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They walk by the building at 123 Liberty St. in lower Manhattan every day; sometimes in droves. Some walk straight by without looking or stopping at all, oblivious to the building and the significance they're passing. Others walk by, stop, turn and look, then continue on their way. Then there are those that, while walking by, stop completely, then slowly inch their way through the crowd up to the four cut-out rectangular windows that provide the only source of outside illumination into each of the huge, red overhead doors.
Once positioned at those windows, some will, shyly, try to glance inside, while others will, more aggressively, cup their eyes and press their faces firmly into the glass to try and get a better, first-hand look at exactly what's going on behind those massive bay doors. Still others, after stopping and then realizing where they are, get out their cameras and pose either themselves or the people they've come with against the front of the building, then take the pictures that could, literally, end up on the Christmas cards they'll be sending to friends and loved ones all across the country.
The building is the home of FDNY's Engine 10 and Ladder 10, and the street in front of the firehouse has once again been opened, some five years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Located closer than most people realize to the enormous crater (and now the slowly progressive work area) where at one time stood the proud twin towers of the World Trade Center, this FDNY firehouse has become a Mecca, so to speak, to tourists and native New Yorkers alike.
If that's what it's like on the outside of that firehouse on a daily basis, then what's it like on the inside? Larry Phillips, a 40-plus-year veteran of the fire and rescue services, spent an evening after supper recently around the "Ten House" kitchen table. He talked very candidly that night with some of the "Brothers" on their evening tour about their lives even before, during and after 9/11; and, in addition, about their feelings concerning a soon-to-be-released 1:32 scale die-cast model of FDNY's 10 Truck.
That being said, let's listen in on that conversation around the supper table at "Ten House."
Chief Instructor Larry Phillips: Would you please share your thoughts on how it feels to be one of the "brothers" and a firefighter with the FDNY?
Captain Tom Engel, 10 Truck: I've got 20 years on the job and I would trade it in an instant to start all over again. I'd go back to probie school if I could. I've had nothing but a great career over 20 years and I've enjoyed everywhere I've went.
Firefighter Vincent Geloso, Engine 10: I wouldn't go back to probie school; I'd start right here, again, meaning this house. It's the only place to be for me.
Firefighter Jed Tighe, chauffeur, 10 Truck: I wouldn't trade this job for any other job in the world...and not too many people can say they love going to work.
Larry: Did any of you, in your wildest dreams, ever expect an event such as what happened on 9/11 to occur during your career with the FDNY?
Captain Engel: Yes. During the year 2000, they made a big deal out of something happening at the time of the millennium. They also made a big deal of the previous World Trade Center incident of 1993. They knew they were going to come back...it was just a matter of what they were going to hit, where they were going to hit and when it was going to happen. Most of the people in the law enforcement field that I talked with felt it was going to happen before 2000. Yes, I thought something was going to happen, but this big, no, but, in hindsight we should have been aware that it was going to happen.
Larry: For those of you that are new "on the job" and in "Ten House" now since 9/11, did the events of 9/11 play a major part in your decision to try out for the FDNY?
Jed: We took the written test in 1999, the physical in 2000. We were on the list; it was just a matter of time. But when 9/11 happened, it just pushed us forward a bit; otherwise, we would probably have had to wait another year or two.
Larry: Would you have taken the test had 9/11 not happened?
Firefighter Kevin Barnabee, 10 Truck: Definitely. I still would have taken the test, but I was thinking of signing up for the Army or the Marines after that.
Vincent: No doubt...
Larry: How do you feel knowing that FDNY's 10 Truck, due to the graphics on each side, is probably the most recognized piece of fire apparatus in the world today?
Vincent: An honor...
Kevin: A great deal of pride...
Jed: I like to see the looks on people's faces when they see the truck for the first time and they do a "double take" and they point.
Vincent: It's amazing to be a part of it.
Captain Engel: I also feel a little bit embarrassed. I'm embarrassed because they make us better than everyone else and that's not the case. We're not better than any other company in New York City. We're just one company in New York City and I think that sometimes people feel we get too much attention and they're jealous of it and that's not the case.
Firefighter Sal Argano, Engine 10: We just get the attention because of where we're located.
Captain Engel: I do feel very proud, and the guys here are proud, every time we go out on a run. I feel nothing but honor to be the commanding officer here, but, at the same time, we've got companies in certain areas of Staten Island that are just as much worthy, but they're out in the boondocks and they don't get the recognition; they don't get any people that say anything about them. But you know what? Those guys working there are just as proud and honored to work in those companies as we are here, so sometimes I feel it's like a "disproportionate" attention.
Vincent: I feel that being in here - and everyone looks in here - that we represent not only the firefighters in the country, but all the firefighters all over the world, and that's amazing.
Larry: What are some of the comments you've heard and remembered when your rig (10 Truck) has been out on the street?
Captain Engel: Not about the fire department in particular, but basically about what happened on 9/11. There are a lot of people here that don't think planes hit the towers, and they tell us this...or, there's one guy around here that says five planes hit the towers, as he was here and saw it. But most of the people that we get are people that just happen to come to the site, turn around, see a firehouse and they're drawn to it like a moth to a flame. They say things like, "We're sorry for your loss." We don't want them to say "Sorry"; just come and visit and say "Hi"; but they feel awkward, and they don't know what to say.
Sal: A lot of people are looking; they just want to say something... and sometimes it comes out the wrong way, but they don't mean it, and we know they don't mean it.
Larry: What do you mean by the "wrong way"?
Sal: Things like, "Were you working that day?" That's the first question they ask, and, "How come you didn't die?"
Vincent: And, "How many people did you lose?"
Captain Engel: And then you say, "Five," and they say back, "Oh, that's not a lot."
Vincent: And one's too many.
Jed: One guy said, "You only lost five guys, and you're right across the street."
Captain Engel: So when they ask for a number, and you say, "We lost five guys (as there were six guys on the rig)," they say, "That's not a lot, some house lost 13."
Sal: One question was, "Where's the house that lost the most?"
Vincent: And, as we said, one's too many, but then, on the other hand, you get the person that comes in and doesn't say anything, he just shakes your hand.
Kevin: And the kids can say no wrong.
Sal: The kids can say whatever they want.
Larry: And with that, let's divide this. We're talking about the "adult" comments for the most part. Do school-age children visit this firehouse?
Captain Engel: There aren't too many schools in this area, so we get asked to go to them rather than them coming to us, like the school down by the Trinity Church.
Larry: Let's get back to the children on the street. Any comments from them as they look at the graphics on the side of the truck?
Jed: Instead of a comment, they just smile and wave. If there are a hundred people on the street and you pick out one kid and wave to him, he's the happiest kid on the block, as he knows you're looking at him.
Larry: So, getting back to all sorts of people...
Vincent: I've encountered where people just come up to me and shake my hand and just walk away; just a handshake, a smile, a thank you. That happens often, very often.
Larry: Every time your firehouse bay doors open, they open to what used to be the World Trade Center. How do you feel now when those doors go up and it's not there anymore?
Vincent: It's still the Trade Center...
Captain Engel: - And we're kinda disappointed that it's taken so long to do something, because that's part of the healing process - get something up, let's revitalize the community, this area.
Larry: I want to go back for a minute. Where were you on the morning of 9/11?
Captain Engel: I was working up in Harlem. I got down here about 10:20 A.M. We came up on West Street and operated until 10 the next morning. So, 24 hours here, then going back to the other firehouse, where I was on duty for the next 24 hours. Then, it became a procession of a day on, a day off, and the day off was down here.
Sal: I was working at the firehouse of Engine 310 and 174 Truck in Brooklyn, getting relieved when the alarm came in because it was before shift change...and the guys in that firehouse knew where I was from (Ten House); they called me over the intercom to come into the captain's office, and I thought I did something wrong. When I walked in, there were five guys looking at the TV and they were all in shock. In about two hours, we were over at the battalion, commandeered a bus, and we were on our way down with our gear. We got here on the bus and the only thing I kept saying, as the chiefs were telling us where we were going to go, and I was telling the guy who was in charge of us that when we get off the bus, I'm going to the firehouse (first) as that's where I'm going to look, as the buildings were already down. The chief said, "Just make sure you sign in, somewhere."
Larry: What did the firehouse look like that morning after the collapse?
Sal: It was totally covered in dust and full of debris. I came in the back way and bumped into one, two, three of the guys...
Vincent: We hooked up together.
Sal: Pretty much shortly after, we were together for the rest of the...
Larry: Vincent, were you at a different house that morning, also?
Vincent: No, I was here originally. I was here from day one, and I'll be here until I retire. I'm not going to leave this place, there's no way, it's too personal now. My vacation had just started. I was in Staten Island and a firefighter friend who happened to be next door, I heard him come home. then he rushed out and left...he just ran in and out. At that time, his wife came out and asked me if I'd heard what happened. I went back into the house and I saw the twin towers on fire on the TV...and my first thought was I've got to get (back) there, my friends are...
I jumped in the car and I rushed over here, probably a half hour after the second tower came down. We were on the pile when (building) number seven came down and I didn't know what was going on, just everybody running, mass confusion. Every five or 10 minutes before the building came down, because it's an optical illusion when you look at a high-rise building from an angle, you think it's swaying...and it was just freaking everybody out. Every five or 10 minutes, everybody was running, somewhere. As far as our firehouse, three-quarters of the doors were covered from the engine side to the truck side. There was an EMS truck that was buried in here, windows blown out, doors blown out, but this (still) became a triage area for the first few hours. As the guys started coming in, they would ask, what happened to this guy, what happened to that guy. Everybody was just grabbing each other...holding each other...not knowing what happened to the other guys.
Kevin: I was on the Belt Parkway, heading to my regular job as I wasn't "on the job" yet.
Larry: But you had previously taken the test. Did you have any idea that morning where you stood as far as ranking on the test?
Kevin: I think I had my list number at that point, and then it was just a guessing game as to how fast they were going to go through the list. I was finally hired on February 2nd of '03.
Larry: Being you had taken the test, did you wish that morning that your start date had been sooner?
Kevin: Most definitely. I could have been "on the job" at that point in time.
Vincent: I'm sure I speak for all the firefighters. The frustrating part of this is that some of the guys that worked at the house weren't here, and not to be here while everything was going on probably "killed" so many of them â€” and by the word "kill" I mean frustration by not being here and not knowing what was going on with the guys who were working here. For me to come in that morning and think the whole house was gone was almost unbearable...and I probably speak for Sal and everybody else that worked that day...to try and get here because this is our house, and we babysat the twin towers, literally. Our world, specifically, it's a little unique here because we were across the street; and even though our world got turned upside down, being here is still a little bit different, somewhat different, because we all suffered.
Jed: I wasn't "on the job" on 9/11. I was home, sleeping and I woke up and my sister was crying. I asked what was the matter and she said, "Do you realize what's going on right now? A plane hit the twin towers and one of them just collapsed."
Larry: Had you taken the FDNY test yet?
Jed: Yes, I was already on the list, and I ended up getting hired on January 27th of '02.
Larry: Did you have any hesitations at all about taking the job when you were watching what was unfolding before your eyes on the TV?
Jed: None whatsoever. I wanted it even more seeing what happened with all those guys being lost.
Sal: You asked a question before about how do we feel sitting across the street from the twin towers site. It's actually nice that there are two guys still here from before. Sometimes, we'll sit out front â€” there'll be five or six of us â€” and we'll bring up things we used to do to have fun when the towers were up...and one guy will ask, "Wasn't there a pastrami place over there?"
Larry: What was the initial assignment of the engine and truck from "Ten House" the morning of 9/11, being you were right across the street?
Vincent: To get to the fire floor.
Captain Engel: But, realistically, when all hell breaks loose, you just deal with any immediate emergency you come across, but eventually, they had to get up there and units did make their way up to the 72nd floor of the south tower. They heard the radio transmissions that they saw the main body of fire, but there were so many companies dealing with a lot of injuries...a lot of companies were coming here (to our firehouse) and taking care of the mass injured; there were a lot of elevators that had people trapped in them. Ladder 4 was one of the very well-known companies...they were dealing with a group of people and they saved them. So whatever emergency you came across that morning, you started to deal with. Ideally, the assignment (for us) would have been to go to the floor below the fire, setting up lines and doing search wherever we could. That would have been for the first-alarm units, three engines and two trucks.
Larry: Now, and since 9/11, how do your families personally feel about you being in the firehouse right across the street from where the World Trade Center used to be?
Vincent: Horrified. That's probably the best way I can describe it, as nothing much is said (at home) about it...but it's what I want to do...and, in a sense, regardless of how horrified they are, they're also so proud that. They're my family â€” my sisters and my brother â€” they're a part of it, so to speak, as they can say, my brother works there; my brother works across the street from the...my brother's involved with all these people.
Captain Engel: My kids think it's a "hoot." It's a high-profile place, so when they say, "My Daddy's a fireman," the (other) person goes, "Well, I know a thousand firemen"...but, then, my kids say, "And my Daddy's the captain of Ladder 10." Then, the other person goes, "Wow!" So my kids get a reaction when they say their Daddy's the captain of Ladder 10 down by the Trade Center.
But, the, my kids, just don't realize how dangerous it is. My daughter's 13 and my son is 8, and my wife...my wife understands that this job is more than a job; it's a calling. She knows I'll probably put myself in harm's way, but she also hopes I'm smart enough to be able to deal with it and recognize it, so she feels good about that. But I always bring it down to earth by saying, "You know what? Those 343 guys felt the same way I do," so it's really a crap shoot. You want to be in a position to help, but, unfortunately, being in a position to help is going to put you in harm's way. So, your training kicks in, and you hope you're at the top of your game that day...and, if you are, you might be the lucky guy. On that day (9/11), it came down to guys going left and guys going right. Why did you go out of the building and go left? Who knows...(the) guys who went left died; the guys who went right survived. How do you say that Ladder 6 survived in the building when it collapsed all around them...and, there were people who were clear of the building and were killed by falling debris. When that day happened, I knew we were going to lose guys, just because of the magnitude of the fire...didn't think the building was going to collapse...but it did. I really thought it was going to be a tough day, and when that first building collapsed, I thought to myself, we've just lost a couple hundred guys, because I knew where they would be because that's where I would have been.
Vincent: I could honestly say if I was working that day, I wouldn't be talking with you guys right now as I would have been right behind "Atlas"; Sal would have been also. It would have been a crazy situation...and, being my family gets horrified because I missed '93 when they bombed the basement, I wound up coming in that day also...and I was off on 9/11.
Captain Engel: And speaking of "Atlas," that's what our thoughts about our "house" this evening should really be all about and dedicated to - the brothers from this house that made the supreme sacrifice on that date; namely, Engine 10 Lieutenant Gregg Atlas (he's from a family of brothers that were - and one still is - on the job); 10 Truck Lieutenant Stephen Harrell (who was really into music and had a brother, Harvey Harrell, on Rescue 5 who also died on 9/11); Engine 10 Firefighters Paul Pansini and Jeffrey Olsen; 10 Truck Firefighter Sean Tallon (he was also a Marine); and (retired) 10 Truck Captain James Corrigan. And, even though Captain Corrigan had retired from the FDNY prior to 9/11, we still consider him one of the family, as after he retired he became one of the fire/safety directors at the World Trade Center and (also) died that day doing what he loved to do. Both the memorial(s) inside and outside the firehouse have Captain Corrigan's name and image on them along with the names and images of the other five brothers that we lost that day. And, as painful as it is to all of us who remain in this house to repeat their names time after time, their names being mentioned does affirm and acknowledge that they, both as brothers and as individuals, were here that day. One more thing - as long as there are firefighters in this firehouse, and, as long as there is a firehouse on this street, their names will continue to be spoken and they will continue to be remembered.
Larry: Do any of you have children that aspire to be firefighters, FDNY firefighters, and, if so, would you have any hesitations now that 9/11 has happened to try and talk them out of it, or would you encourage it?
Captain Engel: My biggest thing is that they know what they're getting into. Once someone makes that decision, you encourage it and try to make it possible... Vincent: Explain the facts...
Captain Engel: I don't want my son to be a firefighter because I was a firefighter; that's not the reason to be a firefighter...and I've seen many sons of firefighters that are firefighters because Daddy wanted them to be a firefighter, not that they wanted to be a firefighter. So if my son consciously makes the decision to be a firefighter, you know it, so be it, but don't be a firefighter for the wrong reason; be a firefighter for the right reason.
Jed: I have a 3-year-old niece that's telling my sister that she wants to be a firefighter when she grows up, so I keep telling her to keep buying Barbie dolls and mirrors and stuff like that for both Christmas and her birthday. But, every time she sees a fire truck she waves and calls out my name; she thinks I'm working on it.
Larry: On the table is a model of 10 Truck...and it's not the first model of 10 Truck to be produced, either; the first one made was in 1/64th scale. Engine 10 was also done up in that scale, as well. This one, though, is larger and in 1/32nd scale (about twice the size of the first one). How do you feel about that?
Vincent: We're glad to be a part of it, proud to be a part of it.
Larry: Did any of you expect anything like this?
Captain Engel: In my mind, these are toys; not collectors' items. I wouldn't collect them. But, being a member of this company, I will be getting one. And I'm going to put it up where no one can touch it, the kids can't play with it, as I want this thing to last at least 150 years so my family can say, "My great granddaddy used to be the captain of that company."
Larry: If you were able to speak with a person in a position of authority with the company that was producing these miniatures, what information or history would you request be included along with the model?
Captain Engel: The number-one thing we'd want included would be the names of the guys we lost, and then the geographic location of where we were and still are in relation to the World Trade Center.
Vincent: A lot of people don't know that, and, like he says, when people come by, they say, "Oh my goodness, you guys are this close?" They're absolutely amazed that, literally, we're not even 50 yards away.
Jed: Some people even ask if this is a museum.
Sal: The number-one question people ask still is, "Was this firehouse here when it happened and also in the same spot?"
Vincent: We tell them we've been here since 1979 and they're shocked. Some are in awe; you even have a few in which tears come to their eyes, literally.
Jed: A lot of people don't understand exactly where the towers were when they were hit. They say, "How did this building survive the fall" So we explain to them that both towers were kind of on the west side of the site. With that, then they ask, "What did they do, rebuild this house after it got knocked down?" And they're amazed when we tell them, "No, it was still standing."
Vincent: This house suffered a lot of damage, but it escaped major damage because both of the (bay) doors were open and the wind just blew through the house...literally, you had the "pole" hole doors that buckled, and here (on the lower level) we had a glass window blown out. But had the front doors been closed, things may have been different, but those are still the original (bay) doors.
Captain Engel: Engine 10 went back in service in January 2002 at Engine 4's quarters. The company (at that time) was made up of members of both Engine 10 and Ladder 10. In February 2002, they came out with the truck (it was re-organized); it went to South Street with Engine 4 and Ladder 15; Engine 10 then went up to Duane Street, responding out of Engine 7 and Ladder 1's quarters. We came back together, in this house, in November of 2003.
Larry: How did it feel?
Captain Engel: Great.
Vincent: What's funny is that it became two different companies in a sense because you had Jed, who I didn't know at the time.
Vincent: Kevin and I, we met over at 7's (Engine 7's quarters).
Captain Engel: I wasn't part of the company before. I came down here in 2002, so I was looking to get back to the house as just having another home. I was a tenant over there and I wanted to come back here; I said this is going to be great, we're going back to our house. But we didn't realize that the senior guys wanted to get back with the engine because they'd been away from it so long; and, even though we're in the same battalion and the same geographic area, you just don't congregate with those guys any more. All of a sudden, we're put (back) into our house; we don't know if our personalities are going to mesh.
Vincent: In actuality, we're all starting over. We lost guys, a lot of guys did go to other companies, a lot of guys did retire. We had a core of maybe 10 guys from the original house...and all of us were trying to make things the way they were, but how do you make them the way they were? We didn't want to lose that tradition, that pride.
Larry: In preparation for being with you today, my wife, Robyn, and I spent the afternoon in the immediate area just watching, watching the people, watching them pressing their faces against the windows of your firehouse. The engine was out, but the truck was in. People were also taking pictures of the firehouse itself; people were taking pictures of the memorial that HBO made for you of the brothers that were lost from this house that's by the walk-in door at the front of the firehouse; and, people were taking pictures of the new memorial for all 343 firefighters lost on 9/11 on the side of the firehouse. How do you feel about that?
Captain Engel: For months, people weren't allowed to come down here. The street was closed. Later, when they opened up Liberty Street as an access to Battery Park City, is when they allowed civilians and traffic to come down here. That's when it was opened.
Larry: But, how do you feel about them pressing their noses against the windows and taking pictures?
Vincent: It almost makes us feel like, don't look, don't make eye contact, like we're almost fish in a fish bowl.
Captain Engel: And that's part of the way we feel. We went out on a run recently, and as we started to roll out, people held up their hands and said, "Stop! We want to take your picture!" But how do you tell them that, "Excuse us, folks, we're going to a fire..."
Sal: And, if you took it seriously, you wouldn't be able to stay in the firehouse...
Larry: So how long do you think this is going to go on?
Jed: Remember, the greatest terrorist catastrophe in American history, and we're still located right across the street from it.
that means the people will never forget it. But, at the same time, I know that every firefighter that's going to work down here at the "Ten House" will still have to deal with it. This house is not for everybody. Always remember and never forget. Always remember their sacrifice and never forget the circumstance surrounding that sacrifice, not only our 343 brothers, but everybody, overall, who died here that fateful day.
LARRY PHILLIPS, a 40-year-veteran of the fire and emergency services, is president and CEO of Signal 10 Group in Jamestown, ND, working with agri-business facilities in the areas of homeland security and OSHA safety compliance. In addition, he serves as chief instructor at Northwest Region Fire/Rescue, working with over 1,500 fire departments and rescue squads in Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin in grain elevator, hazardous materials and agri-business fires and emergencies. Phillips is the past training officer with the Jamestown, ND, Fire Department and began his career with the Bethpage, NY, Fire Department.