WTC: This Is Their Story - Part V

Captain John M. Sullivan Covering in 6th division (was in Fire Prevention Bureau on 9/11)
16 years

I was up in the Bronx working in Fire Prevention, so I had a fire department car. I heard on the radio that the towers had been hit and I started to respond in. I was able to pick up an unmarked police car with lights and sirens and I was able to weave in and out of traffic following him down there. We were going up one-way streets the wrong way, the whole nine yards.

I was going down Church Street against traffic the wrong way and it looked like a movie scene. There were thousands of people running up the street. And just at about that point, when I was probably about maybe five blocks away from the Trade Center, the first tower collapsed. At that point, because of the volume of people, I had to pull over to the side of the road because I was going to hit somebody.

I got out of the car, put my bunker gear on and I was going to head down the street. I saw 124 Truck come in. They were going against traffic, but a rig could get through. So I flagged them down, jumped on the side of the rig. The whole width of the three or four blocks down on Church Street I was yelling to the captain on 124, do you know where the command post is? He didn't have any idea, so I went straight down Church.

We got off the rig and the thing that struck me was there was rigs, ESU, EMS, fire trucks all over the place. There were was just no people there. I proceeded down Church to the corner of Church and Liberty, the scene of the south tower collapse and there I came upon a bunch of guys, from I believe it was 10 Truck, that were helping a Lieutenant Ruby from Operations. He had sustained a compound fracture of, I believe, it was his left leg, and they were trying to get him packaged, so I jumped in with them to help them get him out of there.

While we were putting him on a board, all of a sudden, you heard this tremendous, tremendous roar and I personally thought another plane was hitting. You didn't know what it was. It was just the loudest sound you ever heard in your life.

And then everything turned black and dead silent. The air was so thick you could literally chew or taste whatever was in the air. Then eventually it started to lift. I heard the cops yelling. The cops were missing a man. We were able to find him right away and then we got Lieutenant Ruby. He was on a board and we carried him around 10 and 10's quarters and then out to West Street, where we hooked with an ESU pickup truck, threw him in the back of that, got him to an ambulance. Then I ran into Lieutenant May from Operations and Lieutenant Pete Clifford. Lieutenant May was telling me that he came in with a bunch of people that were all on a line and they were strung out heading towards 10 and 10 to get some gear to try to help out. And he made it into 10 and 10, but he felt the rest of his guys must have been trapped someplace.

I reported in to a chief, got a team together of five or six guys and we circled back around onto Church Street. We couldn't find the guys right away, so we were trying to project where the command post might have been without any information. And we get into the Concourse. It was partially collapsed.

Some stores were fairly intact. There were partial collapses. You're crawling over stuff, and a bunch of uncontrolled fires. I just didn't like the looks of the situation. To the south was completely collapsed and to the west, we went as far as we could and the center of the Trade Center was also collapsed. I was about to call the search off for safety reasons when Lieutenant May heard somebody screaming and we climbed over a couple of more piles of rubble, passed fires, and we found a civilian. He was severely burned from one of the fires when Lieutenant May found him. We were able to get some water and put the fire out around him and then clear the rubble, but we needed something to cut with. So we had to get a truck in there. So we stayed with him, kept the fire away and we talked to him for a while.

Firehouse Collection
This photo was taken during the early stages of the debris removal and recovery of firefighters, police officers and civilians killed in the attack.

Eventually, someone came with a sawzall and they were able to make the cut and get him out. And once he was out, they found a DOA below him in the same spot in the Concourse level. He was trapped by rubble and there was a metal bar, I guess it was a pipe, that we couldn't move because it was probably 20, 30 feet long. It had to be cut. There was no way to get him out from underneath that. He was a very large man, over 300 pounds, so we couldn't maneuver him around that.

You could see where the south tower had collapsed the Concourse, where the south tower was. And then as you went forward, there was the collapse in the center. You know where they had that ball in the middle? That area was collapsed.

There were piles of rubble that you had to climb over. For a while you were walking around and the first thing that was kind of shocking because you got down there and it was the dark and the smoke and everything. And it was really kind of scary because it looked like bodies. And then when you got a little closer, there were mannequins all over the place from the different stores that were partially collapsed.

I'll never forget that sound or when that black cloud came, the dead silence. I've never in my life seen or heard just like that eerie complete - the closest thing you could describe to it is like when it's snowing where you don't hear anything. And it was just black. For a second you're thinking maybe I'm dead. You can't hear. You can't see. I'll also never forget when we were on West Street after we put Lieutenant Ruby in an ambulance, just the devastation when you're looking and you see all the fire trucks and police cars burning. That's where I saw Ray Phillips. It was literally like if you can look into the gates of hell, that's what it was. It's just like the World Trade Center, something that's been there your entire life almost, completely mangled and just everything burning and just the devastation. It was hard to appreciate the enormity of how bad it was. The first time you saw everything on West Street was something that I'll never forget either. And one weird thing- when I was on Broadway, I would have sworn I saw Father Judge. Then I was over on the other side when they pulled everybody back to wait for that collapse and Jack Wells tells me no, Father Judge is dead. It was strange.

Battalion Chief Chris Rearer (was captain of Tower Ladder 17 on 9/11)
19 years

We came back from a run and the battalion chief said a plane hit the Trade Center. I thought it was a small plane. We relocated to Ladder 15 on South Street, the southern most firehouse in Manhattan. It is a tremendous distance to respond, but I wasn't that surprised, we relocate a lot.

Numerous Bronx ladder companies relocated to Manhattan. Ladder 48 went to Ladder 12. Ladder 58 went to Ladder 20. Ladder 59 went to Ladder 10. Ladder 42 went to Ladder 25. Ladder 31 went also. When the second plane hit, I wasn't going to be surprised that we might not even make it to Ladder 15. We took in a few boxes. We had a report of people trapped at 44 Beaver St. That was false.

The second tower collapsed. A captain was talking to the building's fire safety director. People were running in the street. You couldn't see anything. Two firefighters had to walk in front of the rig, which had to drive real slow as not to hit anybody. We had a report of people trapped in the City Hall subway station. We checked the station and no one was trapped. A firefighter came running up to us as we were leaving the subway. Deputy Chief Esposito needs a tower ladder, can you get into the street?

We backed in and removed some obstructions. Tower Ladder 7 was in position. They were worried about building 7 coming down. There was fire in two office buildings on multiple floors. We were supplied first by Engine 41, then Engine 278. Water was relayed from Broadway. We had good water pressure.

We shut down our large-caliber stream so they could search the rubble. Squad 288, searching the voids, found a victim. We handed them tools, a Stokes basket, a Honda generator and a Hurst tool with metal cutting blade. They found a civilian with two broken legs. Some of our guys relieved us at the pile. We had a rearmount aerial in our original quarters that the crews manned as well, as we were sent to Ladder 5 for three days responding on their boxes.

Firefighter Van Johnson Tower Ladder 124
22 years

I was standing in front of the firehouse when the second and third alarms were transmitted. We watched the news helicopters showing the actual fire. They were sending Brooklyn companies.

When the second tower was hit, we relocated to Ladder 5 in Manhattan. We responded over the Manhattan Bridge. We arrived at Ladder 5. Off-duty members were grabbing their gear. Engine 231 relocated to Engine 24 in the same firehouse.

Within 10 or 15 minutes, we saw the smoke from the fire change drastically. The smoke went from jet black to light. That is when the first tower collapsed. We responded to the scene. We drove down Church Street the wrong way. It was chaos. People were running away. The chauffeur hit the brakes. The mayor and his entourage passed us going to the firehouse we just left to use as a temporary command post.

We couldn't respond any further. We were being hit by dust. We picked up a few firefighters along the way. Hundreds of people were running by the apparatus. We ended up near 10 Truck's firehouse. There was a man who was severely burned and on fire. We extinguished the fire. All his clothes were burned off. We left him with an EMS worker.

We heard screaming from the rear of the firehouse. Three civilians sought shelter after the first tower came down. It forced them into the rear of the firehouse. One person had a broken hip and another had a broken arm. The man with the broken hip apparently had a lot of money in the briefcase he was carrying. He wouldn't let go of the briefcase.

A person fell from another building and struck a police officer. I helped carry him away with the aid of another police officer. We heard a tremendous roar. We thought it was another jet coming in. The north tower collapsed. We were starting to be buried with debris. Everyone had dust go up his nose and down their throat. We ran into a building. The force of the wind, it took three of us to pull the doors shut. We proceeded down to Liberty Street. There were rigs on fire, ambulances burning. Seeing the rigs destroyed, you got a feeling that many companies were lost. It looked like midnight, dead calm. I could hear the Mayday from Ladder 6. There was another report from a company trapped under a rig. We wound up looking for Chief Ganci in the debris with Ladder 111. He had worked in both companies. It was ironic that these are two of the companies who found him buried under three or four feet of debris in the middle of the street near the Winter Garden. In some areas the debris was eight feet high. Firefighters were using torches, hand tools and sawzalls.

Buildings 4 and 5 were fully involved. Someone had moved our tower ladder and it was operating near building 4. A tool depot was initiated at 10/10. There were hundreds of tools, shovels, hand tools, Stokes baskets.

I guess I was in shock. I couldn't comprehend what had happened. Almost getting killed. We didn't know where to look and there were fires everywhere. It looked like a war scene. The fires burned all day into the night. Because of the debris, we couldn't get the tower ladder into a better position.

It was my son's first day on the job. He was assigned to Ladder 36 in Manhattan. It was his first day and he heard that his father was lost. My son finally met up with me in the hospital later that night. I was shocked to see a rig from my volunteer fire department at the scene.

Firefighter Jack Rooney Special Operations Command
29 years

I was actually meeting with Chief (Ray) Downey when the first plane hit. We came out of his office and like everybody else we thought it was a Cessna or something like that. So I said do you want me to drive you? He said no, you're not working, so he got (John) McGinty to drive him. With that he was walking out and John Moran came out of the office got in the car with Downey. I went upstairs and started to change my clothes, and somebody yelled another plane hit. I ran downstairs to the kitchen and naturally it was on TV. At that point they said Chief Casper had called and he wanted his gear brought to the thing. Rad (Ocasio) was going to bring Casper's stuff to him. I had my gear all packed. I just threw it on the truck.

As we were driving over the 59th Street Bridge I looked south. I could see the plumes of smoke and it got quiet. We both knew that this wasn't going to be fun.

Firehouse Collection
Overturned vehicles and burned trucks lie on West Street in front of building 6, the U.S. Customs House. A fire chief who was experiencing chest pains was attended to, packaged and removed down the portable ladder that is visible at the center of the photo.

We were supposed to meet Chief Casper at Liberty and West. When we got down there, we couldn't get close enough, so we stopped on Vesey and West. I get out of the rig, told Rad to stay with the rig. I look up. I remember seeing people diving off, coming down. I commenced to look down and I went over to where the command center was. And at the command center, I ran into Chief Ingram. I said I have Chief Casper's stuff. He said he's already in the building. I said I'm off duty, but I've got my gear with me, is there anything I can do? He said OK, go get your gear, come back down here, we're going to muster up over here and he pointed to the left side.

When I left the command center, I saw Chief Downey. I told the chief, I'm here, I've got my gear with me, I told him Chief Ingram wants me. He said OK, good. As I was further up the block, I ran into Joe Angelini. Angelini says to me, where you going, Jack? I says I'm going to the rig to get my gear, then I'm going down to the command center, he wants us to muster up down there. Angelini said OK, I'm going to hang with you.

I walked back to the truck, got my gear and commenced going south again towards the command center. As I was going toward the command center, I didn't want to be looking up anymore because of the people jumping. Maybe 50, 60 feet away from the command center, everybody started running towards me and yelling it's coming down, it's coming down. With that, I looked up and I saw plumes of white, black smoke coming out of the building. Now, when I saw the black smoke, then I saw the top start to just slide. I saw that it's coming down. I dropped my gear bag and started running north. Why I ran north, I guess it was because that's the way I came.

And when I got my bag and started walking back down, Joe Angelini wasn't there, so I assumed he went down to the command center. I just turned and when it started coming down, I started running north, but I didn't take but a couple of steps when debris starting flying and I saw a truck there. It was a red truck, it was some truck from New Jersey, I found out later.

I dove underneath the truck and then it was just an all-consuming cloud. You couldn't breathe, it was in your eyes, your mouth, everything and then I said to myself, something's going to come down and collapse this truck on me.

I come out from the side of the truck. I heard people on the other side of the street, so I just started yelling hello, hello. It was tough to yell because I had all the stuff in my mouth and I couldn't really see. And they responded hello, hello, and I said keep talking, keep talking. I just headed in the direction towards the voices.

After the first collapse, when the smoke and everything cleared, I picked up my gear bag and sat down on the curb, took my shoes off. I was in the process of taking my pants off to put my bunker gear on when somebody yelled the other one's coming down. I looked up and sure enough, the other one was coming down, so I ran. I had no shoes on, just my socks, and my pants were half open. I was running and I don't know how far I got.

Now I'm totally covered in whatever the material was. Then when the thing clears again, I tried putting my bunker gear on, but I couldn't get my bunker gear on because my socks were so coated with the debris that I couldn't get my foot in my boots and everything was just dry and dusty and burned. It wouldn't slide. I finally had to take my socks off and put my gear on. Jack McGinty and Billy O'Marra came along and helped me get dressed.

I went back down. When I went down past where the walkway was on the setback of Building 6, where the twisted ladder was, there were people screaming up there. They had a portable ladder, so I went up there and I found a lieutenant who was half in, half out of the building and his head was in bad shape. We put him in a Stokes and carried him down. And then after we got him down, some chief grabs me and said I'm having chest pains, so I started yelling down below. Nobody could hear me with all the noise and everybody running around, so I finally get somebody's attention and I pointed to the chief and I pointed to his heart. So we put him in a Stokes. I couldn't let him walk down there because it was like an almost two-story walk down the ladder.

When we got him down, it dawned on me. I went down the ladder after him. I said to him, Chief, you're going to the hospital, you're not going to need your radio, so I took his radio and off I went. I just spent the rest of the day walking around probably in a daze and digging here, digging there, listening for sounds. It was utter chaos. You would be digging in one section and somebody would say I hear something, I hear something. Everybody that was in that dig would abandon that section, run over to the other section.

One thing I'll never forget, if you went in the Customs Building and I pointed it out to people, where the back of the Customs Building was, you could look across the back and the side of the building - the hole in the side of the building, if you ever saw a doll house, how all the furniture was in, but just the front wall was gone, and in the middle of the whole thing was maybe a 15-foot I-beam sticking straight up with two arms on it like it was a cross. And I pointed that out to a few people.

A lot of the day after that part becomes a bit of a blur. I don't remember a lot of things. I remember digging. I remember being up on a hill running to another spot.

I asked myself the same question a lot of times, why didn't I run in the direction of the command center? You figure that would be the safe place. I go back, and where they found Angelini was I believe in that plaza area. I tell people that I actually never heard it coming down, and people tell me that I was lucky, because if I would have heard it, it would have been too late. I don't know.

I guess the biggest shock was when they told me that all the SOC chiefs were gone. And just utter chaos with everybody trying to dig here, dig there. And there was no equipment per se. Only getting shovels off fire trucks, hooks and whatever you could grab, you grab it. If you put something down, don't turn around because it was gone. Lights and gloves and if anybody had them, the masks. Most guys had no masks. The guys that were there had nothing, nothing. If you had a radio, you were like God.