn’t have been more proud of him. It’s all good,” Randi said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”