By Annette Livet
The College Point intersection of 130th and Ulmer Streets and 25th Avenue is named for fallen Firefighter Michael J. Elferis. Do Generation Z kids who play on the adjacent sports fields notice? Do drivers or pedestrians?
Michael spent his youth playing on these same fields. They were integral in feeding his passion for sports. His name at that crossroads now bears witness to his heroism as a fallen first responder on Sept. 11, 2001.
Today’s youngest generation, like those who run on those sports fields, only know the Sept. 11 attacks and World Trade Center’s demise as history—however recent—taught as classroom lessons, textbook readings and annual observances. But neighborhoods throughout the city and beyond provide firsthand, tactile evidence of the valor and loss. In a manner epitomizing bravery, 412 first responders, including 343 firefighters, lost their lives running into harm’s way in towers initially believed to be impervious to collapse. They remain more than mere names of strangers on street signs.
Each of the 2,977 victims—whether a first-responding firefighter, police officer, other emergency responder or employee in the towers’ myriad offices—along with those volunteers post-cataclysm who came to assist, has their own back story. So do the other responders and helpers who succumbed later to injuries or illnesses that commenced on that September morning. For Michael, like the other 342 firefighters lost that day, it was their ultimate “back draft.”
With empathy and, in hindsight, as harbinger just three months before his own death on Sept. 11, Michael was so moved by the loss of three fellow FDNY firefighters in a 2001 Father’s Day blaze that he wrote the following poem in their honor. (Since then, the names of those fallen — firefighters Harry Ford, John Downing and Brian Fahey — were memorialized with street signs at Astoria Boulevard and 14th Street, the Astoria site of the devastating chemical-fed hardware store inferno.)
The Rage of The Fire
The rage of the fire
This demon we fight
A battle in war
With no end in sight
Brothers turned heroes
Not knowing we won
Now angels in heaven
From a battle that’s done.
So we hope to continue
With their courage and pride
Knowing there’s no greater
Job than the FDNY.
These same lines are now etched into Michael’s headstone, both in memory and in celebration of his life as a member of the FDNY he loved so much.
Michael’s 27-year story as a New York City lifer began in Manhattan and expanded to College Point in childhood with his parents Mary and Robert, and his four siblings: Robert, Joseph, Elizabeth and Nancy.
Following college at Manhattan’s John Jay, Michael began his service as a New York City police officer, following the path of his brother Robert. After two years working out of the 10th Precinct in Manhattan, he began his role as a New York City firefighter, a passion to which he had long aspired. Michael lived his life in benefit to his city, to his fellow New Yorkers and all visitors who shared this turf. He was equally passionate and affected by both the gains and losses of New York life.
At the time of his passing, he was a member of Engine 22, Ladder 13 in Manhattan’s Upper East Side Yorkville neighborhood, where eight of his firehouse members also perished that day in service to New York City and America.
As we move toward Sept. 11, one element of our local commemorations will be state Sen. Tony Avella’s annual motorcade to over two dozen Queens sites of street signs like Michael’s in tribute to their sacrifices, as well as to the site of one member of the U.S. Forces later fallen in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Senator will place a wreath of honor at each location. Perhaps one of these wreaths will catch your eye as you drive or walk past, prompting you to think about all those heroes—once strangers—who ran towards peril to safeguard us all. Their names hide in plain sight on street corners and neighborhood placards, well beyond the confines of the World Trade Center Memorial.
As others continue into these same essential callings, may they be buoyed by our gratitude, our appreciation and heartfelt words like those of Firefighter Michael J. Elferis and others who strive to keep us safe each day without thought of cost or consequence.