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Portrait Of A Hero

Like many other Americans after Sept. 11, Seattle artist Michele Rushworth felt compelled to do something for the victims of the terrorist attacks.

Through a program established to connect portrait artists with firefighters' families, Rushworth found a way to make a personal connection - and contribution - to the family of Doug Oelschlager, a New York firefighter who lost his life trying to save victims in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Suzanne Oelschlager had seen a photograph of the painting, but did not see the real thing until she met with Rushworth on The Early Show. "This is something that my entire family is going to cherish forever," she says. "The fact that a woman from all the way across the country in Seattle could pay such a great tribute to my husband, it's just amazing."

"It was so hard living in Seattle," says Rushworth. "I felt powerless. It seemed as if I couldn't do a thing. I went to the blood bank to donate, but there were already hundreds of people in line. My husband and I contributed money to the Red Cross too, but it just felt like I could contribute so much more - but I just didn't know how."

It was a personal connection that Rushworth wanted to make; specifically, with a family of someone lost in the attacks. "I wanted to contribute something that would, I hoped, have meaning and make a difference, at least to one New York family," she says.

Rushworth heard about a project started by Atlanta portrait artist Wendy MacArthur and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association in Manhattan. The goal: to link portrait artists with families of firefighters lost in the attacks, and have the artists contribute their work to the firefighters' families. Immediately, Rushworth knew that she had found her way to help.

Meanwhile, in St. James, N.Y., Suzanne Oelschlager was leafing through a NYFD newsletter when she stumbled upon a blurb about the portrait opportunity. Oelschlager 's husband of 13 years, Doug, was a NYFD firefighter who was killed when the South Tower collapsed.

The morning of Sept. 11, Doug Oelschlager had finished his night shift at Ladder 7 Company, and arrived at the Ladder 15 station near South Street Seaport for his day shift just as a fire truck was heading down to the World Trade Center. Suzanne Oelschlager says that she often thinks that if Doug Oelschlager was running late to work that morning, or got stuck in traffic a few minutes longer, he might not have been on that fire truck, and might have lived.

All of the men but one from Ladder 15 died that day. All of the firefighters from Ladder 7 (where Doug Oelschlager worked the overnight shift the evening before) survived. Doug Oelschlager's body was never found in the debris - only the badge from his firefighter's helmet was found.

When Suzanne Oelschlager saw the ad in the newsletter about portraits of firefighters who died in the attacks, she asked her brother to further look into the program. Within a few weeks, she was in touch with Rushworth. "I feel like it's kind of my mission to get the word out about Doug and what kind of person he was," Suzanne Oelschlager says. "I want to get his face and story out there so no one forgets."

Doug Oelschlager's story was one of a loving husband and father, and a dedicated firefighter. "It was a calling with him," Suzanne Oelschlager says about her husband's love for his job. "I called him 'Joe Fireman.' He loved that job; he loved helping people. He died the way he lived his life."

For over 20 years, Doug Oelschlager was a volunteer firefighter on Long Island, and was a captain in the St. James Eagle Hook and Ladder Company. He also worked as a building engineer in Manhattan - something that made him unbelievably valuable to the NYFD because, as Suzanne Oelschlager says, "he knew high-risers inside and out. He was an expert on those buildings."

He joined the New York Fire Department 16 months prior to Sept. 11, finally realizing a dream that he had for years. A letter written by Suzanne Oelschlager that was read by a family friend at Doug Oelschlager's funeral says it all: "Doug was my true hero and pillar of strength and best friend. I turned to him when things were dark, and he showed me the light. He had a special kindness and never spoke an unkind word about anyone. Being a father was his special joy. His family and the Fire Department were his own world."

Suzanne Oelschlager says that their daughters, Brittany (now 12) and Kayla (now 9) were his true joy in life; he would have done anything for them. "He made it so that he worked nights, so he could be home with the girls and spend time with them in the afternoons," she says. "They were his treasures. In an article published a day before Doug Oelschlager 's memorial service in October, Kayla is quoted as saying that she "wants to be a firefighter, and 'be a hero like Daddy.'"

Rushworth's great hope in finishing the portrait was that Suzanne would like it, and that it would be "a fitting tribute to a truly heroic person. I read somewhere that 25,000 people escaped from the towers on Sept. 11, because of the selfless acts of men like Doug Oelschlager. This painting is my attempt to make sure that their efforts are not forgotten."