It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since we all sat entranced, horrified, in front of our televisions watching as the events of 9/11/2001 unfolded. The time has gone by so quickly and we have so soon forgotten.
But it has been and it is right and proper that we remember that day as we swore we never would in the hours and days as the attack on America unfolded before our eyes. We said we’d never forget then, and it is our duty as Americans not to forget now. Ever.
I have written about Lt. Michael Warchola every year since it happened. I first wrote about him as part of the 2996 project that is now defunct. Now I write about him because it is what needs to be done – to remember when it seems so soon that we have forgotten. He was a true American Hero. He was the type of man we hope we’ll never run out of. He sacrificed his own life for the lives of others.
Below please read about Lt. Michael Warchola, a 9-11 hero remembered, 10-years later.
It is important to remember each individual. As Marx said, a single death is a tragedy, a thousand is statistic. We much remember each. They are not a statistic, but a tragedy. We should remember, always.
Lt. Michael Warchola was a hero. I’m not just throwing the term ‘hero’ out there because that’s what people are supposed to say about someone who was killed in the horrors of one of the longest days in American history. He really was a hero. A real-life hero.
Lt. Michael Warchola died saving the lives of other people. We know of at least one he saved, another whom he died next to, probably trying to save. He was last seen attending to an office worker who was experiencing chest pain in a stairwell of the World Trade Center, just prior to it’s collapse. Everyone was getting out of the building as fast as they could. One tower had already collapsed and the second was barely standing. He was told that everyone was evacuating and he replied that he was helping a civilian, for the others to go ahead. He stayed with the civilian and died in that stairwell.
With apologies to his family and friends, the following is my inadequate attempt to write a tribute to the life of Lt. Michael Warchola.
As a brief biography, Michael P. Warchola was born to Michael and Norah Warchola on February 20, 1950 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He grew up in Middle Village with his older brother Denis. During their growing up years, Mike and Denis’ grandmother kept British tabloids around the house. It’s said that reading those tabloids is what lead to Mike’s lifelong passion for reading and interest in the strange and bizarre.
It seems he was a man with a wide variety of interests, a sense of the absurdities of life and an intense curiosity about the world. He seems to have been a man of character and courage. He had earned the respect and love of those who knew him in life.
Growing up, the family always made time for summer trips. They often spent summers in the South Hamptons. His mother was a kind woman who loved her sons. She kept Cracker Jacks in the pantry for the neighborhood children. His father kept a garden and cooked out on a hibachi. The boys had a dog named Zero. Denis found their dog while walking home from school one day. Denis asked Mike what he thought the chances were that their mother would allow them to keep the dog. Mike replied, ‘Zero’. And so, Zero was his name.
Mike’s cousin remembers him in comments of a remembrance website:
Mike – I remember you – I remember the time I was at the bus stop and you drove me home in the Karmann Ghia with the holes in the floor boards and we were laughing that I was going to fall through (I wasn’t laughing as hard as you were, not funny!) – I remember how your Mom (my aunt Norah) always had cracker jacks in the pantry for all of the kids, how she was always soooooooooo kind, I miss her still – I remember summers in South Hampton with your dad (my uncle Mike) with the vegetable garden and watching your dad smoke white owl cigars and drink Reingold beer and laugh his ass off and make everyone else laugh – I remember old Zero the dog, who seemed to live forever and eat everything – I remember how much fun it was to be over your house and look at your boxing gloves – I remember you had the Harkin eyes – I remember your dad’s old hibachi’s in the back yard in Middle Village and the great food that would come off those things – I remember that you were quiet in words and strong in actions – I remember you Mike
He was a 1968 graduate of Stuyvesant High School, New York, New York.
He was a boxer and won Golden Gloves Championships. A friend of his older brother’s remembers Mike as ‘tough as nails’ and that in a battle he never took a step back:
I watched Michael growing up as I was a good friend to his older brother Dennis. He was a great kid who was tough as nails. My greatest memory is the time Michael fought in the Golden Gloves at Sunnyside Gardens. A couple of friends from the neighborhood went to cheer him on and he never took a step backwards. I believe he won his first two matches in the first round and lost the third match in a decision, that also was a War but he never gave up, he never backed down.
Think of him all the time.
May he Rest in Peace,
Frank J. DiMartino
Mike is often described as unique, intelligent, strong, independent, curious about the world. He is described as someone others could depend on, as someone others learned from.
I see a twinkle in his eye and have the sense that he could be mischievous and funny. I also have the sense that he could be serious and carry on interesting discussions on any number of topics. My sense is that he was complex and mulch-dimensional. He was an artist who enjoyed drawing and painting and at the same time was a tough-guy who was a boxer and firefighter. He was ‘tough as nails’ yet tender and loved his children with every ounce of his being. I’ve read that he was both reticent and bold. He was a man of few words and at the same time exhibited strength of will and determination. He stayed close to home, living his life in his childhood home yet traveled all over the world.
I have the feeling that Michael P. Warchola was a very interesting and enormously likable man.
Ellen, a friend, writes:
I miss my friend Mike. He had a strong and independent mind, loved experiencing the physical world, understood much about evil, he was sometimes reticent, but that was OK. He was a wacky and wonderful Warchola. His love for his children Amy and Aaron was in his core. He was devoted to Ladder 5. I liked knowing he was around, he said we’d be friends for life. I am so sad he is not here.
His friend Joel writes:
Mike, you were a good friend during the three years (1965-68)we were classmates at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. I remember you as a person of strong intellect, high standards and uncompromising principle. Everyone at Stuy was smart, but you were also a champion Golden Gloves boxer. I will always remember you and cherish the good memories we shared in our youth. My heartfelt sympathies to your family, colleagues and friends. May you rest in peace.
He graduated from the University of Buffalo with a major in English and earned a teaching certificate. He joined the New York Fire Department in 1977, after five years on the waiting list. At the time of his death he was a Lieutenant in New York City Fire Department, Ladder Co. No. 5, 6th Avenue & Houston St., Manhattan.
Mike was divorced after a 13 year marriage. He had a son and a daughter. His former wife writes about him in the comments of a remembrance website:
Mike was my former husband and the father of our children. He was a unique, extremely intelligent and very interesting man. Mike had an inexhaustive curiosity about the world we live in, and a unique perception about life. He was very well-read and loved to travel to the sometimes-obscure places he’d read about. Mike loved his children with his very being and took an active part in their lives and future. For 13 years, he was my husband, and in recent years, my very dear friend.
The children and I are very proud of him. To us, his life meant so much more than his tragic, heroic death portrayed. Yet, September 11th capped his full, yet far-too-short life.
We know that God is holding Mike in the palm of His hand, and we are confident that we will see him again in Glory.
Leslie Terwilliger (Walden, NY )
Mike lived in his childhood home in Middle Village, Queens, New York. As he was nearing retirement, he spent more and more time tending his garden at his home. He made elaborate drawings of Venus flytraps and he kept a Godzilla poster on his wall. He was a painter, a history buff and loved traveling to exotic locales to visit places he had read about in books.
On September 11, 2001 Mike was 51 years old and a short-timer, only two shifts away from retirement. His paperwork was done and his plans were made for a retirement filled with adventures, traveling to strange and exotic places around the world.
Lt. Warchola was last seen by members of Ladder 6 as they were descending the stairway of the North Tower.
On the way down, they saw members of Ladder Co. 5 on the 12th floor. They were treating an office worker’s chest pains. Jonas knew Ladder 5′s officer, Lt. Mike Warchola.
“Come on, Mike, let’s go,” Jonas said. “It’s time to go.”
“That’s OK, Jay,” Warchola said. “You have your civilian, we have ours.”
“Don’t wait too long.”
and later, after the collapse:
A mayday message crackled over Jonas’s radio: “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Ladder Co. 5, mayday. We’re in the B stairway, 12th floor. I’m trapped, and I’m hurt bad.”
D’Agostino said, “Cap, did you get that?”
“Yeah, I got it,” Jonas said. He recognized the voice of Mike Warchola of Ladder Co. 5, the team that had stopped to help a civilian with chest pains on the 12th floor. No one knew it, but there no longer was a 12th floor.
“The stairway’s in real bad shape,” Jonas recalled. “It’s shaky, it’s twisted, there’s all kinds of debris on it. There’s no stairs to the third floor. So it took a while even to get up to the fifth floor.”
Jonas reached the fifth floor: “And a second mayday comes in from him. And then a third. I got up to the fifth floor and I couldn’t move the debris anymore. It was just too big and too heavy. And I said to him, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you.’ And that was emotional for me because he and I worked together as firemen. We’re not that far apart. And I can’t help him. He gave out three maydays and we didn’t hear from him anymore.”
Denis, Mike’s brother is also a retired Fire Fighter. He was there, three days later on Friday, when Mike’s body was found and was able to put his hand on his brothers arm and say farewell.
The men of Ladder 5 carried the body of Lt. Michael Warchola and other Ladder 5 heroes out of the rubble of the World Trade Center with their helmets on their chests.
…. when Denis Warchola visited his brother’s fire house, the first story he heard was one describing how Michael had saved one more life in his final hours.
“When I introduced myself as Mike’s brother, a man came over and said to me, ‘I want to thank you. Your brother saved my son’s life,’” he said.
The son is a rookie firefighter in the company. Though his shift ended at 9 a.m. Tuesday, he defied Warchola’s orders to head home and snuck onto the fire truck.
When Warchola saw the rookie at the scene, “my brother went ballistic,” Denis Warchola said. “He said, ‘If I see you in there, I will make sure that after we put this fire out you do not have a job.’ ”
“I think my brother was worried about the kid’s safety. It was bad enough the guys who were working had to go in there. This kid technically didn’t have to go in.”
Following his death, Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda of Slovakia noticed Mike’s name among the victims of 9/11. His name meant something:
The attack of Sept. 11 spread his name around the world, as it did those of many other victims. One who noticed the name was Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda of Slovakia, and when he came here recently to run in the New York Marathon, he sought out Lieutenant Warchola’s older brother Denis, who was only vaguely aware of the family’s central European ancestry. Mr. Dzurinda took home a picture of Lieutenant Warchola and held it aloft during a television appearance.
“Everybody in the country saw my brother’s picture,” Denis Warchola said.
Allan, a childhood acquaintance writes in the comments of a memorial website:
As a kid you always looked so large to me, and now as a grown man you look even larger! thanks mike.
His niece Sheina wrote:
hey uncle it’s me Sheina. You were the best uncle anyone could every have.:) It hurts me so much to know your gone. Aunt Sarah is not doing to good now that your gone:(. You were the greatest person in the world. You were so loving ,caring, funny, sweetest person. I love you with my whole heart. You were the best. I will never forget the pain you went through for me. I’ll never for get about you. love Sheina – submitted: 4/8/2002
Aaron, Mike’s son wrote in the comments of a memorial website:
Heh, it is funny how time helps us to forget things. Though i have never forgotten you. I have been thinking about you lately and just happen to stumble across this site. I had almost forgotten what you had looked like. You are indeed my hero and i will never forget what you have done. So now I salute you and say goodbye. I love you and miss you. Goodbye dad.
Lay me down beside cool waters,
and lay to rest my body sore.
Send the word out to my brothers,
the fire is down, let it burn no more.”
This is reposted from the 2006 2996 project.. When I first wrote about Michael Warchola, I added the following about what writing about him meant to me.
When I signed up to participate in the 2996 Tribute, D.C. Roe sent me Lt. Warchola’s name as my honoree. I dutifully started trying to see what I could find out about him on the internet. It was a project that I thought was a nice way to remember the 5th anniversary of 9/11. But as I researched Lt. Warchola, it became less of a ‘project’ and more of ‘mission’. I found myself fascinated by this ordinary man who did extraordinary things and lived a heroic life.
I found myself wanting to know more about him. Not just facts, but what kind of person he was in life. I wanted to get to know who he was. As I read about him, I found myself not only liking him, but having a great deal of respect and admiration for him.
Joseph Stalin said: The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic. I found that this ‘project’ has had much more of an impact on me than most anything I can imagine in terms of beginning to have a hint of comprehension of the extent of the tragedies our enemies brought upon us on that day. For that I am grateful to D.C. Roe.
I am most grateful to Lt. Michael Warchola for the impact he has had on me, someone whose path he never would have crossed in life.
more sources and links: