Rescued from 9-11 rubble, policeman finally has wedding
As lovely as she is, the most beautiful sight of Daniel McCarthy’s life wasn’t his bride as she met him Thursday at the altar in Harvey’s wedding chapel.
It was the face of the German shepherd who found him buried under the rubble of the World Trade Center, 79 hours and 14 minutes after it collapsed.
McCarthy, a New York City policeman who responded to the call on Sept. 11, escaped with second-degree burns across his back from flaming jet fuel. He made it back to the house in Brooklyn he shared with his girlfriend of six months, Eleni Golding. And he grabbed onto the second chance at life he feels God gave him.
This week, 10 months and seven days after the tragedy, he married Golding in a Lake Tahoe ceremony that should have taken place last October.
These days, McCarthy can tell the story of what happened to him that tragic day. He can get through it, except when he gets to the part about his partner and the 24th floor. That’s when McCarthy has to turn his intense blue eyes upward and take a long minute.
Golding puts her hand on his arm. It’s clear this couple realizes how close they came to not seeing their wedding day.
McCarthy’s partner would have stood up for him as best man in October, had he not been killed when Tower I collapsed.
“We were partners for four years,” McCarthy, 38, said. “He was a father of five. I was godfather to his 3-year-old twin sons. He introduced me to Krispy Kreme doughnuts.”
But McCarthy — with his buzz cut and his “Yes, Ma’ams” — breaks the stereotype of the doughnut-eating cop, and that’s what 45-year-old Golding fell for.
They met at a post office in Brooklyn. She was sorting her mail and carrying a copy of the Village Voice. He was waiting in line, mentally casing the place. They struck up a conversation. He said he enjoyed Broadway plays. She did too, but she couldn’t believe a cop had an artistic streak in him. So she tested him. She asked him what had just opened on Broadway.
“I didn’t miss a beat,” McCarthy said. “I said, ‘The Producers,’ with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Then I gave her all my phone numbers.”
Their first date was dinner at her house — mixed field greens for her, iceberg head lettuce for him. They watched the “Sopranos” on TV. A week later he took her to “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway. They moved in together on Memorial Day weekend of 2001.
“We were both wearing our sweatpants the day we met,” McCarthy said. “Neither of us was looking for anyone. I’ll tell you, it’s when you’re not looking that you find Mr. or Miss Right.”
They fell into a routine, Golding working in lower Manhattan for the City of New York, McCarthy holding down the graveyard shift as a detective sergeant with the Brooklyn South Task Force Narcotics Division. They went to Las Vegas a lot, where they always stayed at Harrah’s and got to know the executive casino host there. They began to make plans for an October wedding.
Then came Sept. 11.
That morning McCarthy was in court in Brooklyn. His captain paged him and told him to get over to the World Trade Center because a bomb had gone off.
“When I got outside, it was pandemonium in Brooklyn, because by then everyone could see what was happening,” McCarthy said. “I called Eleni at her office, two blocks away from the World Trade Center. I told her to drop everything, get out and start running toward the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Then McCarthy got in his squad car with his crew and drove to Manhattan.
What he saw was terrifying. People on fire jumping to their deaths from the floors above. People on the ground getting hit by bodies. The second plane hitting the second tower.
“I didn’t know what to think,” McCarthy said. “I was born and raised in Brooklyn. My father used to say I had ice in my veins because I grew up there. I’m the kind of guy where, when it’s time to rock and roll, I raise my hands, and it’s time.”
He and his partner started up Tower 1. On the 47th floor it was so hot from the fire above, that the leather on their gear started to deteriorate. Everywhere people were screaming.
“There was this pregnant woman who couldn’t speak any English,” McCarthy said. “She kept screaming, ‘Please, please, my bambino.’ We started bringing her down. I carried her on my back. We made it to the 24th floor.”
That’s when his partner, Dominick Imperatore, told him to take her out the rest of the way and then come back up.
“I got her out, and then I ran back in,” McCarthy said. “I made it up as far as the ninth floor when the building came down. I never saw Dominick again. They never found his body.”
With a force that shot him sideways out of the building, landing on the third sublevel of Tower 2, McCarthy was wedged and trapped underneath vehicles with six other men.
“I heard death all around me,” McCarthy said. “I saw it and heard it. People were screaming to die. Two of the guys in there with us died before we were found.”
The thirst was unbearable and the pain from his burns was excruciating. He said he saw a vision of his beloved Italian grandmother, long dead, telling him it wasn’t his time yet to die. That he had things still to do. That his dead father was there with her.
Seeing her face over those 79 hours and 14 minutes kept him going.
It was the wet sensation of a dog licking his face that pulled him out of the underground tomb. Rescue workers were not far behind.
“I said, ‘Man, get me out of here and please, somebody, get me some water.’ Those rescue canine dogs were the real heroes. People need to realize what those dogs did and how important it is that we have them. Those dogs never gave up. Burned paws, they didn’t stop. Many more people would have died without them. I would have died.”
McCarthy was taken to a hospital burn unit and underwent skin grafts on his back. After he recovered, he and Golding went back to Harrah’s Las Vegas, where he told casino host Bob Koellner he wanted to reschedule his wedding there.
“Bob said, you know, if you want to do it right, go up to Tahoe,” McCarthy said. “We’re glad we came. Harrah’s Lake Tahoe is the best of all of them.”
A huge fan of the Godfather movies, he plans to explore the film site at the West Shore, take a ride on Heavenly’s gondola and go out on the lake — in short, doing the ordinary things that ordinary people do, because that’s how he sees himself.
“I did the same job on Sept. 11 that I’ve done for 18 years,” he said. “I’m no hero. If the World Trade Center happened again tomorrow, I’d do the same thing. It’s my job.”
But that job on that day changed him forever. He doesn’t bring his work home with him so much anymore. He’s not as full of himself. He’s happier. He makes sure he tells people he loves them.
“I appreciate things more, things like Yankees games, things people take for granted,” he said. “Life is short. You never know when you’re gonna die.
“I feel God kept me alive because He knew I’d found the right woman. I feel like I got a second chance.”
McCarthy would say that his day of reckoning came not on Sept. 11 but on July 18, 2002, when he looked at his beautiful bride on a rainy afternoon in a casino wedding chapel that suddenly became charged with emotion.
He wiped his brow, then struggled for another long moment to control himself. Finally, he spoke his vows. Then he lifted Eleni off her feet in a long, mute bear hug, his face twisted with tears.
After it was over, he was able to crack a joke to Ron Sayed, who officiated the ceremony.
“Reverend,” he said, “I wasn’t this nervous when I was running up the steps of the World Trade Center.”