A father lost, a family copes

Sun reporter

During his 23 years with the New York City fire department, Ron Bucca lifted people out of elevator shafts, carried them from subway tunnels and dragged them out of rivers. People's lives depended on his clear head and steady hand in a crisis.

Five years ago this Monday, Bucca arrived at the South Tower of the World Trade Center as smoke gushed out of its upper floors. He climbed the stairs up to the burning 78th-floor sky lounge, where scores were injured. As he started to fight the fire, the building collapsed. He died along with the people he had hoped to save.

Bucca was a former Green Beret, a paratrooper and scuba diver. He broke his back in a five-story fall from an apartment building's fire escape. The fire department cited him five times for bravery.

But after Bucca's death, it was his wife and children whose courage was tested. "My dad had a way of making you feel very protected," says his 28-year-old daughter, Jessica Bucca. "And all of a sudden he wasn't there."

Since 9/11, Jessica says, she has learned to rely more on herself. Eve Bucca, Ron's widow, says she has adapted to life without the man she called "my go-to guy."

Ron and his son, Ron Jr., were so close that they got matching tattoos on Ron Jr.'s 19th birthday. The 26-year-old is still shocked by the loss of his father and bewildered by the motives of his father's killers.

"It's not even like you're going after military targets," he says. "You're just killing for the most part 3,000 civilians: fathers, sons, daughters, wives ... people just going to work. That's not fair. They didn't expect this."

But like his mother and sister, Ron Jr. was determined not to become another victim of 9/11.

The Buccas have found the courage to make hard choices, to grow and to change.

"One of the things the three of us learned after that event was just how strong and just how resilient the three of us were," Eve says.

And their journeys have taken them in directions they might never have expected to go.

Five years ago, Ron Jr. was just starting his senior year at Tulane University in New Orleans. He was on his way out the door and heading to campus when he saw the burning towers on television. He knew instantly that his father would head to the World Trade Center.

After a career as a firefighter and rescue specialist, Ron Sr. had joined the fire marshal's office in 1992. He was one of the first on the scene after Islamic radicals tried to bring the towers down with a truck bomb in February 1993. He had been warning city officials ever since that others would some day return to finish the job.

Ron Jr. called his father's cell phone but couldn't get through. By late that afternoon, everyone at the fire marshal's office on Lafayette Street in Manhattan was accounted for, except Ron Sr.

All flights were grounded, so Ron Jr. drove from New Orleans to New York in a friend's Ford Explorer in 16 hours. When the speedometer hit 110 mph, he says, the SUV wouldn't go any faster.

He wandered through the towering, smoking wreckage. Fires still burned in spots. He had convinced himself on the long drive north that he could find his father.

A month later, searchers finally discovered Ron Sr. in the wreckage of one stairwell. At the tent that served as Ground Zero's temporary morgue, Ron Jr. recognized his father's body by the tattoo they shared.

"It was one of my rougher, rougher experiences," he recalls.

Ron Sr. had told his son to stay out of the military. Go to college, he said, get a degree and a white-collar job in an office building. The unspoken message: Don't risk your life for a living.

Ron Jr. did what his father would have wanted him to do. He graduated from Tulane with honors the next May. He started a job with a brokerage firm and was on his way to a career as a stock trader. But he was miserable.

The U.S. had driven the Taliban out of much of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden had slipped away at Tora Bora. Ron Jr. wanted to help track down his father's killers. "I felt it was my war, it was something I needed to be a part of," he says.

So he enlisted in the Army. He was inducted in March 2003, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In part, he admits, he wanted revenge.

"I wanted to kick everybody's ass," he says.

But Ron Jr. says that anger has ebbed. Mostly, he wants to do what his father did. He wants to protect the lives of others.

"It's not that I'm trying to kill as many terrorists as possible," he says. "I've lived through a horrible experience. If I can prevent that from happening - a kid losing his father, a father losing his son - I'll do whatever I can."

Ron Jr. has fought in cities filled with Sunni insurgents, with now-notorious names: Al Asad, Fallujah and Ramadi. He served in the holy city of Najaf, which was controlled by Shiite militiamen.

Twice, insurgents have hit his Humvee with roadside bombs. Both times he escaped serious injury.

After the invasion, the U.S. military set up a POW camp in the desert near Umm Qasr, in southern Iraq. The commander knew Ron Sr. in the military and named the outpost Camp Bucca.

Ron Jr. has visited twice. The first time, he brought a piece of iron from Ground Zero, cut and welded into a cross.

The place reminds him of his father. "For me to go down there," he says, "I kind of feel like I'm closer to him."

He recently fractured a leg during exercises at Fort Campbell, Ky., where he is now based. But he plans to return to Iraq as soon as he can.

Growing up After her father died, Jessica Bucca wanted to express her defiance to the hijackers and the people who supported them.

"For a while, I couldn't figure out how to do that," she says. "I'm not a very violent person, so I couldn't see myself being violent."

She also realized that she needed to define herself more as an adult and less as Ron Bucca's daughter. Her father had encouraged her to push her limits. Now, she knew, she would have to push herself. "I felt like I had to grow up all of a sudden," she says.

She had always loved to travel. She and her father had worked as volunteers at an archaeological dig in Spain. One of the first big tests, she says, was her first airplane flight after 9/11. She was terrified, but she forced herself to step onto that plane.

Later, she spent months backpacking across Australia. She went skydiving, snorkeling and bungee jumping. Her father had encouraged her when she decided to take up boxing. After his death, she took up kickboxing.

A few months ago, Jessica married a British firefighter she met in Australia. The couple now live in suburban New York.

She quit her job with a Manhattan financial company, realizing it wasn't what she wanted. Now she teaches English as a second language, hoping to help immigrants adapt to this country - and promote understanding among people of different backgrounds and faiths.

One student from Iran gave her an English translation of the Quran. She has read parts of it, hoping to better understand the Islamic world. But she has never told her students about her father.

The loss of her father caused terrible grief and sorrow. But, she says, she has also found strength. "The worst possible thing I thought could happen happened, and I survived," she says.

A fall Eve Bucca is the daughter and granddaughter of New York City firemen. She grew up in a house where every time her father walked out the door, she couldn't be certain he would come back. "I think that equipped me for my life with Ron."

Eve met Ron in 1976 at a first-aid course at Queensborough Community College. She dropped her books and he picked them up. For Eve, it was not love at first sight. "He had the beard, the motorcycle and jeans jacket," she says. "He looked like a hippie."

They were married a year later.

Ron Sr. had grown up in an east-side Manhattan tenement and a public housing project in Woodside, a working-class neighborhood of Queens. After Vietnam, he was looking for direction. He found it in the New York City Fire Department.

After graduating from the fire academy, Ron Sr. served with a couple of fire companies before joining the FDNY's Rescue One unit in Manhattan.

In September 1986, he reached out to steady another rescuer when he lost his balance on the fifth floor of a fire escape on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

As he fell, his air tank hit a utility cable spanning the alley at the third floor. He broke his back in the fall.

Doctors predicted that he would never walk again. But as they wheeled him into Bellevue Hospital that day, he told his wife: "I'm going back to Rescue One in a year."

After a year of painful physical therapy, he did.

In July 1992, Ron Sr. left Rescue One and joined the office of the city fire marshal, which investigates cases of suspected arson. "He already knew from working with the other companies what fire did," Eve says. "Now he wanted to know how it did it."

In January 1993, Islamic extremists detonated a bomb hidden in a rental truck in the parking garage of the World Trade Center.

Ron Sr., who belonged to a reserve military intelligence unit, spent years warning city officials that allies of the bombers would try again.

Authorities did create a Terrorism Task Force in 1999, and assigned Ron Sr. to it. But the task force was disbanded after a few months.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Eve Bucca, a nurse, was working at the Sound Shore Medical Center in New Rochelle, N.Y, when her husband called.

"A plane just went into the trade center, and we're going into the building now," he said. Then he hung up. The hospital started to fill with people volunteering to donate blood.

At the trade center's South Tower, Fire Marshal Ron Bucca squeezed past hundreds of fleeing office workers, finally reaching the 78th-floor sky lounge, according to radio transmissions.

Scores of people were waiting there for elevators to evacuate when the second plane hit. He started to fight the fire when the building collapsed.

Rescuers found his heavy firefighter's coat covering some of those injured in the crash, Eve says.

She estimated that as many as 2,000 people attended the funeral at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y., where Ron Sr. once played in a basketball league.

After Ron Sr.'s death, Eve realized that she had never liked the high technology of modern medicine. So she quit nursing and studied massage therapy.

"I just enjoyed working with people," she said. Today, she volunteers to help the sick and the dying.

As a 9/11 widow, Eve, 48, has achieved a level of fame she never sought. She turns down most requests for interviews and avoids public events. She has rejected four offers to make a film of her husband's life.

She has never been to the site of Ground Zero and has no intention of going, ever.

Partly, she and her family are concerned about their security. Partly, Eve says, "it's difficult enough to grieve, much less to grieve in public all the time."


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