NEW YORK — Seven years after helping his two brothers and their dad carry the body of a fourth brother, Jimmy, from the wreckage at Ground Zero, firefighter Thomas Riches will get to pray there with Pope Benedict XVI during a small ceremony on Sunday.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, that I’m going to have the honor and the privilege of going down there,” Riches, 23, told The Post about being one of just two dozen 9/11 relatives, survivors and rescue workers picked to meet the pope when he honors those who died at the Twin Towers. “I was stunned. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’
“It’s always been sacred ground since it happened,” Riches said. “It’s Pearl Harbor to me.”
The Brooklyn man was just 15 when Jimmy and other firefighters from Engine 4 went into the World Trade Center’s north tower on Sept. 11, 2001, a day short of Jimmy’s 30th birthday. A former NYPD cop, Jimmy Riches had two years before followed in the footsteps of his dad and joined the FDNY.
Jimmy Riches “was just very fun, and had good energy around him,” said Thomas Riches. “If you were down, and you went by his house, you forgot all of your problems.”
Jimmy’s body was found March 25, 2002 “right near a stretcher [where he had been] helping somebody else” when he died, said his dad, now-retired Deputy Chief James Riches. “That’s the sign of a hero. He stayed.”
Soon after his death, Jimmy’s younger brother, Timmy, now 35, became a firefighter. He was followed over the years by their two other brothers, 25-year-old Danny and Thomas.
“Every time you go to work, you remember,” Thomas said.
When the New York Archdiocese announced a lottery to select people to meet with Pope Benedict at Ground Zero, a friend of Thomas, unbeknownst to him, entered his name.
A few days before last Saturday’s annual memorial Mass for Jimmy Riches, Thomas got a call saying he had been selected.
“I think it’s great,” said Thomas about the upcoming event, where Benedict will say a prayer, light a candle for the dead and bless the ground with holy water.
James Riches credits Thomas’ selection to Jimmy “looking over him.”
“They had such a close bond,” said James Riches, who will be waiting for Thomas at the top of the entrance ramp at Ground Zero during the ceremony Sunday.