America needs healing. Fortunately, there are organizations and individuals who are promoting this process. They include Commissioner Joe Byrnes and retired Forest Park firefighter Tom Matousek. Through a remarkable coincidence, they experienced a sense of unity by honoring a young New York firefighter who fell on 9/11.

In 2002, Matousek purchased a commemorative bracelet bearing the firefighter’s name, to raise funds for families who lost loved ones on 9/11. Matousek didn’t care which firefighter the bracelet honored but promised he’d wear it forever. He received a bracelet that honored FDNY firefighter Christopher Santora.

Santora was a 23-year-old assigned to Engine Co. 54. He was home after his shift when he learned of the terrorist attack. He immediately rushed to the World Trade Center. He ran into the north tower to help with rescue efforts and was killed when the tower collapsed.

Matousek was wearing Santora’s bracelet in 2017 when he and his wife Denise attended the Healing Field ceremony in Oak Brook. The display honored the 2,977 victims of 9/11 with American flags, bearing biographies of each victim. He found the flag for Santora and photographed it with the bracelet, side-by-side. He purchased the flag and displays it annually on 9/11.

This year’s Healing Field was a stirring sight, displaying American flags on 7-foot poles. Volunteers placed them exactly 5 feet apart in precise rows on a polo field. Joe and Sandy Byrnes bought two. One honored Santora, the other a New York police officer named Maurice Berry.

A flag and bracelet honoring firefighter Chris Santora. Provided

Berry had been on the 45th floor of tower one, escorting workers to a stairway. He was
ordered to leave but was still guiding workers when the tower collapsed. One of the speakers at the Healing Field ceremony recounted how Berry had led him to safety.

Joe and Sandy later donated Berry’s flag to our police department and Santora’s flag to our fire department. When Matousek visited the firehouse and saw the flag honoring Santora, he got goosebumps. He couldn’t get over the coincidence of Joe Byrnes purchasing the flag of a young man he had been memorializing for two decades.

Ever since 9/11, Matousek had felt a kinship with New York firefighters. On April 21, 2002, he helped host a reception for members of FDNY Engine Co. 55 at our firehouse. They had lost five of their own on 9/11. Faustino Apostal was no longer assigned to their firehouse but died helping his former comrades.

The New Yorkers told stories of other fallen friends, while they feasted on Italian food at the firehouse. Then they accompanied their hosts to Molly Malone’s for a fundraiser. The New Yorkers entertained the crowd by singing their theme song “In My Life.” A boot was passed for donations and raffle tickets were sold. Matousek presented them with a plaque, “To honor and cherish their fallen comrades.”

This same sentiment was expressed at the Healing Field ceremony. It was a tribute marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11. After the flags were displayed, Sept. 8-12, visitors purchased them for $40 to raise money for families of victims. Seven hundred motorcyclists rode there from Woodstock and donated $50 apiece.

The Healing Field is the brainchild of Jerry Christopherson, who founded the True Patriots Care Foundation. The organization is “dedicated to recognizing and supporting those who served their communities as first responders and as members of the armed services.” The Healing Field event raised over $42,000, which was distributed to 11 charities.

The flag honoring Santora will be on permanent display at the firehouse. It’s a powerful reminder of the spirit of unity many Americans felt following 9/11.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.