Remembering September 11: The impact of Answer the Call and 9/11 philanthropies, nearly 21 years later

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A grieving widow and a New York hockey legend alike are sharing the impacts of a New York City philanthropy that donated tens of millions of dollars toward families reeling from the devastation and tragedy of September 11, 2001.

On that fateful Tuesday morning nearly 21 years ago, Marcela Leahy, received a voicemail from her husband, New York City police officer James Leahy, telling her he had been working an election day detail nearby and rushed to the Twin Towers after the terrifying events began.

In a different part of the city, then-New York Rangers hockey captain Mark Messier was prepared for training camp to begin when the news broke. The team had originally been scheduled to be staying at the Marriott at the World Trade Center for training camp that morning before their plans previously changed. A now-famous picture of the hockey center in uniform and wearing the FDNY helmet of fallen Chief Ray Downey became what he told Fox News Digital was “a galvanizing moment.”

Two people, living completely different lives, spoke to Fox News Digital about the impact and importance of Answer the Call – an organization originally created to benefit the families of first responders who were killed in the line of duty – and similar philanthropies.

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The annual Tribute in Light appears over lower Manhattan in New York City on September 11, 2017 as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey. 

The annual Tribute in Light appears over lower Manhattan in New York City on September 11, 2017 as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey. 
(Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Answer the Call, formally known as the N.Y. Police and Fire Widows’ & Children’s Benefit Fund, donated about $100,000 to each of the families of the over 400 first responders in the aftermath of 9/11.

Since its fruition, Answer the Call has contributed more than $165 million, and counting, to fallen heroes who died in 9/11 and other tragedies. A similarly noteworthy organization, the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, has raised $250 million so far for American heroes.

Answer the Call was founded by New York baseball legend Daniel “Rusty” Staub to benefit families whose New York Police Department (NYPD), Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) died in the line of duty.

Mets great Rusty Staub passed away at 73 on Thursday, March 29, 2018.

Mets great Rusty Staub passed away at 73 on Thursday, March 29, 2018.
(Reuters)

But the organization, which focuses on caring for the victims’ families, goes beyond just providing them with a check. For Marcela Leahy, Answer the Call provided her three sons with a sense of normalcy after their father, NYPD Officer James Leahy, was killed on September 11.

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The baseball games hosted by the organization were particularly impactful for her and her boys, who had spent their lives being coached by their eager father.

This undated photo shows fallen NYPD Officer James Leahy, who died on September 11, 2001.

This undated photo shows fallen NYPD Officer James Leahy, who died on September 11, 2001.
(Photo courtesy Marcela Leahy)

“The boys loved baseball,” Leahy, now 57, told Fox News Digital. “James was actively involved with the sports, involved with baseball, took them to baseball games … I knew we were going to have a baseball game where the kids didn’t feel different because everyone there, that they were going to be with, was in the same position – they lost a father.”

She added: “All those little things that you take for granted when you have it. You don’t realize how much you missed out later on, how much it means.”

Leahy recalled listening to her voicemail machine on September 11 to hear her husband tell her he had switched a shift to work an election day detail, which was closer to lower Manhattan than he normally would have been.

NYPD Officer Joseph Safatle shows the photograph of his uncle, Officer James Leahy, that he carries inside his hat during the unveiling of the 9/11 Memorial Wall at the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York on September 07, 2021 in New York City. 

NYPD Officer Joseph Safatle shows the photograph of his uncle, Officer James Leahy, that he carries inside his hat during the unveiling of the 9/11 Memorial Wall at the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York on September 07, 2021 in New York City. 
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“He had left us a message on the answering machine saying that he was in the buildings with the firefighters. He didn’t know what was going on, but that he was okay,” she recalled. “He was on the 20th floor and that he would call us later.”

She called the police precinct, where the person who answered the phone initially did not know James was in the area.

FILE - Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.

FILE – Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.
(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The 9/11 attacks claimed the lives of 2,977 victims, including 343 FDNY firefighters, 23 members of the NYPD and 37 Port Authority police officers, and countless others.

More than two decades later, when asked what comes to mind most often about her fallen husband, she said, through tears, “I just think about everything that he’s missing.”

Marcela Leahy with her three sons, whose father, fallen NYPD Officer James Leahy, died on September 11, 2001

Marcela Leahy with her three sons, whose father, fallen NYPD Officer James Leahy, died on September 11, 2001
(Photo courtesy Marcela Leahy)

“Even when the kids got married, it’s just, it’s so bittersweet. It’s happy, but it’s the saddest,” she said. “He’s not here, but he’s here because they’re so much like him.”

She lauded Answer the Call, not only for their financial support, but for picking up the phone and being there for her whenever she needed anything.

Marcela Leahy with her son, John, holding an image of her fallen 9/11 hero husband, James Leahy

Marcela Leahy with her son, John, holding an image of her fallen 9/11 hero husband, James Leahy
(Photo courtesy Marcela Leahy)

“I knew I could always call for anything,” she said. “I would call … for stupid things, just to ask a question, and they always had an answer. So, I know that somebody always had my back.”

She added: “It’s a beautiful feeling. They were really Godsends, Got sent angels to us.”

Candlelight vigil for the victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attack at Union Square in New York City. 9/13/2001. 

Candlelight vigil for the victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attack at Union Square in New York City. 9/13/2001. 
(: Evan Agostini/ImageDirect/Getty Images)

Messier, a National Hockey League (NHL) Hall of Famer, became an Answer the Call board member after 9/11, upon seeing “the importance of being able to help and reach out and give support,” he told Fox News Digital.

“First responders are always going to be in danger, unfortunately, with the inherent risks that the jobs come with – putting their lives in front of others to help and support and save people,” he went on.

New York Rangers' captain Mark Messier puts on the helmet of Fire Department Chief of Special Operations Command Ray Downey at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 7, 2001. 

New York Rangers’ captain Mark Messier puts on the helmet of Fire Department Chief of Special Operations Command Ray Downey at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 7, 2001. 
(Photo by Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Messier became what he called a “galvanizing” figure when he wore the helmet of FDNY Chief of Special Operations Command Ray Downey, who died on 9/11, during the New York Rangers’ home opener on October 7, 2001.

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“It was in support of every New Yorker who reached out and tried to help. It symbolized every FDNY and NYPD who risked their lives trying to save people,” he said. “It was seen to be a galvanizing moment in so many ways for all of us who lived through the experience and, unfortunately, those who didn’t, and end up leaving the families behind.”

He lauded Chief Downey, whom he learned about from Downey’s family, as an “amazing guy” and “leader.”

“That incredible moment before the game started,” he said, “really kind of symbolizes the galvanization that New York had in that moment.”

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He added: “We can never forget what happened. We can never forget the lives that were lost, senseless likes that were lost. And we can never forget the responsibility that we have as a city and as a nation, to be honest with you, to help the people who lost their lives in the line of duty.”

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