Two Cities, One Unbreakable Bond

When disaster strikes, only a select group of people counteract human instinct and run toward the sound of danger. The shared courage, service and sacrifice of the first responders who put their lives on the line to save those in need forged the indelible connection between Oklahoma City and New York City.

Paris Lawson

By Paris Lawson | Digital Content Reporter |

Oklahoma City and New York City don’t have much in common. As a matter of fact, outside of their three-letter identifiers, the two cities couldn’t be more different. But when an Oklahoma City police officer stood face-to-face with a New York firefighter by the south pool of the 9/11 memorial, the two embraced and talked like old friends. One spoke with a noticeable southern drawl while the other had a thick Long Island accent. On the surface, it seemed as though the two merely shared a vocational connection; but at the core, they were bonded in a deep brotherhood created by a common tragedy nearly 25 years before. It was a powerful reunion of brothers that would’ve been easily overlooked by a casual bystander.

However, when the Thunder wore its City Edition uniforms made in partnership with the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum in front of the crowd in Madison Square Garden on March 6th, it uncovered the rich and powerful history that unites them and helped share it with the world.

That history involved two tragic events, two cities, nine first responders and one handmade rosary.

Governor Frank Keating had only been in office for three months when tragedy struck in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. As the news of the bombing began to flood in, Governor Keating received a call from Washington ­– it was President Clinton. He wanted to know what happened and what he needed to do to help. Keating was unsure of what exactly happened, but knew one thing was for sure, they needed reinforcements.

“I don’t know who did it or what happened, but we need help because the OKC fire department and the police department were just shy of 1,000 people each, maybe 900, and he said ‘we’re on it, we’re going to get the urban search and rescue teams from all over the country’ and one of the teams mercifully for us was Ray Downey’s team from New York.”

Back in New York City, a former marine turned Fire Department chief named Raymond Downey helped to create and grow New York Task Force 1 (NY-TF 1) which is New York City’s Urban Search and Rescue Team – a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The team responded to everything from fires to natural disasters. This special operations unit was trained to handle any and every call of danger it received.

Downey was one of the nation’s leading experts on rescue operations at collapsed buildings and more importantly, he was a valiant, humble leader among first responders in New York City. Around the country, Downey was known as the godfather of technical rescue and to other firefighters, he was virtually invincible.

“He was a very, very good firefighter, one of the best we ever had here in New York City. He was also a leader at the national level for Urban Search and Rescue…he was the national representative for all 28 teams and sort of the godfather of technical rescue in the country. For us, he was just dad,” said Joe Downey, son of Ray Downey who now works in his father’s position as FDNY battalion chief and leader of Task Force 1 working out of the same firehouse on Roosevelt Island in New York City that his father did.

(L-R) Governer Keating meets up with FDNY Battalion Chief Joe Downey.

Joe is the oldest of five Downey children including Chuck Downey who also serves as chief in the FDNY. At home, Ray hardly talked about his work, everything he experienced in the field was put to the side to be present with his family.

“He was a great father, a good supporter to our family, a loving dad and didn’t talk about what he did on this job too much,” said Joe Downey.

But when Ray was called to respond to the Oklahoma City bombing in April of 1995, Joe saw something different in his father.

For 16 days, Ray Downey’s team helped to uncover the 168 people who lost their lives in the attack including 19 children which ultimately had an unfathomable impact on Downey who had just began his new role as a grandfather. When Governor Keating realized the toll the work was taking on his visitors from New York, he paid a special visit to the bombing site in downtown Oklahoma City to see Chief Downey and pass along a token of comfort.

Prior to that visit, the governor received a small package in the mail from a group of nuns in Bavaria who made hand-crafted rosaries made of a cloth-like material. Keating decided to keep one for himself and give the other one to Downey who he thought might need it after seeing the magnitude of casualties caused by the bombing.

Upon seeing Ray standing on the pile, Keating called out, “Hey Ray, are you a Catholic?”

Ray quipped back, “Is the Pope a Catholic?” Which sent both into a much-needed burst of laughter. It was then that the governor handed over the rosary to Ray for him to have as he continued in his arduous mission. Rather than keeping the rosary in his pocket like one would typically do, Ray wore it around his neck and under his shirt every single day from that point on.

“It had a huge, profound impact on him … and I’m just happy I had something from those nuns in Bavaria to give him because it meant a lot to him for the rest of his life,” said Keating.

Ray and his team returned back to New York after over two weeks of toil through downtown Oklahoma City. When Joe and his mom greeted Ray at the airport, Joe noticed something different about his father.

“When we went to pick him up from the airport, he looked totally exhausted. He had no voice, it was tough to talk, and you could see that something was bothering him. I think what he saw in Oklahoma had an impact on his life and he was a strong, strong man,” said Joe.

“It’s a mentality of a first responder. You don’t think about the danger half the time. We signed on to be on this job and we respond.”

Joe Downey

Six years and five months later, the date was Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. It was a beautiful day in New York with a clear blue sky and not a cloud in site. Downey received another call to respond to a collapsed building. This time, the call came from his hometown of New York City.

While thousands of people flooded from the horrific scene, Ray ran straight toward the cloud of smoke ordering people out of the tower and directing them to safety. When the second tower fell, it took the life of Ray along with eight other task force members who spent 16 days working with Ray in Oklahoma City six years before.

“He had the opportunity to leave, and the members that went to Oklahoma City, some of them probably had the opportunity to say maybe this is getting too dangerous and I should get out of here, but they didn’t because that was their job,” said Joe.

The same courage and bravery illustrated in response to the Oklahoma City bombing exemplified itself in those first responders who put their life on the line to save others in New York. Along with that deep-rooted emotional connection that crossed state lines, Ray still had in his possession a physical link to OKC with him on the day that he died – the handmade rosary made by a group of nuns in Bavaria given to him by Governor Keating.

“It’s just a mentality of a first responder. You don’t think about the danger half the time,” said Joe Downey. “This is our job, we signed on to be on this job and we respond.”

Nearly 25 years following the Oklahoma City bombing and 19 years after the attack on the World Trade Center, both Oklahoma City and New York City have recovered, but not forgotten. In OKC, the people developed a shared code of conduct that became known as the Oklahoma Standard. In New York City, the people came together across all walks of life, unified by a common loss.

It was because of this bond that the Thunder circled the Knicks matchup on its calendar. When March 6th rolled around, the team wore its renowned City Edition jerseys honoring all those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever on April 19th, 1995. In Madison Square Garden, the evening’s theme was First Responders Night. The color guard was comprised of members of both the FDNY and NYPD. Holding the American flag was a joint contingent of both Oklahoma City first responders and those who went to Oklahoma City from New York to aid in the bombing recovery effort. The group also included family members of the police and fire heroes who worked Oklahoma City and died in the line of duty on 9/11.

What the audience didn’t know was that the day before, the entire group paid a visit to the 9/11 memorial and museum. The fire and police personnel from OKC had the opportunity to reunite with their brothers and sisters in service while also seeing the names of the nine Task Force members who served in Oklahoma City in 1995 and lost their lives in the attack on 9/11. It was this emotion that radiated throughout the arena on March 6th. For the players on the floor, the sight carried significant weight.

“It was a huge surprise,” said Thunder guard Chris Paul. “So, when we heard that announcement, I think everybody on our team sort of felt even more emotional response. Those jerseys mean a lot to us in Oklahoma City, but to have our first responders from Oklahoma along with those from here in New York I think was pretty special.”

“I think it’s great just for Oklahoma City to be acknowledged and obviously the people here in New York City,” said Thunder head coach Billy Donovan who like Joe Downey is a native of Long Island. “Both cities went through devastating circumstances, 9/11 and then obviously the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. I think for two cities to come together and to take a moment of silence and to reflect on how great both of those cities are in Madison Square Garden was a great tribute to New York City and Oklahoma City.”

It was an opportunity for the two teams to share their story with the world. A story that was only known among the memorial staff and community of first responders. To the average person, Oklahoma City and New York City are hardly ever spoken in the same sentence. On Friday night, the Thunder and the Knicks partnered to educate the world on that sacred connection which brought the two cities together.

Standing at center court of MSG were president and CEO of the 9/11 memorial Alice Greenwald and executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum Kari Watkins. The two held jerseys from their respective cities. Watkins held the distinct Thunder City Edition jersey while Greenwald clutched the Knicks Association uniform before swapping in a sign of mutual respect and solidarity. The memorial representatives were flanked by Keating and his wife Cathy, Knicks great John Starks and Thunder alum Nick Collison.

“The fraternity and the fraternal affection and goodwill that existed and will continue to exist between the fire service and the police in New York City and Oklahoma City is really a beautiful thing,” said Keating. “I think the jerseys memorialize brotherhood and sisterhood and goodwill among and between people.”

Now, in addition to the handmade rosary from Bavaria, the symbolism of the deep connection between the two cities is made tangible by a charcoal grey Nike uniform worn by NBA players in the world’s most famous arena on basketball’s biggest stage.

“The city obviously went through a tremendous tragedy 25 years ago and I think everybody’s connected to that and understands how impacted everybody was and it’s great to see how the city has pulled together and you hope in some way basketball is a way to help bridge that gap and keep people connected,” said Donovan.

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