This is what happened to me on 9-11-01. I woke up at around 5:50 am Tuesday morning to beat the traffic into work. The first thing I remember about the day is that I went into the girls’ room to kiss Luann goodbye. I kissed her on the head and expected her to wake up for a second and say goodbye and “be careful”. It is a habit of hers to say this as it is with her parents to say, “be careful”. Even if I am going to 7-11 to get milk she will say, “be careful”. It struck me as being odd that either she didn’t say it or I didn’t hear it. Either way I admit it did gnaw on my mind a few times that morning. I regret not kissing the girls goodbye, which sometimes I do and sometimes I do not. I just remember that this morning I did not. It was an uneventful drive into work, probably listening to study tapes or the radio I don’t remember.
When I got to work I relieved someone from the OV position, I think it was Junior but I am not sure and it doesn’t really matter anyway. At around 8:45 or so someone had announced over the PA of a second alarm in Manhattan and we all started to watch the TV and saw what everyone else saw and heard. A plane had hit the North tower the World Trade Center and fire was blowing out of at least three or four floors. Me, Bobby Unger and Kevin McCabe climbed up to the roof on the engine side of the firehouse to get a better look and could not believe what we were seeing. I figured we would be relocated at best, and Bobby was hoping so he could get the overtime, as anyone of us would have been hoping.
We were assigned to the 4th or 5th alarm just before 9:00 and proceeded to the Brooklyn side of the Battery Tunnel. I remember Owen was running late because he had to shampoo his daughter’s hair that morning for class pictures, so we kicked Gonzo to the engine at the last minute to wait for Owen. It was a pretty slow turn out, not that it was that important at the time, although we all came to figure timing WAS everything for us that day. I even remember commenting to someone “another shotgun turn out from the truck”, half kidding. Lieutenant Greg McLetchie was the officer, Firefighter Kevin “redbone” McCabe was the Chauffer, I had the OV (outside ventilation), Firefighter Casey had the roof, Firefighter David Vitello had the can and Firefighter John Leanza had the irons.
We respond to the Brooklyn side of the Battery tunnel and we all get out except for Kevin who has to listen up to the radio. We are trying to divert traffic, talk to the other units that are there and watch the tower. I believe L-101, L-132, L-105, and L-131 were at this staging area, I’m not to sure but I definitely remember seeing John Vigiano from L-132, who is missing still. Now we see the 2nd plane come in and hit the south tower of the World Trade Center and are in total disbelief.
We get assigned to go into the city and we all run to the rigs and make our way into the Tunnel. While in the tunnel Lieutenant McLetchie turns to us in the back and says something like “boys this will be a day you will never forget, lets try to use our heads” or something to that affect. We are in the tunnel making good time until about 3/4’s of the way thru when we come to a stand still. I remember telling Casey I didn’t feel real comfortable in the tunnel with everything going on outside, still not knowing it was definitely a terrorist attack. I even said, best-case scenario, the first plane was a small piper and the pilot had a heart attack and the second was a news plane that got to close, (wishful thinking). It turned out that there was a car driving from the city into Brooklyn that was stalled with two flat tires. All the fire trucks had to get into one lane at the bottleneck and then make a right out of the tunnel. At the time the two flat tires seemed to be really bad luck for the guy that was in the car but again timing WAS everything.
We were driving up West Street the wrong way up a one way but by this time the Police Department had traffic cleared so there wasn’t a problem.
A little ways up the street we started to see the metal and glass on the street. It was then that was realized some of the debris were bodies. Not full bodies but parts of torso’s and legs and unrecognizable parts. I remember Kevin swerving to avoid running things over and then after a while just hearing things crush under the wheel, knowing if it was metal, glass, or remains.
Driving past the Towers there was some concerns from the Lt and Kevin on where to park and I am sure Kevin did not want to triple park the rig, which was a good call on his part since I don’t think the trucks behind us worried about that and again timing WAS everything. We pull in nose to nose with Ladder 4, I think, get out of the rig with search ropes, and grab extra cylinders.
Since I had the OV I remember knowing I could get away with taking a set of irons, which I did because they are easier to carry when they are married up, and I figured we would be doing a lot of stairs that day. For that same reason, I remember grabbing Eddie Gonzales’s officers light off his coat rack prior to turning out for the run and thinking it might come in handy in the city, which it did.
I remember when we were getting close to the towers it sounded as if someone was shooting of a cannon or something, it sounded like explosives but with a duller noise. Now we are off the rig getting the tools and extra cylinders and looking up at the building I realized the sound was the people that were jumping, hitting the ground.
To me that was the most horrific thing of the day, not the sight of the people falling, which was bad enough, but they sound of them hitting the ground. I could not see them hitting, you could just see them falling for about 3 or 4 seconds and then they would go out of sight and then the noise. Words cannot explain the feeling I had.
Some how the Lieutenant knew to go to the Command Post across the street from the towers. On the way there we were running around debris and watching the people jump.
Kevin yelled to me that my (Eddies) flashlight was hanging off the strap so I had to stop, readjust the strap and fix the strap on my mask, taking up about 30 seconds. I remember looking over at the guys while I was doing this and they had this look like, what a spaz, lets go, lets go. No one likes to have to wait for one guy on the way to a job, especially with the kind of things that were going on now. Again, about 30 seconds off the clock, timing WAS everything.
We get to the Command post, put down out spare cylinders with the 30 or so others already there and watch as more and more people are jumping out of the building. One after another, some holding hands, maybe one hitting the ground while one is on the way down and another just jumping. It was unreal.
Now someone at the command posts takes control and shouts out Trucks on the left, Engines on the right. We go over to the left side and get assigned to the south tower to meet some Chief. Meanwhile the whole time we are at the Command Post guys are yelling, oh my god, and one guy above the rest is yelling, don’t look, turn around, but I couldn’t help but look. It was surreal.
We are running to the south tower against the wall of the building to go under the overhead walkway to Liberty Street. When we get to the end of the walkway there is a couple of companies and they are all running into the restaurant entrance to the hotel lobby one company at a time like in a war movie. Our time comes and I am saying to myself I can’t believe I am doing this. The reason being, debris is still falling from the building. Now we are in the lobby and it is as if there is nothing going on at all. Most civilians that could be evacuated are out even though there is still a handful leaving, but there is no panic at all. Aside from the noise of the bodies hitting the ground it is as if there is nothing happening.
We muster in the lobby and someone mentions it is going to be a long day, and lets not tire ourselves out this early, and that we should take off our masks and jackets but to be ready to go up when directed. So like everyone else I take off my mask and put down my tools and gloves. Now Casey says to the Lieutenant, as I am sure he mentioned earlier in the morning on the way in that he had to use the bathroom. The Lieutenant says ok, hurry up, and I decide it would be a good idea to go myself since I don’t know when the next chance would be. So Casey and me leave the lobby area, go into the rear of the restaurant to the bathrooms. Casey’s in front so he goes in first and I see 2 or 3 other firemen in there so I figure to use the ladies room which is right next door. I yell in to the bathroom, no one answered and used the latrine.
I remember FF’s by the bathrooms using the public phones also. God only knows whom they called and if it was the last time they talked to their wives, parents, children to whomever.
I got done, I opened the men’s room door and called for Casey, he seemed to be in the middle of his business so I headed back to the front of the restaurant. I could see the Lieutenant and also down into the restaurant to the bathroom doors. Minutes later I see the Lieutenant and Kevin waving me over and giving me the thumbs up sign saying lets go were going up.
I went back to the bathroom, not sprinting but maybe jogging, open the bathroom door and called for Casey who was coming out. We both went back to the lobby to get our gear on while the rest of the truck gave us that look I was talking about earlier about waiting for someone to go to work. Now all the other truck companies were dressed and walking to the stairway while I was getting Casey from the bathroom and they all had about a 1 minute, if that much head start on us. Again timing WAS everything.
I put my mask on, put the strap for the flashlight on, put on the waist straps for the mask and adjusted them so the light would stay on and I would not be carrying the mask on my shoulders all day. I bent over to pick up my gloves, and then the shit hit the fan.
The building started to shake, there was a rumbling noise, guys started running and yelling get out and then the lights went out. I remember taking about 5 or 6 strides towards the entrance were we came in and was either tripped or thrown through the air in a forward direction. I remember grabbing onto my helmet which I constantly lose at jobs, putting my hands over my head, and laying on the carpet of the lobby, saying to myself “I can’t believe I am going to be killed”, over and over again. Every muscle of my body was as tight as it could be as I waited for the fatal blow to land on my back and blow the air out of my lungs and kill me.
The noise of the building falling around us was deafening. I would like to say it sounded like a freight train but that analogy is pale in comparison. It got so loud that I think my ears could not hear anything louder, they were maxed out. I did not think of my wife, I did not think of my children, and I did not think Oh god. I just thought “I can’t believe I am going to be killed here”.
I was hoping I would not feel anything hit my legs, that I wanted the impact to be straight down on my back so I would not have to suffer. And as long as it took that building to collapse, that’s how long I lay there waiting. Then the noise stopped and the vibration stopped and it was just darkness and unbreathable air from the dust. I laid there for another second and heard guys moving and yelling and I got up and continued going in the forward direction knowing the way I came in was the way I wanted to go out. I started moving forward and ran into a bunch of guys saying, “Go back you can’t get out this way, go back”.
I knew I was not going back to were I was only because I knew that was bad there and this was way good. I grabbed the firefighter next to me, Tyrone from 24 Eng I came to find out later, and said to him “Don’t go back, this is the way out, don’t go back”. Now I am not sure if I said that to help him out or because I didn’t want to be left alone, but anyway he stayed.
I turned on the flashlight that I had taken from Eddie and could only see a few feet in front of me but saw enough to know that there was a huge pile of the building in front of us, I looked over to the left and things did not look any better. Then I looked over to the right and saw what I thought at the time was a hole about as big as a truck tire. I crawled over to the hole, crawled through, then realized I was crawling down into a crater, and then up again. As I started up I realized that the dark blackness I was in was changed to a dark shade of gray. That’s when I knew I was outside, I assumed Tyrone followed me out because I did not see again.
What I did next still surprises me and I cannot for the life of me understand why I didn’t keep going, I figure it was my training, working with senior firefighters from my company or just not having time to think, but I turned around. I crawled back through the hole I crawled out of and started yelling at the top of my lungs to the other firefighters in the building, “Hey guys, over here, hey guys come on out” and things like that.
Now I distinctly remember a civilian coming out with a leather briefcase in his hand with two leather straps and one was broken. I was helping him up the crater and yelled let go of the briefcase, let go of the brief case, and he said to me “I’m OK” meanwhile he is using one hand to climb, the other on the stupid briefcase and people are behind him and he never did let go of it. So now I turn around and see Dave and Casey come out of the hole and beeline it in two different directions, as if they were running away from each other. Later on Dave said he was following Casey and he fell and lost him from the dust in his eyes.
When I see them two get out and other firemen climbing out like ants out of an anthill, I figure now I can leave. I get to the walkway that we ran from before commando style, get on the radio and start calling for the Lieutenant. When I couldn’t get him I started calling for Kevin who I eventually got, and thought I heard the Lieutenant, although I wasn’t sure, I was pretty sure about the Lieutenant. I figured for sure John was dead.
Then I just turned from the building and kept walking, thinking if I ran I would run into a piece of falling debris. I walked to the overhead walkway and under it and then just kept walking. As is, there was a man identified himself as a FDNY doctor asked me if I was alright and I told him I was, I don’t think he believed me. I just wanted to get back to the truck and regroup with my company.
I walked to the water where hundreds of people were trying to get on the ferries and tug boats that were at the bulkheads. I remember a Chinese woman taking a child out of a stroller and handing the child to the person in front of her and the child was crowd surfed to the railing and dropped to the men on the boats about ten feet below. I also remember a pregnant women coming up to me telling me she was in labor. I put my hand on the belly and told her not to worry, it was just nerves, and to keep walking. I am not sure what happened to her but I know I was in no shape to help her at all.
I found a fireman from Eng 240 and together we walked around for some time and decided to go back to the site to see if we could find our companies.
Throughout the day, I helped stretch lines, put out small car and truck fires, and basically walk around in a daze not really knowing what to do or where to go. I tried to call Luann a couple of times with different phones, but I could not get through, so I figured to try to call Nanny Nagle in Brooklyn, and I got through.
I was a mess, I was trying not to cry and seem upset but I don’t think I did that good of a job. I told her to call Luann and tell her I was all right and that I loved her.
I then met up with George Marsh from Eng 220. He was working on a pumper supplying three or four different lines. I was so glad to see him although he had no idea where the rest of my company was. I walked around some more, found other members of Eng 220 and stuck with them. At some time the covering Captain of 220 said “lets go by the water and get out of the dust and smoke”, so we found a spot near the piers and rested. I laid down with my head resting on the inside of my helmet and that was it for me.
My whole body shut down, every muscle ached. My arm, back, shoulder, legs neck, everything hurt. Dean from Eng 220 and I decided that we were done for the day and started to look for a triage area to get checked out. While we were walking I borrowed a phone from a city cop and called Luann. It was such a relief to hear her voice that I just broke down and cried like a child. I was hurting so bad inside and I felt so alone, I just wanted to go home and hug her and tell her how much I love her. I knew she was scared because she was crying also but I was happier to hear her voice than I was worried about her being scared.
I was alive and that was the important thing. Dean and me hitched a ride on some sort of golf cart vehicle and got to the triage area. The nurses were great and there were some firemen from 79 or 78 truck that also made me feel like I was going to be taken care of. The first thing I asked for after I was put on the board and had my eyes washed out, was for a priest. One of the nurses asked if I was kidding, and I said if there is one here, I want to talk to him. So she yelled across the triage area, “we need a priest here”. I told her to take it easy, I didn’t want anyone to think I was dying; I just wanted to make a confession.
The priest came over and all the nurses and doctors just stood there, so I asked them for some privacy, and when they walked away I started to cry again and grabbed at the priest and asked him if I could make a confession. He said okay and I just told him I did a lot of bad things and it had been a very, very long time since my last confession and I wanted absolution. I don’t know if he gave me absolution because I was pulling on his collar or if he really meant it. I’m saying he meant it.
After that the nurses and doctors came back and I asked if Dean and me could be taken to Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn since it is right around the corner from the firehouse. The ambulance drivers said no problem and were great, the guys from the Staten Island truck made sure our gear and my radio got on the ambulance. I think only fireman would appreciate that, everything I brought to the job just about came back with me. Although, I did give my search rope and Eddies light to Patty Byrnes and Mike Motterati, two retired guys who I saw during the day that were looking to get into the mix and help out.
At the hospital Dean and me were in pretty good spirits considering what we had gone through. I got X-rayed and they gave me a Valium, the hospital staff were great also. They treated us like celebrities. I called the firehouse and Steve Scotto answered the phone and said he would come by to pick us up with his car. Dean called his wife and she came and took him home.
I got to the firehouse and veged out on the Valium for a while and while talking to someone realized that the North Tower had fallen also. I had no idea all day, shows you what kind of a daze I was in.
Slowly all the guys that I left with on the truck that morning came in. Every time one guy came in it was a love fest, crying, laughing, hugging. I will never forget the feeling of looking over at each one of these men and thinking of what we had gone thru together and how lucky each one of us were.
We were the ONLY company to survive the collapse of the south tower as far as I know. The six of us will share a bond with each other for the rest of our lives. I love those guys.