10 Days At Ground Zero

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...


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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I drop my things off and dash over to a nearby police precinct to get a ride to the site. I recall thinking that there is probably only one fire department in the world that can handle an incident this big and it is the FDNY. I’m downtown in 15 minutes. If hell exists, then this must be it. I experience sights, smells and sounds that can’t be properly conveyed to people who weren’t there. It’s just impossible to put things into context. Unimaginable. Unexplainable. Unbelievable. I look around and realize that things will never be the same for me or any other American. This is the largest attack in history on the U.S. I assume the loss of life must be staggering.

I know there are a lot of dead and injured firefighters. Admittedly, that thought disturbs me more than anything else. The smoke and dust is so thick I can barely breathe. Coughing becomes the routine for the day. It is snowing, but it is not snow. A blizzard of white ash rains down from every angle. You can’t get away from it, or the smoke. It has an acidic, harsh taste and leaves a burning sensation in my eyes and throat.

It is eerily quiet. None of the typical New York noises – the constant blasting of horns, bumper-to-bumper traffic, people crammed onto sidewalks, nudging into one another, yakking away on cell phones. A city where everyone is almost nose to nose, yet at the same time in their own little world. Everything is so hauntingly still, so silent. Death marches nearby. You can feel it. Oddly, I find it reminiscent of the movie “The Day After,” except this is “the day of.” This is what nuclear winter must be like.

I see the smoke briefly change from dense black and brown to red and orange, boiling up from the site. I know this is not a good place to be. I pause and think of how ludicrous it is to be standing here in dress clothes. I figure everything that is bad must be in this smoke I’m sucking in, but no one, not even the firefighters who pass by, are protecting themselves. Plenty of tanks on backs, yet nobody with a mask on. It’s not feasible to wear one and everyone knows it. It would be too cumbersome and refilling air cylinders would be almost impossible. They’ve just got to deal with it and move on with the many daunting tasks at hand. Streets that I’ve walked down many times are unrecognizable. Several times, I stop, look around and have no idea where I am. The streets all look the same, gray/white and ashen.

I remember how I used to look to the twin towers when I needed to get my bearings downtown. They weren’t just landmarks; they were beacons, day and night. Pillars of strength. Monuments to our economic prosperity and might. Even though I know they’re gone, I still find myself instinctively looking for them, somehow hoping they will appear through the smoke and assure me that everything is OK – “We’re over here in case you’re lost.”

I recall the 1993 bombing. It was a cold, blustery winter day in New York, with light snow flurries falling from a dark, brooding sky. It is eerily similar to today, except the “snow” that is falling is dust and small shreds of paper from the towers themselves, not the warm, blue sky above. I remember having lunch that day with the property manager of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, another 100-plus-story building we had just finished pre-planning. We sat in the restaurant with his boss on Michigan Avenue when Dean Johnson’s phone rang with the news that the World Trade Center had just been bombed. We raced back to his building just in time to face reporters wanting to know what their level of preparedness was. I helped with the media, then left to do four TV and two newspaper interviews before the day was through. There I was in Chicago and I desperately wanted to be in New York, to offer help, instead of talking to a camera.

Then a call came into our home office from the Port Authority, asking if I could come to the city as soon as possible. Since it was a Friday and things didn’t look all that bad, I told them I’d be up there Monday morning after returning home and repacking over the weekend. I was at the complex by 9:30 A.M. Monday and was given the grand tour of the crater, two levels below grade. There was a very low fatality count, but thousands were injured. The devastation was breathtaking. I stood next to a huge hole several floors deep, pipes and wires hanging everywhere. There were still the shells nearby of several gutted automobiles. It was obvious that this was a major explosion.