As Tom Rice of Port Washington sifted through the rubble of the World Trade Center, he took breaks to write back to children who sent letters to New York City police officers and firefighters.
“I didn’t want the kids to think they were forgotten,” Rice, then a New York police officer, said. “I think that was really the big reason why. They sent them for a reason, and I’ve always had a passion for kids and it kind of took me out of the zone and out of the fog to write back.”
One of the letters he found was from Eric Goebel, a middle school student outside Lincoln, Nebraska, who put a little extra thought into that day’s English class assignment to write to the New York officers in the days after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I felt, I wouldn’t say empathy because at a young age I hadn’t gone through something like that, but I felt fear for the families of the police officers and firefighters who risked their lives to save other lives and find bodies,” Goebel said. “I put a little more heart into it than a lot of kids, rather than just taking it as an everyday assignment.”
When Rice replied, however, he sent more than a letter, giving Goebel the New York City Police Department uniform shirt off his back, covered in burn marks from his work at Ground Zero. The gift garnered national media attention, which Rice said was never his intention.
Goebel said he was troubled growing up and was placed in a teenage group home shortly before graduating from middle school. Rice knew Goebel was struggling with school and had promised if he graduated, he would make the journey from New York to attend the ceremony.
“He was having a tough time, and he came from a tough family,” Rice said. “I flew down and went to his class, and he was floored. I think it shocked the whole school that I said I was going to do it and I actually did it.”
Rice brought “Remember 9/11” T-shirts for the class and changed Goebel’s life forever with the gesture. After graduation, Rice flew Goebel to New York City for his first vacation to the Big Apple.
The two have stayed in touch ever since, forming a father-son relationship despite the 1,300-mile gap between them.
“I knew Eric was a special person. I knew that he just needed a boost to get himself moving once in a while,” Rice said. “He needed a male mentor to step in and say to him, ‘You can do this. I don’t think what you did was right, but I still love you. I’m going to be here for you.’ And he always did.”
Goebel said he has kept everything Rice ever gave him, and the pair talk a few times a month. Goebel said Rice plans to attend his wedding next August in Nebraska.
“The selflessness is a big part of it because he always wants to make sure that I’m OK, that I’m doing all right, that I’m in a good place in my life,” Goebel said.
“I always looked up to him as kind of a father figure. Mine was kind of absent because of drugs, so when I wanted to stray to other things in my life because I was so upset, he was always the one I’d call and talk me out of it, regardless of whether it was something I wanted to hear or something I just needed to hear. It was always easy to confide in him.
“There’s nothing I’m ever going to be able to do to express my gratitude for what he has helped me accomplish in myself mentally.”
Though Goebel had never touched New York soil before the 9/11 attacks, he said his relationship with Rice has strengthened the feelings he has about the officers who worked day and night at Ground Zero.
“I wasn’t involved in it, but I feel like a part of that holds heavy in my heart just for the simple fact that I got to know somebody that was there and all the emotion he had during it,” Goebel said. “You can hear it in his voice; he still has that pain he felt for all those people.”
Rice’s two children, Sarah Rice Lombardi and Tyler Rice, and his wife, Donna, said that the relationship with Goebel is a shining example of Rice’s selflessness and generosity to try to improve the community.
“This is just a glimpse of the care and commitment my dad shows for others,” Lombardi said. “For those who know him know that this is not unique; his big heart and ability to support others is evident to anyone he meets.”