At Andre and Zack Fletcher's kindergarten graduation ceremony, the children had to say what they wanted to be when they grew up. The Fletchers, fraternal twins, both gave the same answer: They wanted to be firemen.
The twins made good on their plan. Zack ended up at Engine 4, Ladder Company 15, a firehouse in lower Manhattan. Andre became a member of Rescue 5, on the northern tip of Staten Island. Now one is missing in the World Trade Center collapse. The other sorts through the rubble trying to find him.
At 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, Zack was driving in Brooklyn. He was off duty, and his car radio was off. He was doing errands; he had lost his W-2 form and was on his way to the City Administration building in lower Manhattan to get a copy. He noticed that the air seemed smoky, so he called his twin brother on his two-way radio.
"I dialed him up, and I say, 'Andre, do you know anything about a big fire going on somewhere?'" Zack remembers. "He says, 'Are you kidding me? You don't hear what's going on? There's two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.'"
Andre was also in Brooklyn, speeding toward the fire. They agreed to find each other at the scene. "Be safe," Zack said before hanging up. Andre brushed off his brother's concern, telling him not to worry. It was their last conversation.
Zack rushed to his own firehouse, which is less than a mile from the World Trade Center. The trucks had already left, so he grabbed his gear and began walking toward the burning towers. When he was about a block away from the scene, the second tower collapsed.
"It was almost like a freight train," he says. "It was so loud."
To avoid the onrushing cloud, he and several other firefighters dove into a vestibule.
"After the buildings collapsed, I kept trying to get Andre on the two-way radio," says Zack, who is 37. "And it would chirp, which means the signal was going through. But he wasn't picking up. I didn't really worry about it too much." When he was busy at a fire, Andre often didn't pick up.
"When everything started settling a little bit, I started worrying," says Zack. "I started asking if anybody had seen any of the people in Rescue 5."
No one had.
He spent the next few hours frantically working at the site, putting out smaller fires and looking for survivors.
He also tried constantly to reach his brother. By 1 p.m. or so, Andre's phone stopped chirping. Instead, a message appeared on the console of Zack's phone: User Not Available.
Three weeks later, Andre is still missing, as are the other seven Rescue 5 members who went to the World Trade Center. The only sign that the unit was there: its truck, which was found a few hundred feet from ground zero. (Although battered, it still ran, and is back in service.) Besides his brother, Andre leaves behind his parents and a 12-year-old son, Blair.
As has happened with many firefighters and police officers, Zack's losses extend to lmost every corner of his life. Fourteen men from his own company are missing; his best friend, a firefighter named Michael Weinberg who worked in a midtown firehouse, died in the collapse; his body was recovered Sept. 12.
Zack didn't talk to Weinberg on Sept. 11. The next day, he called his best friend's cell phone, which was still working.
"I was crying when I left the message," he remembers. "I said 'I know you'll never hear this message, but I just want to let you know how much I loved you, and how much you meant to me.'"
In the weeks after Sept. 11, Zack worked at "The Pile," as the enormous mass of steel, rubble and remains has come to be known by those trying to dismantle it. At first, he worked with frenzied hope, but that gave way to a grim sense of duty. Although his captain told him that he didn't have to work at the site, and indeed didn't have to come to work at all, Zack continued to pull his shift.
"Honestly, now I would rather not be working on the Pile," he said last week. "It's just so depressing. But I still have to do it. I have to know that I'm doing my part to help find my brother."
A brawny man with an iron handshake and a shaved head, Zack has not quite given up faith. "I lost - possibly lost my brother," he says, catching himself. "He's not just my brother, he's my twin brother."
Like thousands of people whose friends and relatives are missing, he is facing an agonizing dilemma. Should he continue to hold out hope? Should he accept the prospect that, as New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has repeatedly said, finding survivors now would be a "miracle"? At what moment should he give in to mourning?
Lunsford Fletcher, the twins' father, is also grappling with this question. Sitting in the darkened living room of his tidy house in Freeport, a middle-class Long Island suburb, he tries to explain his mindset.
Now retired, Lunsford worked for many years managing the computer department at Prudential Securities, which archived its documents in one of the twin towers' underground levels.
"It is a fortress down there," he says. "The whole foundation is 10 feet deep of concrete and steel. Six levels down. It is secure. I know that if he was down there, and that's what I was hoping for, that he'd be secure, if he could get air and water. That's what kept me going for two weeks. And now it's fading away..." He trails off, choking up. "We have to face it right now."
His wife Monica, the twins' mother, is not yet ready. "I still feel that Andre is alive," she says. "I haven't given up hope yet. And I'm not gonna give up hope. I just keep praying and hoping that they will find him alive." A social worker for New York City, she has not been back to work since Sept. 11. Waiting for news wears on her; she says she often feels "queasy."
The living room is filled with family pictures. One wall is devoted to photographs of Andre and Zack. To an unpracticed eye, they are indistinguishable. Lunsford explains to a visitor that the photos on the left are of Andre, and those on the right are Zack. In the middle is a portrait of them together, two teen-agers with afros, staring wide-eyed into the camera.
A thin, gentle man, Lunsford alternates between laughing at memories and trying to hold off tears. "When they were 2 or 3 years old, I bought them a fire truck. I figure that's where it all started," says Lunsford, a Jamaican immigrant whose voice still carries a lilt. "They got hooked on fire trucks. When I look back on it now, I say, I shouldn't a done that. But it was fun."
Like many twins, Andre and Zack competed fiercely with each other. "I remember they had a candlestick, shaped like a flower petal, and Andre pick it up, they were jostling," says Lunsford. "They were 3 or 4 years old. Andre picked it up and jam it in Zachary's head. Gash! I had to take him to the hospital. I had to rush him over there to get stitches."
During another childhood battle, the boys broke a dining room table.
"We were competitive in all things," says Zack, who is two minutes older. "But just about anything that we'd do we'd want to do it together." Both loved "Star Trek." When Andre bought a motorcycle, Zack soon followed suit. Together, they bought cars at police auctions and restored them. They traveled together, frequently driving to Toronto to visit relatives.
They both played on the FDNY football team, at the same positions – wide receiver and defensive back. When football became too strenuous, they joined the baseball team. Andre ended up running the team.
"They were inseparable," says their friend, Greg Matthews. A Seattle firefighter, he met the pair in May, at the funeral for a fireman killed at a blaze in Queens. They hit it off immediately. Matthews and a co-worker spent the visit hanging out with the Fletchers. "They wouldn't let us buy anything," Matthews says. "They bought us dinner, they bought us drinks." Last week, Matthews flew to New York to spend time with Zack and work on the rescue mission.
Andre and Zack grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, during the '70s and '80s. It was a "hard area," as Lunsford puts it, and the twins had many opportunities to see firefighters in action.
"I remember the blackout in '76," says Zack, referring to the infamous power outage, during which looters throughout the city broke into stores and set many aflame. "It was bad. I had so much respect fr the firefighters. These guys would go in there, and they'd put out the flame, and even when it's still a little glowing, there's another store, a block down the street, still on fire. They didn't even have time to put the hose on the truck. They'd pick the hose up, in the spaghetti that it was, hop on the back of the truck, drive a block down, and start again. I'm talking nonstop for 12, 13 hours."
In college, the twins joined Freeport Volunteer Fire Department. Eventually, they applied to the FDNY.
In 1994, after several years on the waiting list (the result of a hiring freeze), they were accepted, becoming the first African-American twins to join the department. Andre eventually became a member of Rescue 5, a specially trained unit that responds to the most serious emergencies.
"They're what the Army Rangers are to the Army," says Zack. "He loved it there." The assignment offered exactly what Andre craved: maximum adrenaline and the constant opportunity to help people in danger.
To honor Andre, Zack wants to join Rescue 5. He wants to take his brother's place; he even wants the same locker and bed.
His father opposes the idea. "I don't want anything like this happening again," says Lunsford, pausing to collect himself. "But if that's what he wants, and it's a tribute to Andre... then I'll go along with it. But it scares me."
Last week, Engine 4 returned to regular duty, meaning that Zack no longer works at the Pile. Still, he refuses to take time off. "I can't," he says. "If I do, I'll have too much time to think about things."
Written by David Kohn;