04/17/2014 04:48 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

An American Hero

I was standing on Boylston Street at 2:49pm on April 15, 2013. My three young nieces waved a sparkly, purple sign and hollered for our friends who were approaching the finish. The girls pressed up against the barricade, whooping as the runners crested the hill and rounded the corner for that last long block.

It was a perfect Patriot's Day in Boston, warm and sunny. The Red Sox had just won; jubilant fans poured out of Fenway and packed us in like sardines.

And then there was a boom.

The crowd didn't like it. We turned our heads toward the stands. I told the girls it must have been a canon--a celebration, I explained confidently. Smoke filled the street, but it wasn't until the second bomb that the terror ripped through me.

A guy in a crisp white T-shirt yelled to a policeman to stop the runners and when he didn't, the man jumped the barricade and did it himself. The agony on the marathoners' faces was horrific. They could see the finish line but they were never going to reach it. One woman dropped to her knees and sobbed. They didn't know then that they were the lucky ones.

I grabbed my nieces, picked one up and clamped the hands of the others for dear life. We didn't run, we couldn't; we just pushed quickly through the mob. I wanted to appear calm for the girls. But I wasn't. The sirens wailed as they had in New York on that September day twelve years before, and they made me want to run fast and far. The guy who jumped the barricade in his crisp white T reminded me of Bernie.

Bernie was an American hero, just not one you'd ever hear about. He was my neighbor, a regular guy, someone you'd see on the street, walking to or from a job, in and out of a deli, on and off the subway. In a city of eight million, that's how a lot of people were. That all changed after the planes hit.

Bernie wasn't SoHo fashionable, not in the least. He wore acid washed jeans, work boots, a black leather jacket, and always the white T-shirt. Outside an upscale restaurant, he defended his wardrobe: "A clean white t-shirt is never a dress-code violation. You can wear it to church." But his most distinctive trademark was his hair. He had a lot of it, more than a man should hope for, and he parted it straight down the middle in a long pageboy.

Bernie was working construction next to the towers. He saw the first plane hit and the second one too. He felt the rush of wind as explosions rocked his site. The flames and the smoke burned his lungs. When traffic s¬narled up and people abandoned their cars and ran, Bernie and his crew flipped the cars onto sidewalks so that the fire engines could get to the towers. He was an Irish kid from Queens and he was gonna get those trucks through if it killed him.

He saw people jumping, hurling their bodies down to the pavement below. He saw people pounding windows to get out. Then he saw the top of the first tower buckle and fall. The sound was the worst thing he'd ever heard. He ran. Everyone did. He didn't stop until he got to the end of Battery Park and there was no more land to run on. He thought about jumping into the Hudson and swimming for it.

On April 17th in Boston, there were so many false alarms, we thought the city was rigged to blow. Our skin prickled. We accidentally set off the alarm to the house. Most of the police department was outside Boston by then looking for the bombers, and the guy who came to our door looked like he'd just come out of retirement by way of the bar. He was shaking and his eyes were wild with fear.

The thing about a hero is he steps up despite his fear. He goes to war and witnesses unspeakable atrocities. He protects those who can't protect themselves and gets nothing in return. Bernie was a hero. He didn't swim and he didn't keep running. He loaded up his tools and went back. Bernie worked for three days without a break.

He wanted to find one person, save one life. Working the pile with the firefighters, police and union workers, Bernie passed buckets of body parts and pieces of people's lives. Whenever they thought they heard someone, the whole place would go silent. Only the sirens kept wailing. He never found anyone and he was left with the haunting memories of the wreckage of a war without a warning. You can read about it every day, but when it happens to you, it changes you.

We lit candles and hugged strangers. We shared stories. Sometimes we wandered around in shock, like ghosts. The stench was unbearable and the papers, some only partially burned, kept floating past. It was hard to tell if our eyes were stinging from the air or the sorrow.

At Ground Zero, the EPA was saying that the horrid stench and the particles in the air were perfectly healthy--but that people should still wear masks. The Red Cross sent me out with another guy to tell every firefighter, sanitation worker and policeman we crossed paths with to wear a mask. We walked the perimeter of the pit. There were few women around--just big, strong men from all over, broken and exhausted. Nobody listened to us. What was the point? The air was fine and the masks were a flimsy, scratchy indignity to add to the misery and horror.

Bernie went through it all--the shock, the depression, the anger, the bargaining. The only thing about Bernie that didn't change was his hair. Bernie was a working guy, he didn't know about trauma or counseling, he knew obscure Irish poetry, math and construction. We were his friends, his counselors. Mostly we listened to a lot of Bruce Springsteen.

The cities are inexorably linked by Babe Ruth and terrorism. You go through security at Logan and you see it in action. They don't mess around. You can slip through JFK with it, but no 3.5 ounces of liquid will be leaving Boston. They will never forget where those planes came from. Never again.

The phone rang and a woman's voice said, "This is the City of Boston. Stay in place and shelter." I'd explained to the girls why huge men with machines guns were in the playground, but to stay inside on a beautiful day was a terrible thing. We painted and cooked, we drew and sung but the terror gnawed on. We gave in to multiple episodes of Doc McSnuffins and their friends' moms texted that they would kill the terrorists barehanded after being trapped in small apartments with young children all day.

When they caught him, the city spilled onto the streets. The playgrounds were overrun with kids, running wild way past bedtime. Boston Strong.

Bernie died this week of a heart attack. He was only forty-six. Maybe it was the air that wasn't safe at all, maybe it was the stress, maybe it was the drinking he'd been doing lately.

I thought I'd see him again but I never thanked him.

There is an American hero in Boston this week. He's a regular guy, wearing a white T-shirt, walking in and out of a deli, on and off the T. Maybe he's even sporting a middle part. He was there when it mattered. He made a difference. So if you see him, thank him from us.