From the April 2002 Firehouse Magazine
I worked the night before, and I was supposed to work overtime in Ladder 111 and there was an officer coming here. I had called over to Ladder 111 and Lieutenant Chris Sullivan was working Engine 214. I said, I’ll work in Engine 214. The officer who was coming here called up and said, oh, no, I’ll go over there. Then he called up Chris and he was going to do the same switch. Chris got an EMS run before the hour and he stayed in 214, and he died.
They said, turn on the TV. You could see the flames coming out. All the guys were asking me, you worked in Manhattan, you had high-rise fires. I remember telling them this fire’s not going out. We don’t put out high-rise fires that big. When the fuel level diminished, we went in and knocked down the fires.
I was in Rescue 1 for six years. We had a transformer one year. We had a fire in the elevator another year. We rarely had fires down there. We’re in the kitchen. We’re watching it and everybody is thinking the same thing, oh my God, people are going to die. Firemen are going to be hurt. We didn’t even want to even think that. While we’re watching it, the second plane hit, and we got called to respond. I ran upstairs and I got my cell phone and I was trying to call my father. He is a retired battalion chief in the FDNY and the first chief of Rescue Services. He works for the Port Authority.
We were responding to a staging area near the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Almost the whole way there I was frantic. I was calling my father at work. I was calling him on the cell phone. I was calling my mother on my cell phone. I called my sister and I’m wondering where is he because I know he works in Jersey City. He goes to a lot of meetings at the Trade Center. I didn’t get through. It was hairy driving over there because we had a view of it the whole time. We got to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and we were there maybe five or 10 minutes and they sent us.
There were a bunch of companies there. There were a couple of battalion chiefs with us. We were getting hit with the ashes on the other side of the tunnel. You didn’t really want to look at it too long. I had a great crew. I had Dennis Dowdican. He’s been my chauffeur for 10 years. Willie Roberts, who’s the other chauffeur in my 24 group, he’s got over 20 years. Richie Nogan’s got over 20 years. Bob Pino, another excellent fireman, he’s got 12 years. Tom Fisa, 16 years. Bill Morris, 16 years. I had a very experienced crew.
I was telling the guys to sit down, relax, this is going to be a long day. We got called to respond to a staging area in Manhattan. Just as we’re going into the tunnel, Tom Manley – he’s the sergeant-at-arms of the firefighters union, and a member of this company – comes running up and he tells us they hit the Pentagon. He rode through the tunnel with us. We’re driving through and I’m thinking, oh my God, this is war, maybe the tunnel is a target.
I tell my chauffeur go, just get through it, and we got through. We parked the rig at Liberty and West streets and I reported to the staging area and the chief. He said, 113 report to Building 2 at the command post. I went back to the rig and I told everybody get an extra bottle. Everybody check your mask here, get search ropes. I hadn’t even gotten my mask on yet.
All of a sudden, we hear these incredible explosions. And I look up. I thought fire was breaking out on the upper floors. And then the debris starting hitting and I ran. And the reason I ran was because I didn’t have my mask on. All the guys had their masks on, they hid under the rig. I ran across the street. I was getting hit with debris and I got knocked down. That dust, I had it in my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. All of a sudden, it went pitch black. I thought it was the end of the world. My exact words to myself were they dropped the bomb on us and I’m going to die. People talk about a near-death experience, but I was calm, I realized maybe I’m not going to die.
I got up again and I started running and then I got hit with a bunch of stuff. There were people to the left and right of me getting hit with debris. I wasn’t able to stop, but I’m sure they were getting killed. And then I happened to look to my right and I saw a wall. I ducked behind the wall and I heard more debris coming down. It was so quiet. You didn’t hear a sound. You didn’t hear a thing. I heard, help, fireman, help me, I can’t breathe. And I remember telling people, you can breathe and I was telling the people to go to the river. It was like you were in a thick fog. There was maybe two or three feet visibility. All of a sudden, people would start popping up and, you know, you could barely hear them. And you couldn’t even hear them until they were like right on top of you.
I realized I had to get back to my rig and see if my guys were OK. The fire truck was burning. There was so many ambulances burning it was incredible. You really couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of you. At this point, I still didn’t know what happened. I still thought that fire broke out on every floor or they dropped the bomb somewhere. I didn’t realize that the tower had collapsed. I could see fires in upper floors in all the buildings. When I got to the rig and I saw my guys I was relieved that they were all OK and then I felt a lot of pride that they were ready to go to work.
They got some equipment. I ran into Deputy Chief Tom Galvin, who had just come out of the Marriott Hotel. He came running up and he said 65 Engine and 58 Engine are trapped in the Marriott. They tied a search rope to a pillar where 58 Engine was trapped. When Chief Galvin told us about the guys in the Marriott, my chauffeur had an extinguisher and he was trying to put out the rig, and I told him forget about it. There were a couple of my guys who were trying to help civilians and I had to tell them to leave them, because in my mind, if you were walking or talking, you were OK. That was a hard thing to do. There were some people who were bleeding and moaning, but you had to leave them.
I said we’ve got to get into the Marriott. I told the guys get the sawzall. They already had the airbags. We went into the Marriott Hotel and I ran into a guy coming out who told me that there are firemen trapped in there. I grabbed him and told him to come with me. He took us back and when I got there, there were two guys from 58 Engine and one of them I knew. He said our lieutenant’s trapped in here.
I was trying to assess the situation. The best way I’ve been able to describe it is if you took an accordion and you squished it completely, and then tried to cut a little piece out of it. He was OK. He was talking to us. He told us there were two chiefs and there was another company behind them. I also heard a Mayday from a company on the first floor in the Marriott and I responded to them and I told them, we’re going to get you out, then we were starting to cut with the saws.
One of Engine 58’s firefighters, Mike Fitzpatrick, was there. We gave him the portable sawzall and I told another guy we’re under a void. I told John Wilson from 58 to keep an eye on the void. Mike Fitzpatrick and I crawled in and he started cutting to remove debris so we could get the lieutenant out. The lieutenant had asked for a flashlight. He told us he was OK and he kept asking how are his guys, he kept telling us about the guys behind him. It looked like a lot of ducts, pipes, aluminum and shelves. I mean, there was just so much stuff. Huge pipes, small pipes. There were a bunch of heating and ventilation ducts, just a tremendous amount of debris.
We were able to get about 10 feet in before we actually had to start cutting. We only had five to seven feet because we cut away about three or four feet. I sent Richie Nogan and Bob Pino out to get more equipment. I wanted a Hurst tool and I wanted the electric sawzall. I knew we were going to be there a long time. I wanted cribbing. I thought the Hurst tool would be best to spread, crib, spread, crib.
Even the guy next to me asks me, you were in Rescue 1, weren’t you? I said yeah, I was in Rescue 1, but I never saw anything like this. I don’t care how many years on the job you had, how many years you spent in any rescue company, this was just beyond anybody’s capability.
A section of the lobby of the Marriott, the ceiling tiles were still intact. Which is incredible. Basically, the rest of the building came down in the section where he was located. If you were inside that reinforced area, you lived because that’s why I’m alive. While we’re in the Marriott, we’re cutting away and it just seemed like an impossible feat, but I figured given time we were going to get him out. I remember even telling him yeah, we’re going to get you out. He kept saying I’m OK, I’m OK.
After the first collapse, there was nothing on the radio. I was trying to call my guys and they weren’t answering. And then all of a sudden, when I was in the Marriott, then I started hearing Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. My guys kept saying, there’s a Mayday, but I had to tune it out because we had to take care of our own situation. One of my guys stayed with me and two other guys from 58 Engine came in with a partner saw. This wasn’t something that you could use a partner saw on. I was afraid of the vibrations and so I told the one guy to keep an eye on that void on the overhang.
Mike Fitzpatrick and I went into the hole and after that I don’t remember. They told me that I yelled, get out. They told me that they heard a rumble. The guys from 58 were in the Marriott when the first tower came down, so when they heard that rumble, they knew it was a major collapse. I woke up for about a second or two. They found me in the lobby about 15 or 20 feet from where I had been. Apparently, I got hit with some stuff and thrown across the room. The only reason they found me is because they saw my flashlight.
One of the guys came up. He said, are you OK, and I said no, I said, I’m losing it. They got kind of worried and they ended up carrying me out up over 40 feet of rubble. When they got me to the top of the rubble, one of the guys tried to throw me over his shoulder and that’s when I woke up for a second. I had five fractured ribs. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital six hours later.
The guys did a great job. They got me to the fireboat and they took me to a Jersey City hospital. I think I was in the same boat as Al Fuentes. I worked with Al in Rescue 1. I had a concussion. I got stitches on my chin, about 25 stitches in the back of my head. I had five fractured ribs. I was bruised on my back from my hips all the way up to my neck. My lower back was hurt, my neck, my right shoulder was hurt, my hip. Both kneecaps were bruised. I was out almost four months.
The thing that was weird was being in the hospital and not knowing what went on. From what I understand, they had me listed as MIA. They actually listed me as DOA, I believe. There’s an office at 113. My brother was there for 12 hours. He didn’t know what happened. He just knew that my rig was burned. Now I have two cousins on the job also that went down there and all they knew was they saw my rig and they heard that I was the officer that day, but they didn’t know where I was.
When I woke up in the hospital, the doctor said to me, did you hear your men are OK, your father’s OK? I didn’t know for six hours. I knew my brother wasn’t working, so I didn’t have to worry about him. With any line-of-duty death, you know the names, the company, you know how long they’ve been on the job. That’s why this is so mind boggling.