Firefighter John Breen

From the April 2002 Firehouse Magazine

Firefighter John Breen Engine 74 - 3 years

I came in for the day tour. Heard the dispatch over the voice alarm. We were watching the television. Within a few minutes, we were dispatched on the second fifth alarm for the south tower. Two firefighters remained behind. Responding were Lieutenant Nichols, Firefighter Mike Shagy was the chauffeur, Pat Carey, Jeff Johnson, Ruben Carrera and myself. We took the West Side Highway and pulled up one-two blocks away at West and Vesey.

As I walked to the Marriott Hotel I looked up and said how are we going to fight this? The officer told us to walk as far away from the building as possible. One body was visible in the street. We entered the lobby of the hotel. One of the senior guys, Ruben Carrera, said stay close to me. He said loosen your coat, don’t overheat. He said look, I’m scared too. We have to put that in the back of our minds.

We reported to Chief Tom Galvin of Division 3. Engines were on one side and trucks were on the other. I remember seeing Ladder 25, Engine 40, Ladder 35, Engine 54 and Ladder 4, Ladder 11, Engine 23 and Ladder 12. Our orders were to search the top floor, there was a report of people trapped. Engine 54, Ladder 11, we, Engine 23 and possibly one more company was assigned. We took the elevator by ourselves to the 18th floor and walked up to the pool, spa and gym. We searched the area with negative results. We could see where a piece of landing gear wound up in the Jacuzzi. The pool was intact.

We walked back down to the 21st floor and down the hallway to the elevator. We were waiting for the elevator when Lieutenant Nichols said the elevator is running slow, let’s walk down the stairs to where we left the other elevator. We walked south to the south stairwell in single file. We heard the building starting to come down. The building started to sway like a ship. I could hear creaking. It felt like we were in a hurricane. I didn’t think it was the whole tower, but just a section. Everybody froze in place. Somebody said building collapse. I heard it getting louder and louder like an approaching train. You could hear the floors one on top of each other like dominoes, boom and boom.

I stayed where I was and braced for it. I didn’t think I was going to die. Maybe I’ll get stuck in a void and ride it out. I felt like I might get trapped, but I would be able to get myself out. I waited to go through the floor or wall. As it hit a huge gust of wind pushed me flat on my face. It felt like a 260-pound linebacker hit you.

The debris started to blow over me. I started to cough. I wiped my mouth; it was like paste on my glove. I could hear other firefighters coughing, so I knew they were all right. The guys were yelling each other’s names, put on flashlights. I knew everybody in the front was OK. We started to yell for Ruben. Jeff was calling for Ruben. I turned around and it was about 10 feet away where there was just rubble from when the building collapsed. The hallway was intact. The electricity was knocked out. Sheetrock and metal were hanging.

I was in shock, I couldn’t believe I was that close to being trapped. The officer gave a Mayday. Jeff went to the wall of debris and started to pull pieces off to see if there was a void. They couldn’t find any. The officer asked what hotel room I was near. I said 2106-08. I noticed half the room was missing. I could see right out and down. I couldn’t hear any response from down below. I thought maybe the radio wasn’t working when we got no response. The only transmission was from a firefighter from a ladder company. Mayday, Mayday, I’m trapped and I don’t know where I am, I’m running out of air.

We knew we had to get out and get help. We walked down the stairwell. We met Ladder 12 on a lower floor. At the sixth floor there was debris blocking the stairway and you couldn’t go any further. I walked into one of the suites. One of the truckies breached the wall with a halligan tool. They decided they were going to tie off a hose with a substantial knot and slide down the hose out the window. That would be a six-floor drop. Somebody remembered seeing a rope on an upper floor. Two members of Ladder 12 went back upstairs to retrieve the rope.

Lieutenant Nichols said we have to get around the rubble and make it to a lower floor. Jeff Johnson climbed down half a story and cleared the debris. On the fifth floor he found five civilians. Everyone started to follow the way down the stairs. I was the last one to make it to the third floor. On the third floor there was an opening in the stairwell. Jeff and Pat Carey jumped out onto a patio. They took a lightweight beam and situated it so they could crawl out. They called out for the civilians to climb out. One by one they were assisted held by curtains from a room. I felt like I was doing something to help. Ten firefighters and five civilians were making their way down slowly.

Two firefighters, two civilians and myself were left when the second building started to come down. I said not again and braced for it. I said please God, let me get through this one. As it came down it got dark right away. A cloud of dust hit us. One of the civilians was around 80 years old. I saw him moving. I grabbed his hand and said stay with me. As it came down I was thinking there is someone with you, you are not alone. You have some air and near an opening and it won’t be that bad if I am trapped.

After the noise, I started to hear voices from the outside. We’re not trapped too badly. As the dust cleared I could see outside. My luck today is amazing. I looked out and everybody was scattered to get cover in other areas. In front of me was Lieutenant Nichols. Before the patio was open, now it was covered in debris like a bunker and foxhole.

Jeff was yelling. I’m thinking he’s stuck somewhere impaled on debris over him. That’s when Lieutenant Nichols said Jeff was yelling for Pat Carey. I assumed Jeff was OK, now I was worried about Pat. The two of us were able to get the two civilians down. There was a lot of rubble and steel.

I made my way down an I-beam and down several stories of rubble. The first collapse took out the middle of the hotel. The second collapse took out everything else except the four stories at the south end. I was screaming for Pat, wondering where he might be. I thought he was gone.

It was a sunny day, but looked cloudy. It looked like a movie set. Ambulances and fire trucks were wrecked and burning. I saw a rescue firefighter and turned the old man with us over to him. I told him we had firefighters trapped. We met up with Jeff later on. He said he was able to get three civilians out and was trapped on a lower floor.

We made a phone call to the firehouse and found out Pat was in the hospital. He was trapped on the second floor, but made it out. Ruben Carrera is still missing. I was thankful for Ruben‘s help. I believe he helped me get out and was there for me the whole way through.