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Everything has changed

12-11-01, 5:25 p.m.

The Bengals play at the Jets this Sunday and, of course, everything has changed.

Staten Island's Kevin Coyle, their cornerbacks coach, comes home for the first time as a pro and there is no Twin Towers winking in apparent anticipation of the kickoff at the Meadowlands.

Harry Coyle, his younger brother who walked out of the World Trade Center rubble, wouldn't miss this one for plenty of reasons. They still call Harry, "Horace," sometimes because when he was seven years old and tiny, Kevin's sandlot baseball team needed a ninth guy. So they stuck Harry at second base and named him after Yankees second baseman Horace Clarke.

Harry "Horace," Coyle is taking his wife and two daughters to see his older brother's team play Sunday and even that seems more important than it was three months ago.

Harry Coyle fights fires in New York City for a living and on Sept. 11 he rode the irons of Ladder 18 into history and heartbreak as one of the men who shepherded people to safety in the precious hour before the last tower collapsed.

Harry Coyle thought he was going to a fire where a private plane had got lost and crashed into one of the towers. Until he saw the look on the face of the guy riding on the other side of the truck, facing the World Trade Center.

"We were en route when the second plane hit," Harry Coyle said. "I couldn't see it, but I could see the guy's face and I knew it was bad. He's got 23 years in. He wasn't a rookie."

At 43 and 13.5 years in The Department, Coyle is no rookie, either. On his very first fire in '88 as the backup nozzle on Engine 17, he got burned in a high-rise hallway when the wind changed. He spent 20 days in the hospital with second- and third-degree burns, complete with a visit from Mayor Ed Koch.

"I'm thinking, 'This is going to be a long career,'" Harry Coyle said with a laugh you have to have.

So he knew what to expect when they pulled up. This is what firefighters do. Harry Coyle had nearly died in a high-rise fire and now he was running back into another one.

"You jump back on the horse or you don't," he said. "You do or you don't."

And they knew this was a bad one because people were already jumping out of the windows and the fire fighters had to keep looking into the air to avoid them.

"Big buildings are always tough," Harry Coyle said. "You just know going in, 'We're going to get beat up.' But hey, that's our job. You know. We're going to get beat up. So that's what we do. To tell you the truth, there weren't any bruises or scratches or burns with this. You were just either dead or alive. I hate to say it like that. But there was nothing in between with this. You either made it or you didn't."

Harry Coyle made it. His buddy from the Hazardous Materials crew, another Staten Island guy, John Giordano, didn't. When he saw Giordano in the Tower 1 lobby before Giordano went up the stairs to the 12th floor, Harry Coyle kissed him as they told each other to be careful. About 95 guys from Coyle's division didn't make it. Harry figures he made it by about 30 seconds.

And now, because everything is changed and Kevin Coyle can kiss his brother, he is finding himself talking to Harry more often on the phone.

"During football season, you don't talk to Kevin," Harry said. "Nothing bad, it's just that's the way it's been for 25 years. He's so busy. But I did call him after their first win. You know, his first in the NFL."

That was Sept. 9. On Sept. 12, Kevin Coyle was on the phone to the

fire house just to hear his voice after their parents called to tell him he was OK.

"With anybody and everybody, after something like this," Kevin Coyle said, "you think a lot more about the people that mean the most to you. Let's face it. We tend to get caught up in our daily lives."

Kevin Coyle also knew guys who didn't make it. Nearly 200 Staten Island residents died that day, 81 of them firefighters. One of them, Lt. Chuck Margiotta, played with Kevin at Bishop Farrell High School before Chuck went to play at Brown and Kevin went to play at Massachusetts.

"He was a rugged tight end," said Kevin Coyle, who knows because he hit him more than a few times in practice coming down from safety. "A tough kid. Hard-nosed guy. A great guy. They just retired his number at Brown last month."

Margiotta was on his way home from his overnight shift when the planes hit and he drove to the nearest fire house, which is another thing firefighters do.

"I think we lost something like 343 guys," Harry Coyle said. "And a lot of those guys came in on their own."

Harry Coyle was working in his fire house on the lower East Side of Manhattan when the call came at 8:48 a.m. They were about three miles from the WTC and although Harry didn't see it, the driver knew something was up when he had to drive around a jet engine.

With a burning airliner somewhere 70 floors above them, Harry Coyle and his other brothers spent about an hour in Tower 1 evacuating people from the third, fourth and fifth floors. At one point, the building rocked and rolled like a boat in the ocean and the stairwells began to fill with dust and smoke and it was pitch black. The rest is bits and pieces of memories.

Like this: One of his guys told Harry he was going down some stairs to check out if they were safe for people to use. "If I'm not back in two minutes, send them down," he said. Harry jumped the gun a little bit when he sent four guys down early so they could carry a man in a wheelchair.

"At that point, I don't know if they were civilians or firefighters," Harry said. "People were really listening to me. Like I was saying God's word. My kids don't listen to me like that."

Then the call came for everybody to evacuate and ladder 18 did barely. Harry, a lieutenant, and an emergency services officer dove behind a truck as the last tower pancaked to the ground.

"It's hard to describe the sound because I never heard anything like it," Harry Coyle said. "You could say a wave, or a freight train, but it was louder than that, you know? Yeah, it was dark. Dark like night. And for a minute, we didn't know if we were on top of the pile, the bottom, the middle."

Harry Coyle figures he had 30 seconds to a minute to spare.

"We made all the right moves that day," Harry Coyle said. "You know how it can go. Sometimes you don't. There were guys right behind us coming out and they didn't make it. What kept them for a few seconds? Who knows? Waiting for somebody else? An officer? A friend? It came down to seconds."

Harry Coyle figures he was probably in shock for the next couple of hours. But he can remember how you just couldn't spit the dust and debris out of your mouth. You had to actually put your fingers in there to pull it out.

"I've been back there," said Harry of the recovery project, "and people just don't understand. There's hardly anything left. All you can do is look for voids and see if there is anything there."

New York is big, but it's not. Harry had a bad, gut feeling about Jackie Connolly and he was right. Connolly, his brother-in-law and another Staten Island guy, was a trader in the WTC who didn't survive. In fact, Harry and his wife Colleen met in Jackie's wedding party.

"Anyone who was there in the '93 bombing made it out because of the fear," Harry said. "The fear saved their lives because they got out right away."

Kevin Coyle didn't go to school with Jackie Connolly, but there is always a bond. Although Staten Island has 400,000 people, it is the smallest and least populated of the boroughs.

"A great friend of mine and to think of his family and what they're going through right now, it's just devastating for everyone," Kevin Coyle said. "Jackie was a year older than me and he played sports, but he went to a different school, St. Peter High School. He was from the other side of the island as we like to say on Staten Island. Great guy."

This is what families do. For Kevin Coyle, taking off during football season is akin to a criminal mischief. But this year was a little different. With a niece getting married in Connecticut back in October on a Friday night, Coyle thought it was time. Because the game plan is already installed, Friday is a light day and Coyle got permission to leave for about 20 hours.

"It was the first time in a lot of years coaching that I was able to do something like that during the season, Coach was good about letting me go.

"I felt it was important for me to be there," Kevin Coyle said. "My whole family was there and it was a real emotional time for us to get back together with all my brothers and sisters."

Everything has changed now. Harry Coyle can see it and feel it.

"To be honest, people took us (firefighters) for granted," he said. "Now look. We're in a neighborhood where the people didn't care about us at all. But we've had 1,000 people standing outside the (fire) house in a vigil.

"It's sad something like this has to happen for it to happen," Harry Coyle said. "But it does make you appreciate the things maybe you didn't."

It's different now, of course. Which is why Bengals-Jets in the Meadowlands means more than something for Kevin Coyle and his kid brother Horace. **

To donate to needy families of firefighters, Thomas R. Elsasser Fund, 204 East 23rd. St. N.Y., N.Y. 10010.**

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