The Face of Courage

Hit the redial, again and again. Sometimes a rapid busy tone beeped, fast as a heartbeat, other times the phone steadily rang and rang. No answer. Redial once more.

Suddenly, Pat’s voice came on and my throat tightened as if gripped by a gloved hand. “I’m okay,” she said, “but downtown’s a mess, smoke, ashes, business paperwork all over the streets. Ambulances and police all over.” Catching her breath, she continued, “I talked to Barbara, she’s okay. She was late for work today and turned back before she got there.” Thank God. She paused before continuing, “But you know, I think Joey’s still stationed at the bottom of the towers.”

My cousin Joey. How could I have forgotten him?

Joey Navas was my uncle Joe’s boy, a handsome, athletic guy who passionately loved sports. I still remember seeing him play high school football in Paramus, New Jersey. He lived and died with New York sports teams, especially the Yankees, Giants, and Rangers. Paraphernalia and souvenirs filled his bedroom, top to bottom.

Everyone loved Joey. He was a sweet, gentle kid who treated everyone with kindness. Guys liked him for his easy-going friendliness, girls for his good looks.

He worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey maintenance department before his dream job opened up fifteen years ago – a position with the Authority’s police department. “He always wanted to be a police officer,” his dad said, “He loved his job.”

As a member of the emergency services unit, Joe dangled from buildings and waded through floods searching for victims. Once he swung from a tower door on the George Washington Bridge to pull back a person trying to jump. He also earned a medal for bravery during the evacuation efforts in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

At home, though, he was a family man. Father of three – 3, 9, and 12 – his neighbors tell of the countless hours spent playing catch with his kids. His driveway is adorned with two basketball hoops – one regulation size and one 3-foot plastic one. Toy vehicles, including a plastic fire truck, are scattered in the back yard.

His final moments tell the measure of the man. Joey wasn’t scheduled to work on September 11 – Tuesday’s his day off – but someone called in sick. He was working on the George Washington Bridge when the call came – a plane had hit World Trade Center Tower Number One.

He rushed over to help with the rescue. Arriving at the nightmarish scene, Joey and four other Port Authority cops ran into One WTC to evacuate the structure. According to officials, video and audio tapes from the command center indicate Joey undoubtedly saved dozens, if not hundreds of lives that day. The last anyone saw him, he brought two injured people out of the South tower, then returned to save more from the inferno, the closest thing a man will ever know to hell on earth.

Shortly thereafter, the tower came crumbling down.

September 11’s horrors gave us a look at the true face of courage. Never again can we accept the pale “courage” of artists defying taboos, athletes playing injured, aesthetes criticizing the masters. No, we’ve seen vivid, full-blooded valor – the guts it takes to run toward, instead of away from, burning buildings; to push your way through stairwells filling with acrid smoke to save total strangers; to rush through blistering doors where angels fear to tread. The bravery of firefighters and cops. That’s real courage.

That was Joey.

No one knows the inadequacy of words so well as the writer at times like these. For Joey’s Rosary and memorial Mass, I wished I had words of wisdom to take away his family’s sorrow. Seeing the anguish of those who knew him, I yearned for the talent to do justice to their fallen friend.

But I possess neither. So I’ll leave it to our greatest poet, Shakespeare, to bid a fitting farewell to the brief, but beautiful, life of Joey Navas: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince; May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

(Copyright 2001 Catholic Exchange)

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