ST. MARYS — Tyler Coffey, of St. Marys, learned in an emotional way this week that kind words carry a lot of weight.
Coffey wrote a letter when he was 9 years old to a first responder in New York as the Sept. 11 terror attacks were unfolding — and Wednesday, he was put in touch with retired firefighter Brad Mann.
“I was in shock,” Coffey said. “Never in my life did I imagine that it would have this effect.”
In 2001, Coffey was a student in the third grade at St. Marys Intermediate School in Mrs. Peterson’s class. They were sitting in class on Sept. 11, 2001, when the four coordinated terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda killed 2,996 people and injured more than 6,000 others and caused at least $10 billion in property and infrastructure damage. Two of the planes, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. A fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, intended to strike in Washington, D.C., crashed into a field in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after its passengers tried to overcome the hijackers.
With the school briefly on lockdown after the attacks, students decided to write letters to firefighters and other first responders in New York City.
“The whole class did it,” Coffey said. “The letter I wrote was kind of like a poem with encouraging words, thanking him for everything.”
The incident was the deadliest ever for firefighters and law enforcement officers in the history of the U.S., with 343 and 72 killed respectively. Mann, then 35 years old and a lieutenant with the Fire Department of the City of New York, is the only surviving member of a unit of 14.
“We arrived shortly after the first plane hit the tower and began setting up EMS operations,” Mann said. “By the time we realized what happened, we looked up and saw the second plane hit the second tower, and within a few minutes we were just running for our lives. It was like nothing I have ever seen in 15 years.”
Being one of the first on the scene, Mann was in four separate buildings when they each collapsed — the towers, a hastily set up command center and another building where then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani was located. Mann was selected to a team to escort Giuliani to safety when they barely got out of the building.
Mann said as buildings collapsed, a heavy, white dust settled all around the city, making it hard to navigate. Mann was only 30 feet away when a couple jumping out of a tower holding hands landed on the sidewalk.
“It is a situation too horrific to describe correctly,” Mann said.
After the attack, Mann was assigned to Ground Zero for 14 months to help clean up.
On Oct. 1, 2001, he was resting in a church that had been turned into a makeshift command center when he received Coffey’s letter. Mann said that the letter brought him hope and he vowed to try and find the boy who sent him the letter. He said their conversation was emotional.
“In the letter, he had a penny and said it was so I would never be broke,” Mann said. “He had a marble, and said it was so I always had one, I would never lose all my marbles. There was a rubber band, and he said it was so I could stretch my limits. And there was a red, white and blue ribbon. I thought it was amazing that a (child) could understand the scope of what had happened.”
Mann said he had the letter laminated so it would never deteriorate. He said he has gotten the letter out during low times in his life to offer hope.
“I could tell right away that this was something he had written and meant,” Mann said. “It has gotten me through all these years.”
Coffey said it was heartwarming that he could have a positive effect on someone’s life.
“I remember writing the letter, but it was a long time ago,” said Coffey, now 23. “I was in shock when he called me.”
Reach Lance Mihm at 567-242-0409 or at [email protected]