Even Golf No Longer The Same

Courant Staff Writer

For more than a month, Ken Eichele didn't have the time, the energy or the inclination to play golf.

There simply was no room for a game in his life.

Eichele, chief of Battalion 10 of the Fire Department of New York, was attempting to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Sept. 11 when the city came under attack. By the time he reached Ground Zero, it was 11 p.m.

"It was much worse than anybody could imagine in their worst nightmares, beyond anything I had seen on TV," Eichele said. "It was just unbelievable devastation, even in the buildings around the towers."

Eichele did what all city firefighters did; he began working endless hours to try to find survivors. Finally, a woman was pulled out at 2 p.m. the next day.

"Not finding people alive was the worst part of the ordeal," Eichele said. "Finding the woman really lifted everyone's spirits, but no one was found after that."

Nine of the 12 men working at Eichele's station that day died, including two carrying a person down in a wheelchair when one of the twin towers collapsed.

Eichele cried at the many funerals he attended. He wept alone in his car when he saw in his mind the faces of some of those who lost their lives, men he had known for as long as 30 years.

It took awhile, but Eichele also came to the realization that if he didn't play golf again, he'd be giving in to the terrorists.

"Nobody loves the game more than me, but you have to keep it in perspective after what happened," Eichele said. "There's some pressure in golf, but I consider pressure being in a super-heated room in thick smoke and having a split second to decide which way to dive to save your life. That's what firefighters go through nearly every day.

"My favorite saying is what a retired fire chief always said, `Live while you're alive.' I don't ever take anything for granted now. I still try to win every time I play and hope to play a round the day I die. But the bottom line is golf is still just a game."

Eichele was in the first group to tee off Sept. 11 and finished his round before heading to the disaster site, 20 miles away. Many others, however, were still on the course when the qualifier was postponed until Sept. 17. Eichele obviously didn't play that day, but he received an unprecedented offer from U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay.

The USGA executive committee felt Eichele would have qualified if not for the circumstances and should be given a special exemption. Fay gave Eichele the option of playing in the U.S. Mid-Amateur in Fresno, Calif., two weeks later or the 2002 championship at The Stanwich Club and Round Hill Club in Greenwich. Obviously, 2002 was the only choice he could make. So that's where he'll be when the tournament starts Sept. 21.

"The exemption isn't just for me. It's for all the firefighters who might have been there," said Eichele, 51, a scratch player in the Nassau Players Club at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., site of the U.S. Open last June.

His Own Life Saved

Sept. 11 began misty and foggy at the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club in suburban New York, and Eichele wasn't hitting the ball with his usual crispness. Still, after starting at No.10, he was even par for the first eight holes of the sectional qualifier. And the murky conditions had given way to sunshine.

As he walked onto the 18th green, it was just after 9 a.m. Dave Segot, a friend and fellow FDNY member, approached Eichele and told him a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Eichele gave Segot a quizzical look but wasn't overly concerned. The first reports had a Piper Cub, a small private plane, hitting the tower.

Five holes later, Eichele learned of the magnitude of what had happened and realized playing golf on a day off saved his life. Another friend, Pat Reilly, who had seen the explosions at the towers as he drove to the course, provided the grim details.

Two jetliners had crashed into the World Trade Center, and the towers were gone. Eichele, who had been part of the WTC rescue effort after a bombing in 1993, wanted to leave immediately but was told the bridges into the city were closed, so he completed the round - in a daze.

"I don't remember anything about the last few holes, not even what I shot," Eichele said. "My mind was totally in a fog. ... Even if I wasn't working, I would have been in the World Trade Center before it collapsed."

When he finished playing, Eichele, a fireman for 29 years, found the nearest television and watched in horror with Segot and others. They saw the replays of the terrorist attacks and the towers collapsing. They thought they had lost hundreds of their comrades, especially at his station - Engine Co. 22, Ladder 13, on East 85th Street in Manhattan.

Eichele wanted desperately to get to the 200 men under his command. He and Segot thought of driving to Bridgeport and taking the ferry to Port Jefferson, N.Y., but figured it would take too long.

Eichele finally learned he could get over the Throgs Neck Bridge. He stopped at his home in Queens, grabbed several changes of clothes and called his family, learning two brothers, also firefighters, were safe. But he couldn't get over the Triborough Bridge, where the Manhattan-bound lanes were barricaded by sanitation trucks, so he took off for the Bronx and headed for the Willis Avenue Bridge, driving up and over sidewalks where necessary.

Eichele was turned away at first but eventually got to his station and finally to Ground Zero.

"It's a miracle no one got killed in the recovery effort because it was a very, very dangerous situation," Eichele said. "In any other circumstance, I would never have put people in the position I put them in. We were crawling into voids four and five stories down, and if a beam moved, you would have got crushed to death. But even if I wanted to keep them out, I couldn't have stopped them, so I was just praying no one would get killed. It's a miracle no one did."

A shrine covered with flowers quickly sprung up outside the firehouse, and pictures of the deceased were hung on the walls, where they remain today. Eichele knew more than 100 people killed in the attacks, including a fireman who had been standing close to the south tower with his captain when it collapsed.

"The captain said the force of the wind was like a hurricane," Eichele said. "It lifted them both right off their feet and threw them. He grabbed on to a street sign. Our other fellow blew by him like a missile and was killed when he went through a plate glass window."

Eichele had lingering effects physically, such as having to use a steroid inhaler for a month after losing 14 percent of his lung capacity. He and others developed coughs and sore throats, and their tonsils were white from asbestos, fiberglass and crushed glass they inhaled.

"I'm OK now, but some guys still haven't recovered," he said.

Bond With The Host Club

Mid-Amateur tournament chairman Mike Nowacki said Eichele has become "an adopted son" at Stanwich. They played in the club's member-guest tournament in July, losing to the No.1 team on the 18th hole.

"Ken is a wonderful human being, and we've formed a friendship I told him won't end after Sept. 26," Nowacki said, alluding to the final day of the championship. "And the membership couldn't have gone out of their way enough when they heard he was going to play here. Every guy in the club championship was extraordinarily gracious."

Because of Eichele's saga and the deaths of two Stanwich members in the collapse of the towers, the club has planned several special events during the Mid-Amateur, which is for amateurs 25 and older. Thirty-six firefighters and nine policemen will be the hole captains and marshals for the third round of match play on the afternoon of Sept. 24.

"It's almost mystical that there are nine holes on each side and nine guys from Eichele's station were killed," Nowacki said. "Those who will be marshals bought a shirt and a hat that was required for all our volunteers but will receive a complimentary round of golf."

They're also invited to a dinner that night for the USGA staff and players still in the competition. Featured speakers that night will be Ivan Lendl and 1999 U.S. Senior Open champion Dave Eichelberger, a New Canaan resident. Lendl, who plays on the Celebrity Players Tour, lives in Goshen.

"Dave and Ivan said they'd be more than happy to do whatever we asked," Nowacki said. "Having them at the dinner is part of our salute to the spirit of the game. This is about spirited competition that we want to foster, but it's also about doing good things in the communities in which we live."

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