In the neighborhood where Vernon Cherry started his career, townhouses bear his name and honor his sacrifice
The first thing Dawn Edwards did when she got the keys to the townhouse on Bergen Street in Brooklyn was bless all four corners of every room. With her daughter beside her, Edwards sprinkled water on the bare hardwood floors, thanked the Lord for His benevolence and asked Him to watch over the first home she had ever owned.
A 51-year-old immigrant from Trinidad, Edwards had waited a long time to become a homeowner. She put away part of her paycheck each month for 10 years before she could afford a down payment and then waited three more for her house to be built. Each year since moving in 2005, Edwards has made small improvements to her home, installing crown molding in the master bedroom and decorative tiles on the bathroom walls and floor. She is proud of her house, but saddened by the tragedy that is tied to her good fortune.
Edwards’ home is part of an affordable housing development built in Brownsville and named in honor of Vernon Cherry, an African-American firefighter who perished during the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Cherry never lived in Brownsville, but the housing complex that bears his name is located just blocks from Engine Company 283, where the 29-year FDNY veteran began his career.
“We thought it was a fitting tribute,” said Peter Murray, a partner in Loewen Development, the creator of the Vernon Cherry Partnership Homes, which include 73 townhouses in the northeast corner of Brownsville. “Vernon had roots close to those houses. He fought his first fires there.”
When Cherry joined the New York City Fire Department in 1973, Brownsville was the picture of urban decay. Like in the Bronx, where pervasive arson-for-profit devastated entire city blocks, abandoned properties were being set alight, and Brownsville’s streets were lined with scarred lots and burned-out shells of apartment buildings. Civil unrest and street riots caused by a teachers’ strike, cuts in city services and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also resulted in frequent blazes that destroyed homes, shops and cars at night.
After two years, Cherry was transferred to Engine 249 on Rogers Avenue and later to Ladder 118 in Brooklyn Heights, where he served for another 19 until the autumn day – one month before his 50th birthday – when the Twin Towers were brought down in a terrorist attack.
Murray learned about Cherry the way other New Yorkers did — from a front-page photograph in the Daily News that captured Ladder 118’s fire truck barreling across the Brooklyn Bridge toward the burning towers.
“On September 11th, he knew he was putting his life in danger,” said Murray. “He was a true hero.”
Jimmy Gibbons, a firefighter who worked alongside Cherry at Ladder 118 and was out on medical leave during 9/11, said that Cherry thought of himself more modestly. “He would tell us stories about working in Brownsville,” recalled Gibbons, “how they used to have three or four jobs a night. But he said it real matter-of-fact, not like he was bragging or anything.”
Above all else, Gibbons remembers Cherry’s voice. “Vernon loved to sing,” said Gibbons, his gruff countenance softening with the memory of his friend. “Rock n’ roll, jazz, blues, Motown. He sang everything. He’d be cooking in the kitchen, singin’ opera, and we’d say, ‘Enough, Vernon,’ ‘cause there aren’t too many opera buffs in here, but, of course, we didn’t mind, ‘cause he had a great voice.”
In addition to serving as the Fire Department’s official vocalist – Cherry sang the national anthem at all FDNY functions – he also moonlighted as a wedding singer, performing with his five-piece band, the Starfires, at celebrations citywide.
“You always heard Vernon before you saw him,” said Joanne Cherry, Vernon’s wife of 31 years. As a young boy, Vernon loved to sing doo-wop music, and though his mother was a widow, and barely able to feed her six children, she arranged weekly music lessons for her son at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“It was love at first sight,” said Joanne Cherry, who met her husband at a high school dance. “We couldn’t take our eyes off each other.” But, Cherry said, being married to Vernon turned out to be a full-time job. In addition to raising their three children, there was a never-ending pile of dirty laundry to be done. “There was his firefighter’s uniform to keep clean,” said Cherry, “and the tuxedo he sang in, and the suit and tie he wore to court.”
Cherry held a third job as a stenographer at small claims court in Lower Manhattan. He used to cross the bridge into Brooklyn after work, said Gibbons, and spend hours transcribing trial proceedings in the firehouse’s kitchen.
Today, the duty board that hangs in the fire station on Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights reads just as it did ten years ago, with six names scratched in white chalk next to their assignments. It is a reminder of the little that is known for sure about what happened that Tuesday: how six men from Ladder 118 ran into the belly of the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel to help evacuate occupants and lost their lives when the Twin Towers collapsed around it.
The rest is bits and pieces. An alarm sounded in the firehouse after the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the south tower. Cherry, known as “Cowboy” for the rugged way he drove the rig, climbed into the back seat of Ladder 118’s tiller truck. Lieutenant Robert Regan and firefighters Leon Smith, Scott Davidson, Peter Vega and Joseph Agnello took seats up front. They sped through the narrow streets of downtown Brooklyn, following five of their housemates from Engine 205 who had crossed the bridge after the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hit the north tower.
Bobby Graff, an elevator mechanic, reported seeing firefighters with the number 118 on their helmets ushering terrified patrons from the hotel. When the towers collapsed, the hotel between them was demolished. More than 900 guests and Marriott employees escaped their fall, some helped to safety by Cherry and the others aboard Ladder 118.
Davidson’s body was recovered from the debris at Ground Zero in late November. On New Year’s Day, firefighters working the pile found Agnello, Vega and Regan buried together beneath the rubble. Cherry’s remains have since been identified but Smith’s were never found. Agnello, Vega and Cherry were buried together in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.
In 2002, construction workers broke ground on the Vernon Cherry Partnership Homes. A collaboration between the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the New York City Housing Partnership, the homes provide 213 units of affordable housing to middle-income residents.
Joanne Cherry said that Vernon, who was raised in a public housing complex in Queens, and lived with his own family in subsidized city housing in Coney Island for 12 years, would be “tickled pink.”
The townhouses were designed to make home-ownership in Brownsville affordable; they targeted families with annual incomes from $55,000 to $75,000 and cost an average of $290,000. Owners’ units include duplexes on the first floor and half of the second floor and two rental apartments above help offset mortgage payments.
Later that year, 20,000 firefighters and family members of the ones who died on 9/11 bowed their heads as Cherry sang the national anthem – via tape recording – at the Fire Department’s official memorial ceremony at Madison Square Garden.
“Vernon always wanted to play the Garden,” said John Sorrentino, a firefighter who worked alongside Cherry at Ladder 118/Engine 205 for 11 years. “He finally got his wish. It was a nice way to end things.”
When Cherry died, the woman who would later own a house in his name was standing just a few blocks away. Edwards was working the morning shift at her job as a traffic enforcement agent on the corner of Church and Chambers streets north of the World Trade Center.
She remembers the city’s slow descent into chaos. First, she saw the tail end of a plane sticking out of one of the Twin Towers. Then the traffic lights went out. When the second plane hit, frightened drivers shouted the news to her from their car radios. Before long, the streets were engulfed in dust and smoke and Edwards was running.
Ten years later, Edwards’ watches quietly as a breeze fills the white silk curtains in her bedroom windows. Beyond them, red roses spill over the fence in her front yard and tomato plants and bushels of thyme grow alongside the terracotta patio out back. On either side of her house, charcoal grills and children’s bicycles sit atop small patches of carefully trimmed grass that serve as backyards for her neighbors.
A large, framed photograph of Lower Manhattan – with the Twin Towers front and center – hangs on Edwards’ bedroom wall, lit by an ornate chandelier dangling from the ceiling. Edwards looks around her house with a rueful smile. “The Vernon Cherry Partnership Homes,” she says. “It’s good. Now his name will always be remembered.”