Ed Henry’s last conversation with his 25-year-old son, Joey, was a typical exchange between a doting parent and his adult child.
“He said, ‘Dad, could you lend me $20?’ ” recalls Ed, a retired FDNY battalion chief from Bensonhurst, who needled good-naturedly, “Whenever I lend you money, Joey, I never see it again!”
“Don’t worry, Dad, you’ll get it back,” quipped the jolly probie, known for his elbow-tickling humor, before pocketing the cash with a grin and dashing out of the door to make his 24-hour shift at Ladder Company 21 in Manhattan.
As Ed saw his son disappear into the street, he yelled out a phrase that was a standing joke in their close-knit family, which boasted three generations of firefighters: “See you at the big one!”
“We don’t go to any big ones!” hollered back Joey who, like most new smokeeaters, relished the prospect of someday swashbuckling with “the big one.”
Their brief chat on that breezy afternoon on Sept. 10, 2001 is seared in Ed’s mind like a deep scar engraved with the chilling memories of the next day when most of the Henry clan — including Joey’s brothers Michael and Eddie, both of them firemen, and Danny, a Port Authority cop — rushed to tame “the big one” as terrorists exploded plane after hijacked plane into the World Trade Center.
The calamity ripped through their lives like a tornado.
Ed — trapped for hours beneath colossal chunks of rubble from the crumbling towers — and his son, Michael, were forced to retire because of their 9-11 injuries. Eddie, Jr. followed suit a few years later after breaking his neck battling a vicious blaze in Brooklyn.
Their kid brother, Joey, who had finally realized his wish to tackle “the big one” after less than a year on the force, was less fortunate: he perished on 9-11 alongside his entire unit of seven men, all of whose remains were never found.
The last 10 years have been arduous and anguish-filled for the heartbroken family, which has coped with its devastating loss by keeping Joey’s memory alive — at home and in the community.
His 11 nephews and nieces — most of them born after the disaster — have been schooled in the antics and heroics of strapping, friendly, engaging, hilarious, lovable “Uncle Joey,” a certified Emergency Medical Technician who was to have returned to college on the week of the attacks.
Nor has he been forgotten.
Memorials to Joey abound in front of his building and at his alma mater, Lafayette High School, where the dyed-in-the-wool Yankees’ fan was on the baseball team. He is also honored on the Brooklyn Wall of Remembrance in Coney Island, and there is a street sign immortalizing him at the corner of his block — Bay 44th Street and Shore Parkway — which remains a source of comfort for his mom, Alice, who walks by “Firefighter Joseph Patrick Henry Lane” most days, and routinely refreshes it with wreaths, bows and flowers.
She also makes sure that Joey stays close to her by wearing a locket with a photograph of him in his work uniform, while her husband wears a St. Florian medal — he’s the patron saint of firefighters — in honor of his son.
The couple’s two daughters have coped with the catastrophe by pursuing pro-active careers: Kathleen, who was a teen on 9-11, is a guidance counselor at PS 249 near Prospect Park, and Mary teaches autistic children at the Bay Academy.
Yet, nothing has eased the pain of losing Joey, says Alice, who received an urn of dirt from Ground Zero — a place she calls “a cemetery” — as a pitiful keepsake of the family’s shattering bereavement.
“You don’t have to remind me where he is,” she declares.
The retired school secretary, who last saw her son on the Sunday before 9-11 for what would tragically be his last family dinner, is practical about her grief.
“You have to live with it, it’s not easy … living with it,” she says, her voice petering off. “I know that right now Joey is in a better place, but it took me a long time to realize that.”