Five years ago on a beautiful September morning, NYC firefighter Samuel Oitice answered the call to rescue victims in the World Trade Center. They found his remains in the rubble six months later.
He was one of the 2996 who perished on that fateful day. He is the one I was selected to honor today.
It is hard to imagine the sense of duty and bravery it required to enter that towering inferno in order to save as many lives as possible. Samuel Oitice did not fail in his duty and died a hero. His courage and selflessness are both an inspiration and a reminder that throughout our nation’s history, so called ordinary people have responded in extraordinary ways when called upon to do so. They have a name for people like Samuel Oitice. American.
I never met the man. But I watched him die on television. I knew in that moment that everything had changed. For me. For the world. Five years on I find comfort and hope in the memory of Samuel Oitice.
Here is his story:
Samuel Oitice and his wife, Jean, met on the Peekskill, N.Y., ambulance corps. “He was the driver and I was the crew chief, and I said, `That’s how we’re going to keep it,’ ” she said. “I’d tell everyone that story, but it’s not funny anymore.”
Samuel Oitice, 45, was a New York City firefighter who lived in Peekskill. The couple had a son, John, 19, and a daughter, Jessica, 16.
In the past year, Mrs. Oitice has had to take on her husband’s love of roller coasters. “The higher they were, the bigger the drop, the more he loved them,” she said.
She used to stay on the ground, but has since ridden Disney World’s Tower of Terror with her daughter, who told her, “Daddy would be proud.”
And he knew the risks of his job.
“He said to the kids at one point, when they finally realized what he did: `I married your mom for a reason. I know if something happens to me she’ll get you through this,’ ” she said. “It has just given me strength to know that he had so much faith in me to keep the family together.”
After his funeral, his best friend came into the firehouse, laughing, she said. Seems the fire truck carrying his body had stalled in the graveyard and couldn’t be started. “I said, `He’s playing with us.’ He hated all the pomp and circumstance. He didn’t want it.”
Peekskill firefighter’s dream was to help others
By MARILYN ANDERSON RHAMES
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: March 19, 2002)
PEEKSKILL — Cold, wet rain helped to mask the tears that flowed during yesterday’s burial service for Samuel Oitice, a New York City firefighter who died in the World Trade Center terrorist attack.
But some said the service itself was a blessing, since Oitice’s body remained missing until six months after the tragedy. Rescue workers pulled Oitice’s remains from Ground Zero last week.
“We are grateful Sam has been found,” Mayor John Testa said. “It is great to be able to say good-bye to Sam properly.”
The family, which has publicly grieved at various memorials and tributes, kept the funeral at Joseph F. Nardone Funeral Home brief. A representative of Gov. George Pataki expressed his condolences, and the Rev. Vernon Wickrematunge admonished mourners to fight anger and guilt by keeping Oitice alive in their memories.
“By remembering, we are able to reap the harvest he had sown while he was with us,” Wickrematunge said.
Oitice, 45, grew up in Peekskill, graduating from Assumption Elementary School and Peekskill High School. He worked as a Peekskill police officer in the early 1980s, but quit to become a firefighter at Manhattan’s 4 Truck at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue. Even so, he fortified his ties to Peekskill by serving as a volunteer firefighter for the past 25 years.
“Sammy is really hard to describe. He always had a light in him, always had to do what needed to be done,” Peekskill Fire Chief Jim Seymour said. “He was a happy-go-lucky guy — just a great person.”
A husband to Jean and father to John, 19, and Jessica, 15, Oitice was also remembered as a family man who loved children. He founded and coached a roller hockey team for Peekskill teen-agers, volunteered at school spaghetti dinners and taught fire safety in the schools.
“He was a good man. He did a lot for all the kids,” said a teary-eyed Patrick Strang, 17.
Since the Sept. 11 attack, Oitice’s son, John, has become a volunteer firefighter in Peekskill. This month, John wore his father’s fire jacket as he marched in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The city named the younger Oitice an honorary aide in the parade.
“Peekskill was always proud of Sam. Now the nation is proud of him,” said Deb Carlin Polhill, a parade committee member and childhood friend of Oitice’s.
Some 40 uniformed firefighters from New York City chartered a bus to attend Oitice’s funeral. Dozens more volunteer firefighters from Peekskill and surrounding areas also paid their respects.
After fire officials mounted Oitice’s flag-draped coffin atop Engine 134 from Peekskill’s Fire Patrol, a 50-car procession settled at Assumption Cemetery in Cortlandt. Oitice’s parents, Julian and Eleanor, were among the roughly 150 mourners. A lone bagpiper played “Amazing Grace,” then people lined up to hug the family and to lay long-stemmed roses on the coffin.
Art Ubben, a retired police detective in Peekskill, tearfully recalled a conversation he had with Oitice two years ago.
“He said, ‘My whole life I wanted to be a firefighter. I’m so happy.’ Then this happens,” Ubben said. “He believed in what he was doing. He was helping people. That was his life’s dream and that’s what he achieved.”
A boyhood friend I first met at the Centenial hose firehouse in Peekskill, NY where my father worked. Sammy would come down to see the pumper and help around the house and we would shoot pool and sneak beers.
We later went to Peekskill High School where he was a true friend and sports team mate. Sammy was always someone you could depend on.
Later we worked together as Police Officers on the City of Peekskill Police Department. He was a great cop, but you always knew he would leave and go to his true calling the NYFD. When they called he ran with a smile on his face.
Before that day he spoke about how happy he was working downtown and how much he loved his work.
After that day while filling thousands of buckets of the rubble I held out hope that we could find you trapped and safe. Quickly it was apparent that you and all the others were gone.
Rest in Peace my friend. We all miss you.
Thank you for your sacrafice Samuel. God bless America.
Read tributes to the other 2995 people who died in the 9/11 attack here.