9/11 first responder finds solace coaching baseball

Photo: Ricky Flores and Peter Carr, Journal News

9/11 first responder finds solace coaching baseball

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9/11 first responder finds solace coaching baseball

Billy Casey is a steady influence in the eyes of his players.

The Lakeland (N.Y.) baseball coach rarely gets too high or too low, which is why his young team has been able to keep calm in so many pressure-packed situations this postseason.

But there’s another side to Casey that he prefers to keep beneath the surface. A first responder on 9/11, there are certain scars that will never heal.

A tattoo on his left calf serves as a reminder, which led to a recent inquiry from his sophomore ace.

“I asked him about it the other day, and it brought me to a whole new level with coach Casey,” said left-hander Joey Vetrano. “I didn’t know he was that strong mentally. What he described to me about that day, it was crazy. … It’s horrible, but I got to see the emotional side of coach Casey.”

Many of his current players were babies at the time — or in Vetrano’s case, not even born.

Seventeen years later, the memories remain vivid for Casey.

“Some of the details I witnessed down there,” he said, pausing, “they’re hard to talk about.”

He was scaling the stairs in the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed. They received orders to get out of the building, but Casey was concerned about his captain, Billy Burke.

“I realized the captain wasn’t with us, so I left my group and started heading up,” he recalled. “At that time, a civilian came down and needed help. I gave him some of my oxygen. I got help from another fireman from another company, and we walked him down — all 27 floors — got to the lobby and realized the whole lobby was blown out.”

As they raced out with the civilian toward an ambulance, the North Tower began to crumble.

“It was like a movie,” Casey said. “I didn’t know what was going on. When I turned, the fireman and the other guy weren’t there. They dove behind the ambulance, and I just dove up against a fence. … I got hit with a lot of rubble, different things like that, and I was praying that it wasn’t the end.”

Casey survived, but Burke, like so many others, perished.

In the days and weeks that followed, a state of depression set in and the nights became increasingly restless.

“People explain certain things to you, like survivor’s guilt,” he said. “I had that — I know I did. I still do. You’re saying, ‘I was going back up to the captain.’ We saved that civilian, but I always think that he probably saved us, in reality. We got out with him, so it’s crazy stuff that goes through your head.”

Out of the blue, he was approached about helping with the Lakeland High School baseball program, where he would eventually take over as the freshmen coach.

“You have to start forgetting about certain things,” he said. “Your mind is focused on that all of the time, and it wasn’t fair to my kids, my wife. … As my sons got older, I needed something else.”

Over the course of 10 years with the program, Casey ascended to become the varsity head coach four seasons ago — and this has been the best one yet.

Lakeland lost 12 players to graduation last offseason, which prompted Casey to promote several members of a strong sophomore class, led by Vetrano. They experienced growing pains and went 10-9 in the regular season.

Now they’re the final Section 1 team standing in the New York state playoffs.

The young Hornets, who will play Section 8 champion Wantagh in the state semifinals at 2 p.m., Friday, at Binghamton University, have remained cool under pressure, taking a cue from their coach.

“He’s really calm,” said Matt Schenck, one of only two senior starters for Lakeland. “He always shows us how to act the right way. When teams are chirping at us, he says, ‘Play our brand of baseball and don’t stoop down to that level. Always take the high road.’ ”

In the practices leading up to the biggest weekend the baseball team has had in years, the Hornets appear loose. The laughter is frequent, with players poking fun at Casey and the coach giving it right back.

In those moments, he’s reminded of how his unexpected journey into coaching has reinvigorated his lust for life. The scars remain, but the relationships he’s built, little by little, have helped him heal.

“You’re never at peace,” Casey said. “Trust me. It’s the way it goes. But I’m lucky I have a wife that’s been very supportive of me. I have two sons, grown men now, who have always had my back.

“But getting to do this and experience this … When you’re around certain kids and they make you laugh and smile all of the time, and you just love being around them and love coaching them, this helps me out more than you could ever imagine.”

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