10 September 2010

9 years later: The Ballad of Johnny Heff

As we remember 9/11/2001 this weekend, I am reprising my Project 2,996 posting from 9/11/2006, memorializing one of the heroes who fell that awful day, nine years ago. Somehow, in the kerfuffle over burning the Koran or building the unthinkable "Ground Zero victory mosque," this seems more appropriate than ever.

May we never forget.


Johnny Heffernan was a guitar player, and reportedly a very good one. He played first for a band called the Psychotics, then for a New York neo-punk band known as the Bullys, wearing his trademark black t-shirt and jeans, and working with Marky Ramone on their first album: Stomposition. According to John Holmstrom, editor of Punk Magazine, The Bullys were a force in renewing the punk scene in New York, and Johnny was the true force behind the band.

If not for The Bullys, I might never have bothered with the relaunch of PUNK magazine. This band, more than anything else, convinced me that there's a real rock 'n' roll scene out there worth writing about. I wanted to bring out a new PUNK magazine so maybe we could put The Bullys on the map, just like we did for The Ramones, Blondie and the Dead Boys back in the day… Johnny had real star quality. He was good-looking, articulate (in his own way), talented, ambitious, and charismatic… I thought he was like the Jimmy Cagney of punk rock.

Johnny Heff was as rebellious as you would expect from a punk rocker, except that the occasional target of his anger was radical Islam. And sometimes, that came out in lyrical form:

"I hear the government of Afghanistan is waging a war upon women. Where da f*** is Gasghanistan? I gotta get a f***in' map for dat one. Anyway, it must be one tough m*****f***ing country to wage war against chicks, huh? Since some dude named The Taliban took power in 1996, women had to wear some s*** called the Bercha or somethin', and have been beaten and stoned in public for not wearin' the proper attire. So I guess tattoos and leather pants are out of the question, eh? ... Well, if they ever get into a war with the United States, they should know we ain't gonna just send a bunch of chicks to f*** 'em up... I'll go to fight... Anybody know where 'dis backward frickin' place is?"

So, in his own very unique way, Johnny Heff was alert to who the enemy was, years before the rest of us had necessarily figured it out.

Johnny was also a committed family man. A rebel on stage, Johnny was notoriously mellow around his wife Lori and daughter Samantha, teaching “Sammy” to swim, taking her to her first concert, even helping her do her nails. Lori described Johnny as her “soul mate” and Johnny’s friends were amazed at the way Johnny “marshmellowed out” around his wife and daughter.

Unfortunately, being the lead guitarist in a punk band rarely pays the bills, although the band was becoming very successful and hoped to start touring, so in 1993 Johnny also took a day job, one that allowed him to support his family.

Johnny became a New York City Firefighter.

Perhaps that didn’t seem that heroic at the time, but it certainly does now. You see, on a bright sunny day, five years ago this morning, Johnny Heffernan of Engine Company 28, Ladder 11 raced into a burning World Trade Center, one of the first on the scene.

Maybe Johnny had the lyrics to his song going through his head that morning, as he raced up the stairs to rescue as many people as possible. Maybe he realized exactly who was responsible for the destruction he was witnessing, and maybe he didn’t. We will never know. Nor will we know exactly how many lives he saved that day, just another FDNY firefighter “doing his job” with unparalleled heroism. What we know is that he was right, and he fought bravely to save lives that day just as he’d lyrically promised he would if given the chance.

And that they found him at Ground Zero on October 2, 2001, on his beloved Lori’s 31st birthday.

As we remember the events of that awful day, we also pause to remember and honor the lives of those who were lost that day. I never knew Johnny Heff, and I wish I could’ve met him. He sounds like a brash barrel of fun to me.

I don’t know if any members of the Heffernan family will read this. I hope that if they do, that I will have done Johnny justice (even though I know I’m probably not capable of that). I also hope if you are reading this, that you’ll be willing to add a few notes of your own to honor the fallen hero that you knew far better than any of the rest of us.

One final note. It seems that heroism runs in the Heffernan family. Johnny’s younger brother Michael is a FDNY firefighter, and youngest brother Brian is NYPD.

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Til all success be nobleness And every gain divine!


I want to thank Dale and the folks at Project 2,996 for the opportunity to participate. It has been an honor, a humbling experience, and an emotional one.

Please take the time today to read more of the tributes to the men and women of 9/11.


To support the family of Johnny Heffernan, and others of his engine company who perished that fateful day, make your check out to:

Eng28/Lad11, WTC Relief Fund

And mail it to:

Engine Co. 28/Ladder Co. 11
222 East 2nd Street
NYC NY 10003

Sources: LGF, Legacy.com, September11victims.com, thebullys.com, Punk Magazine.

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