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 am a civilian trying to be a firefighter again, trying to do what feels natural and instinctive from years of performing the same basic functions. This time, however, I am on my own and not really sure what I can do to make a difference. I’ve never felt so insignificant. I come across dazed firefighters coated with dust, ask which buildings have been searched and am told, “I don’t know.” I ask where the command post is and am told there are several. I am also told that the initial command post was wiped out, along with all the chiefs. I look into face after face after face and see the same expression. Some call it shock. I refer to it as the “million-mile stare.” I could relate a bit, as I would do something productive for a minute or two, then stop and completely lose my train of thought. I can’t figure out what I need to do next and what might have already been done, or if I even belong here. I feel naked without any gear. I honestly admit there are a few moments when I feel completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event. Sometimes, the human mind shuts down momentarily, due to input overload. This is on a scale like nothing I’ve ever seen. It just seems too much to be real. Everyone is feeling it, except the chiefs. At least they didn’t show it.
I round a corner northeast of the site and find a deputy chief surrounded by about 50 firefighters. I don’t recognize him, figuring he must be from another borough of the city. His gear and face are covered in soot and ash. It continues to rain down on everyone. The men need a leader and they need assignments in this crisis. This is when true leaders lead. He stands there like a rock and just starts ripping off orders to his men. I’ve never seen such effective and decisive leadership under intense pressure, and that includes 20 years in the fire service, paid and volunteer.
I stand there in awe and watch this chief command his troops in a way that re-instills confidence and assurance that the worst is over, but a great deal of work must still be done. And they are going to do it. I approach and speak with him briefly, advising that most of the buildings surrounding the Trade Center have pre-plans in them for fire department use.
I also bring up the issue of the possible presence of biological/chemical weapons in checked bags in the planes. He agrees the threat exists, but he has enough to deal with for the moment. I wish him and his men to be safe, deciding to work my way around the scene some more. We shake hands and I dissolve back into the crowd.
So much activity is going on around me. I try and determine if other nearby buildings have been searched and cleared, looking for walking wounded to herd toward nearby medical facilities. The smoke is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s so thick, so chokingly thick. I know by the smell that some nasty stuff is burning. My eyes are burning like hell and I cough uncontrollably. I look around me in disbelief. Structures are free burning. High-rise buildings with fire blowing out window after window. This isn’t New York, it’s a war zone.
I walk by fire trucks crushed beyond recognition, cars with all the glass missing, paint stripped from the metal bodies, rims with tires burned off. I see one car in the middle of the street with the hood up and the engine missing. Gone. Gone where? Storefronts are blown in. Fire escapes 20 stories high are piled with material from the towers. The streets are submerged in trash, coated with dust, a foot or more thick in some places. When the wind shifts again and the smoke momentarily clears, there they are – cars and trucks as far as I can see, completely demolished. All the glass is blown out, but there is no glass in the street. I look inside a few cars and don’t see any glass there either. Where’s the glass? Other things I see won’t be discussed. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions. I have a hard time absorbing it all. There’s so much destruction everywhere. The scene is surreal.
I work my way around the area, helping out wherever I can, until I come across the forward fire department command post at Broadway, Park Row and Vesey Street. Chief Frank Fellini is commanding the northeast sector of the incident; we haven’t met before. He exhibits courage under fire, even in the face of incredible danger – adjacent buildings on the verge of collapse, fire, smoke and mayhem everywhere – and, I’m sure, the thought that many firefighters are missing in the streets and in the rubble. Co-workers. Friends. Too many to count. It has to be eating at him, I think. He is unwavering. There is an almost insurmountable task facing him. The city and its fire department, indeed, even the nation, have been brought to their knees. Yet, this chief will ensure that his men will meet the challenge, as they always have, as they always will. They will restore order amid all this chaos. Control and reason will be wrested from insanity.
When I first approach him, after a brief introduction, my first words are, “Chief, what are we looking at, about 20,000 (as in fatalities)?” He stares at the site briefly, then looks at me eye to eye and replies with a hollow resonance, “Yeah, about 20,000.” At that moment, we are both shocked by what was just said. Almost too afraid to ask, I inquire, “How many firefighters are missing?” “Around 250 men,” he says. I think to myself, what is the previous high, 14 out in Colorado?