‘God gave me a special boy’: 9/11 firefighter’s mom tells story of losing two children 3 decades apart

Remembering 9/11

POINT LOOKOUT, N.Y —  The beach at Point Lookout was always a special place for Barbara Hetzel and her four children.  

She remembers her oldest son, Thomas Hetzel, liked to dig in the sand near the seashore.

“He would always say ‘I’m digging to China,'” Thomas Hetzel’s mother remembered recently.  “He was just an eager little guy … to please people, smiling.”

Barbara Hetzel mostly goes to Point Lookout now to honor her son and other victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.  

Thomas Hetzel was one of the “Yorkville 9” — nine members of the firehouse on East 85th Street who didn’t return when the twin towers collapsed.

“Only one fireman came back,” she said.

Barbara Hetzel, a Garden City resident, has always gone to the beach on the sad anniversary, even before a permanent 9/11 memorial was dedicated at Point Lookout in 2017.

“I don’t want to go to the city on that day,” Barbara Hetzel said.

Barbara Hetzel was on a cruise in Sweden with her husband when the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists in jets; many Long Islanders flocked to the beach to watch the towers burning in the distance. 

On the 9/11 anniversaries, Point Lookout became a gathering place.

“We always came out here,” she added. “Just to look out at the water. The quiet of it is what you need on that day.”

Hetzel, a German immigrant, came to the United States in 1960, when she was 20 years old.

She and her husband built a good life and a family, but endured a staggering loss in the early 1970s, one that impacted Thomas Hetzel  — the second child — greatly.

“He lost his sister when he was 5, and he suffered terrible,” Barbara Hetzel told PIX11 at the Point Lookout site.  

Barbara Hetzel’s oldest, 7-year-old Christine, was outside of the family’s Garden City home, helping a neighbor whose dog got loose.  

A car turning the corner mounted the curb and hit the little girl. She died three hours later.

Nearly three decades later, another family member was killed.

Thomas Hetzel was a strong, happy man who stood 6-foot-3 inches. He left behind a wife and 2-year-old daughter.

“God gave me such a good son,” Barbara Hetzel said. “He lit up a room. There was something about Thomas.”

Speaking of her double loss as a mother, Barbara Hetzel said, “After our first one, it took me about three years to come back to life again, to join the world again.”

“After Thomas, it took me seven years,” she said sadly. “Nothing mattered.”

Barbara Hetzel told us she had wanted Thomas Hetzel and his family to join her on the cruise in Sweden, but Thomas said he wanted to study for the FDNY lieutenant’s test and decided to stay in New York.

She knew her son was unaccounted for on the night of 9/11, a Tuesday, and couldn’t get a plane out of Sweden until Saturday.  

Some of her son’s remains were recovered, and a funeral was held in early October 2001.

Despite her pain, Barbara Hetzel talked about gratitude.

“I had a wonderful life in America,” Barbara Hetzel said. “There’s a lot of kindness here … a lot of good, good people.”

Barbara Hetzel met some of those people at the Point Lookout 9/11 Memorial when PIX11 connected with her there.

One of them was Phil Alvarez, the brother of the late NYPD Detective Luis Alvarez, who died in 2019 from 9/11-related cancer.

Luis Alvarez had spent months at ground zero immediately after the attacks, and was exposed to the many toxins there.

“It took 16 years for my brother to get sick,” Phil Alvarez said, standing in front of his brother’s name on plaques that were added to the Point Lookout memorial for hundreds of first responders who died.  “My brother lived a few miles from here; he was a beach guy and he loved to fish.  He would always be here on the beach in the summer.”

Phil Alvarez had sat behind his brother in Congress in June 2019, when Detective Luis Alvarez — his body gaunt from 60 rounds of chemotherapy — appealed to U.S. legislators for a long-term compensation fund to help the sick and dying.

“We got back from Washington and, about two days later, he went to Memorial Sloan Kettering,” Phil Alvarez recalled.  “Then he went into hospice.”

“I told him I was proud of him,” Phil Alvarez remembered of his last conversations with his brother, his voice breaking with emotion. “I told him he was leaving quite a legacy.”

PIX11 also met twin brother and sister Kyle and Nikki Sliwak at the Point Lookout Memorial.  

They were three years old, about to turn four, when their father, Robert Sliwak, died with more than 650 other employees in the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald.

Robert Sliwak had been a star football player at Seaford High School, and his twins — talented athletes in lacrosse, football and soccer — wore his number in every sport they played.

“We decided to wear #34 in honor of him,” Nikki Sliwak, now 23, said.  “There was never a time we didn’t wear 34.”

Kyle Sliwak recalled it was tough to see other fathers in the stands when he was playing football in middle school.

“When I was younger, it was very hard,” Kyle Sliwak said, “and I used to cry all the time.”

But Kyle Sliwak said as he grew older, he took comfort during games by feeling his father was always with him.

“We both played running back, so it was kind of like having him next to me,” Kyle Sliwak said with a smile. “So any time I got a hand off, I felt he was just carrying me.”

Barbara Hetzel took comfort meeting the Sliwak twins and Phil Alvarez during her visit to the Point Lookout memorial.

A 30-foot beam recovered from the original World Trade Center is a focal point at the site, along with the memorial plaques and a pear tree planted with a seedling from the “survivor tree” at ground zero.

Barbara Hetzel said she enjoys going home to her family garden in Garden City.

“That’s my peace,” Barbara Hetzel said, as she watered her flowers.

The road near Barbara Hetzel’s home was renamed in Thomas’ honor.

And Thomas Hertzel’s daughter, Amanda, now 22, recently graduated from Elon University and is bound for a master’s degree.

Barbara Hetzel said she has stopped questioning why she lost her two oldest children.

Thomas Hetzel, she said, was her “open book” — he always shared so much with her.

“In a way, I’m so grateful,” Barbara Hetzel said, “that he brought me joy. God gave me a special boy.”

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