He Risked His Life to Save My Life

A lifetime ago, a New York City firefighter saved a baby boy. He did so in spectacular fashion, rescuing the infant from a burning building in Brooklyn. The city heaped praise on the young fireman, and the event made the front page of the New York Daily News. As time went by, though, the man and the boy lost touch with each other, and over the years the firefighter wondered aloud what had happened to the infant he saved so long ago. The mystery wasn’t solved until last January, when the fireman died—and at last his family had the answers it had sought for so long.
It was a hot morning in July, 1967, when firefighter Daniel Tracy, who had already earned two citations for heroism, answered a call to a blazing home on St. Mark’s Ave. in the Brownsville section. Once he and fellow members of Ladder Co. 120 arrived, Tracy heard there was an infant trapped inside. He frantically searched the house and finally found the baby—seven-month-old Terry Sykes—lying on a bed in a smoky room. When other firefighters poured water on the flames they unknowingly sealed off Tracy’s exit, until, baby in hand, he broke a window and called for help. Moments later he collapsed on the ground, handing little Terry off as he did.
There it was; a life saved. For firefighters, all in a day’s work. There were honors to come, of course: a Brooklyn Citizens Medal, a citation from the Daily News as “Hero of the Month,” and that front-page photo showing Tracy holding young Terry Sykes; a letter of commendation from U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
But the years slipped by, and as they did the incident gradually faded from sight. Tracy retired as a captain from the Fire Department in 1990, a 30-year veteran. Occasionally he wondered what had happened to the baby boy, and kept a framed copy of the News’ front page that day, with its photo of him and the baby. Unknown to him, so did Terry Sykes—as he grew, wherever he went. It was an important reminder of a truly life-changing event.
Then, in January of 2014, Daniel Tracy died at 85. The Daily News ran the photo again, and assigned Joe Kemp to write of his death and had Denis Slattery and Stephen Rex Brown cover the funeral. Together, they helped to unravel the mystery—and found Terry Sykes, now 50 years old, living in Virginia Beach, Va., married and the father of seven, a minister. And still grateful to Tracy.
“I’m so grateful and indebted to the family,” he said. “They had a wonderful father, a wonderful man. They lost a great one.” Sykes spoke of the effect Tracy had on his own family. “I always wanted to let my kids see the man who saved their father’s life. I told them, ‘He risked his life to save my life...and that’s why I was able to give you life’.”
Sykes was not able to attend the funeral, but his oldest daughter, Dashawn Sykes, 28, was there for the ceremony at St. Christopher’s Church in Baldwin, Long Island. “It’s an honor,” she said to Daniel Tracy Jr. “If it wasn’t for your Dad I wouldn’t be here right now, so it’s really a blessing. We’re family now.”
A lifetime ago, a New York City firefighter saved a baby boy. All in a day’s work? Maybe. But don’t try telling that to Terry Sykes. He simply won’t believe it.
For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org                        

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