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Middle Village honors fire officer, history buff

Sept. 11, 2001 should have been Lt. Michael Warchola's last day on the job.

The 28-year Fire Department veteran and Middle Village resident was completing his last 24-hour tour when he and his crew at Ladder 5 in Manhattan responded to the call of a plane slamming into the World Trade Center.

But like thousands of others that day, Warchola, 51, did not make it out of the buildings in time, choosing instead to stay and help a handicapped woman make her way down the stairs. The pair's bodies were found on top of the woman's crumpled wheelchair.

Warchola joined the ranks of many victims of Sept. 11 Saturday, when his street, Goldington Court at 84th Place, was renamed Lt. Michael Warchola Way in his honor.

"Years from now people will know that on this block once resided a true hero and a very brave man," said state Assemblyman Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills), who was on hand Saturday for the unveiling of the street sign.

Warchola was a Golden Gloves boxer who joined the Fire Department in 1977, after being on the waiting list for five years. An avid reader, he had earned a degree in English from the University of Buffalo and planned to teach, but when jobs seemed in short supply he took the fire exam, said his father, Michael Warchola.

As he rose through the ranks of the FDNY, off the job Warchola maintained his passion for history and science fiction, said his family, which includes son Aaron, 20, and daughter Amy, 17. Warchola read stacks of books on days gone by, made elaborate drawings of Venus flytraps and kept a poster of Godzilla on his wall.

"As an avid student of history, there is a poetic justice that he now has entered the history books he loved to read," said Capt. Frank Coughlin, who worked with Warchola at Ladder 5.

And although the books will have details on the destruction and the loss suffered by the city and the country, they will also remember the heroes, said City Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R-Middle Village), who sponsored the bill proposing the name change.

"History will show a different story," Gallagher said. "It will show how Michael Warchola and other members of the Fire Department saved thousands of lives in the greatest rescue effort ever. It will be a profound reminder of the strength of the American people."

In his final moments, Warchola was helping a handicapped woman make the long journey down the staircase in one of the towers, Coughlin said. The two were found among other firefighters near the crushed wheelchair, he said.

"Their last acts as firefighters was helping someone who was in desperate need of their aid," Coughlin said. "Their burden may have been the difference between their survival, but they reassured a frightened wheelchair-bound woman in a dark smoky staircase they would not leave her, and they didn't."

The new street sign is a lasting testament to that spirit, said Warchola's brother, retired Fire Capt. Dennis Warchola.

"Today, we're not here to grieve," he said. "We're here to rename this street for Lt. Michael Warchola. People will know that a brave New York City firefighter once lived, loved and laughed here."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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