MONROE - Richie Driscoll loved being a New York City firefighter and stayed close to his comrades after his retirement, returning to his old firehouse in East Harlem for gatherings and playing bagpipes in parades with the pipe-and-drum corps of retired firefighters he helped found.
This week, the 73-year-old Monroe resident became a symbol of his beloved FDNY in a way that no one wanted. Driscoll, who toiled in the wreckage of the Twin Towers with his fellow first responders after the 9/11 terror attacks, succumbed to cancer on Wednesday, becoming the 200th member of the department to die from illnesses blamed on the toxic dust they breathed at Ground Zero.
Driscoll, a father of six who had lived in the Monroe area for almost 40 years, was diagnosed a little more than a year ago with a type of blood cancer associated with that exposure. He already had lost 50 pounds by then. By the time he died in his home, the cancer had triggered a host of other debilitating ailments, including end-stage kidney disease.
"The cancer ravaged his body, but it did not ravage his spirit," his wife, Linda, said on Friday.
The Fire Department of New York paid tribute to Driscoll and observed the grim milestone on Facebook on Thursday.
"It is almost incomprehensible that after losing 343 members on September 11, we have now had 200 more FDNY members die due to World Trade Center illness," Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said in the post. "These heroes gave their lives bravely fighting to rescue and recover others. We will never forget them."
Driscoll's death came during a push in Washington to extend the funding for the federal program that compensates first responders like Driscoll for the cancers, respiratory diseases and other ailments they suffered as a result of their labors at Ground Zero. The House overwhelmingly approved a bill last week that would effectively make that fund permanent, while filling a looming shortfall that threatened to slash payments to beneficiaries.
The Senate is expected to take up the bill next week after two Republican senators - Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah - infuriated supporters by blocking its passage on Wednesday, the same day Driscoll died.
Linda Driscoll said her husband, who grew up in Stuyvescent Town in Manhattan, joined the FDNY in the footsteps of two of his uncles who were firefighters. He had served two years in the Army before then, drafted in 1965 during the Vietnam War but never deployed to Vietnam.
Driscoll worked for the FDNY for 32 years, many of them at Engine 91 in East Harlem, until his retirement in 2002, the year after 9/11. He had been honored five times for bravery by then, his department noted in its Facebook tribute to him.
The photo posted underneath showed Driscoll grinning beneath his black helmet, on the job and clearly in his element.