It was time for the annual holiday party at Ladder Company 101, the Red Hook Firehouse in Brooklyn. Every year, about a week before Christmas, the firefighters bring together their own kids and neighborhood children. They decorate a tree and they hold an open house. Usually old-timers organize the thing, the guys who've been around the place for many years.
Not this time. In a three-week span beginning in November, the firefighters from Red Hook buried seven of their own, seven men killed Sept. 11 when the twin towers burned and fell.
"After the last one," said Tommy Mulqueen, 34, "nobody was even talking about a Christmas party. People were feeling burned out."
Mulqueen figured he'd better put on the red suit, the one stuffed away in an upstairs closet at the firehouse.
He and McShane were close. They worked together on a lot of lonely nights, when calls were sporadic and they talked away the hours.
They found out they had a lot in common. They were both products of Irish neighborhoods and Catholic schools. They were both Mets fans who loved to play rugby. McShane lost his dad when he was 14, while Mulqueen's father died when he was 13.
"We were almost like the same person," Mulqueen said.
That explains their final and most powerful link.
The Sept. 11 call came in at 8:50 a.m., 10 minutes before the end of Mulqueen's shift.
He was tired, changed and ready to get out. McShane was just coming on. Nobody knew how bad the thing would be. "Go home," McShane told Mulqueen. "I'll take this one."
It was no big deal, something friends do for each other all the time. "I watched him leave quarters," Mulqueen said. "I think all the time about how I should have gone, about how things could have been different. I wish I could take it back."
"You've got two choices now: Faith or no faith," Mulqueen said. "I look at this as an opportunity to live my life fully every day. I've got to see it that way. If you can't put your faith in God, if you can't hope that the Christmas season can bring some joy, then what have you got?"
Neighborhood residents donated a tree. The firefighters got presents together for all the kids, including the children of the widows. All that was left was finding a Santa Claus.
Mulqueen stepped up. He put on the suit and prepared himself. He expected some of the kids to ask if they could have their daddies back. Mulqueen was ready to say that their daddies were happy with God in heaven, and that someday they'd all be together there.
Count on that, he said. They can believe in Red Hook's Santa.