I never met Angel Juarbe, and by the time I learned about him right after Sept. 11, 2001, he was already dead. But I think of him every year on this day, thanks to the friends he made here in Knoxville. We will never forget him.
Here’s Bean’s tribute story, first published Sept. 11, 2002.
The big jar marked “Engine #3, Ladder 12,” on the counter of the Vol Market #3 on Western Avenue is filling up with money. Behind the counter, a broken-hearted Alan Frye is talking about how he’s going to get a new tattoo.
Frye won $40,000 as runner-up in the Fox TV reality-based series Murder in Small Town X. He survived until the final episode, which came down to a contest between two likable young men – the easy-going blond Tennessean and a New York City fireman of Puerto Rican descent with an incandescent smile.
The two became fast friends – Angel Juarbe nicknamed Frye “Country” and taught him to dance the salsa; Frye told Juarbe stories about his homies, and invited him for a long weekend in Knoxville, much of which Juarbe spent sitting on an upturned milk crate (which he said was a New York tradition) out front of the Vol Market, sipping sweet tea, signing autographs and talking to folks.
One of the people Juarbe came to town to see was Porter Jones, a 60-year-old Vol Market regular who had been disabled by a stroke, and whose vocabulary was limited to what Frye describes as a few choice words. “Angel told me he wanted to come to Knoxville and meet Porter,” Frye said. Jones and Juarbe had their pictures taken together.
When Juarbe collected his first-place prizes – $250,000 and a Jeep Liberty – he gave the Jeep to his dad. He told everyone that he had no intention of quitting his job, which he loved.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Juarbe was on duty at the Chelsea Fire Station in lower Manhattan, just blocks from the World Trade Center. A Fox TV producer gives this account on the Fox website:
“Angel was helping to evacuate people from the twin towers when the tower he was in – the first of the two towers to fall – collapsed. He was – according to reports – anywhere from the first floor to the fifth floor.”
Juarbe’s company had been ordered out of the unstable building, but he went back to retrieve rappelling equipment, and he stayed to help some injured people who were trapped inside.
The producer says his lasting image of Angel is from an episode of the show when he scooped up a fellow cast member who had become hysterical after a stressful scene and carried her to safety.
“As she sobs, he soothes her panic by simply saying over and over, ‘It’s Angel. It’s Angel,’ and he carries her off to safety. In his career, how many times had Angel given comfort to strangers with those simple words?”
Back in Knoxville, as Bloody Tuesday wore on, Angel’s friends became more and more anxious as they heard reports of lost firefighters. Porter Jones, watching the TV coverage, suffered an aneurysm and died. It was that kind of terrible day.
“If I had to lose (the TV competition) to anybody, it was an honor to lose to Angel Juarbe,” Frye said. “We built a real friendship.” Frye took his friend to Meadowview Baptist Church, where Juarbe left a visitor’s card asking for continued prayers “…for firemen across the country who risk their lives every day to help others.”
There is to be a memorial service for the rescue workers this weekend in New York City. The cast and crew from Murder in Small Town X will be there. Alan Frye will be sporting a new tattoo.
A halo encircling the numbers 911.