The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this article was written five months after the event...
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A volunteer steps in and hands out more water and sandwiches. Your choice again today, ham and cheese or cheese and ham. I go with the former and begin inhaling my first “meal” in 12 hours, washing it down with a bottle of water as I walk over to the OEM command post for another briefing. Suddenly, it occurs to me that I should make an effort to get back to the hotel for another shower, as the filthy clothes I’ve been wearing for the third day are getting to me – and probably those around me. I’ve since managed to contact my office and asked one of my guys to drive up to D.C., pick up my bags and bring them up to New York. The airlines are still shut down, and there is no word as to when they’ll start flying again. The New York Stock Exchange, another one of our clients, is closed as well and the losses are mounting.
After the briefing, I head back to the hotel. I make my way through security and walk toward Canal Street. Knowing how hard it is going to be to get back to midtown, I begin dragging just a bit in my gait. Then, I hear a fire truck coming down the street toward me, heading north as well. I step into the street and flag them down. They stop as I take note that the truck looks even worse than I do, covered in white, chalky dust. It is obvious this rig was close to the scene when the towers came down, yet other than being dirty, appears unscathed. The two guys up front agree to give me a lift.
I open the door to the jumpseat and climb in, almost tripping over a pair of shoes lying there in front of me. As I pull the door shut and the rig eases into motion, I notice other personal gear around me and judging by the condition of everything, it is obvious that it does not belong to the men up front. It’s all covered in thick dust. Then it hits me while we’re riding down Sixth Avenue that the guys who responded on this piece must not have survived, or they would have pulled their stuff off the rig by now, especially their shoes. Looking down at them, I remembered walking into the firehouse of two former colleagues of mine who were killed on the job and seeing their shoes lying on the floor of the apparatus bay. The boys headed out on what appeared to be a nothing call (“short in the panel box”) and never coming back, killed in a truss roof collapse within 15 minutes of leaving the station by a fire raging over their heads above two false ceilings. Here I am looking at those same shoes again, kicked off before a final run. My heart sinks for these brave souls and their families. A truck probably returning from the crew’s last alarm.
A strange feeling overtakes me as heavy, choking dust swirls through the cab with the wind, covering me with even more white powder. There is a slight sensation of riding in a “ghost” fire truck. As the engine winds its way through the streets, I stick my head out the side window for some clean air, watching the crowds on the sidewalks. Suddenly, one by one, they stop, cheering and clapping as we pass. It grows like an ocean wave, throngs of people on both sides of the street yelling and cheering at us. The guys up front solemnly wave their thanks and I feel compelled to do so as well to acknowledge them. I feel incredibly awkward as I raise my hand in thanks too, because these people are cheering heroes and I am not one of them. The heroes are the guys up front – and the men who wore the shoes I am standing next to. Men who will not be seeing their loved ones ever again. Men who laid down their lives doing what they do best, protecting the very same people who cheer us on from curbside. They are the heroes.
A feeling of reverence washes over me and for the first time since I arrived, the emotion of the event creeps up on me. I quickly fight off the thoughts and focus on matters at hand. The crowds cheer us on, block after block, until the truck pulls over and lets me off on 52nd street. I dismount and thank the men for the lift. I feel compelled to ask them the status of the engine’s crew, but decide not to. It is too obvious, I think, and I don’t want to hear the answer. Too many good men are missing. These are probably just a few of many heroes. Maybe they survived and are at a local hospital, I hope.
I quickly walk the next block to the hotel and am met in the lobby by Jimmy, a bellhop. Jimmy’s a great guy and he sees my state of attire. I am once again covered in dust, head to toe. He offers to give me a spare waiter’s uniform. I quickly accept. It’s dressy, but at least it’s clean. He brings a pair of black slacks and two white shirts up to my room, along with a pair of socks. I thank him profusely and head in the direction of a hot shower.