WTC: This Is Their Story Part 2

At the staircase a Port Authority police captain was working, telling the people to go off to the left. I stayed there at the promenade level and told people to go to their right and walk, don't run, don't look up and they would almost be out. I wanted them to stay to their right, to look to their right, because a lot of people were jumping at that time, and if they looked straight, they would have seen it. Blood was splattering the windows looking toward West Street.

There was that glass canopy, people would hit that, making a loud sound, and then they were hitting the chief's car and making another loud sound. It was like boom, boom, boom. I was just trying to keep the people's minds off it. But the people were very orderly, they were coming down, nobody panicking. Everybody was orderly. The only problem we had was when a couple of the women came down without their heels on and when they reached that level there was water around, and they were stopping to put their heels back on. We said, move to the side when you put on your heels and let the other people go by, and they did it and everything was fine. I remember a blind fellow coming by me with a dog. I remember the dog coming down first with a couple of the people. I said to myself, where's the owner of that dog, and then the blind person came down. I said to myself, he doesn't have to worry about not looking up.

They passed by and we were telling people to stay to their right. Bobby said he was going to go to the third floor and tell people there to stay to their right because firemen had started going up the stairs and it would make it easier for them to go up. I remember seeing Ladder 2. I knew two guys on Ladder 2, Carl Molinaro and Mike Clark. They had been in Engine 160. Both did details there. I knew both of them. I saw 2 Truck go up the stairs.

Soon after that, Bobby asked me to go to the third floor to help him carry a woman down the stairs. She was a Spanish woman, I believe she was 42 and I know her name was Olivia. We carried her down and brought her to the concourse level. We moved her to the left as everybody was going toward the right. I took her pulse. It seemed to be a rapid pulse and she was hyperventilating. The Port Authority captain was there, trying to call for an ambulance, and they said that we'd have to bring the woman outside the building. I said to the woman, Olivia, we have too many people to help here, we don't have time to stop and carry you all the way out, you're going to have to get out yourself. Take it easy, breathe easy and walk with some of the other people out of here.

I went back to the staircase to assist the people coming down. At this point, I believe, Bobby La Rocca and the female captain took the woman out. I was operating at the staircase, telling people the same thing, when all of a sudden I heard a loud, loud screeching, twisting of metal. It seemed to me like six or seven trains pulling into a subway station at the same time. I was only a couple of feet from the metal door where the staircase was. I pulled the door shut and I got in the corner of the staircase. I remember I was hugging up against the standpipe that was there or some sort of pipe. I was in the corner.

I had my flashlight on. Everything went black. The air starting filling up with debris right away. I had my flashlight on the staircase, which was lined with people, the whole staircase, and I was just waiting for the debris to come down the interior steps and trap us there, not knowing what was collapsing. I was just waiting, thinking it's this building.

A minute or so went by, and the noise stopped. We were still alive, all the people in the staircase, and filled up with debris. It was tough breathing and my eyes I remember got scratchy right away from the glass particles that were flying around in the air. I could hear people screaming on the outside of the door. That's the area where we were just letting the people out into. I could hear people screaming.

It was an outward opening door and I tried getting it open, but it was blocked with debris. I banged it a couple of times with my shoulder and then two ESU (Emergency Service Unit) cops came down the stairs and one of them helped me force open the door. We kept banging up against it. We got it open little by little just using our force of our bodies as battering rams, I guess, and we got it to open up. You could hear the people out there - help, help and some screaming, but nothing really panicky. I had a great flashlight, so I told the police officer, I see you have a flashlight, you stay by the door here, leave it open, I'm going to go out there, get the people and bring them back to you. Put them in the staircase. He said all right.

I went out into the hallway area, but I couldn't see. Everything was white and balls of insulation seemed to be flying in the air like tumbleweeds. It seemed like when you shined your light, it was like you're in one of those snow globes and the glass was just shining all over almost like a snowstorm.

I could see a couple of people approaching my light. I said, I'm a fireman, if you can see me, come to my light, I can't see, you come to my light. They came to my light and I put their left hands up against the wall and I said follow this back to the door and go in the staircase, there will be somebody in there with a flashlight. I'd say 10 or 15 people came to me and went back to the staircase.

I didn't see any more people there, so I went back to the staircase myself, shut the door and I remember yelling. There were people talking and chattering. I remember yelling, be quiet, be quiet, I'm in charge here, I'm a fireman, calm down. I thought, I'm the only one yelling here. And I said I'm going to get us out of here, if there's a way, I'm going to get us out of here.

I told the cop to stay at the door, that I was going to trace our steps back the way we had come in and if there's a way out, we'll get the people out that way. I started back the way we had come in. I got just about to the staircase which led down and two cops were getting up off the floor, still dusting themselves off. I believe they were two Port Authority cops. I said to them, do you have flashlights? They said yes, and I asked if they knew a way out of there. They said yes, so I said I've got a bunch of civilians, I'm going to bring you the civilians. They said yes, we'll get them out of here and I said OK. I went back and I told the people that we had found a way out. I said, walk, don't run, the only thing is we have to hold hands, I don't care if you don't know the person next to you, hold hands, we're going to get out of here, let's go.

Everybody joined hands. I remember grabbing the first woman's hand, a Chinese woman. I grabbed her hand and we started walking out of there. I got them to the doorway with the cops and I said, here you go. Then I went back halfway through the line where they were going and I started lighting up the area where they were walking. The people just kept filing past. Again, no panic and everything.

The police officer came up to me and we started talking. I asked him where he was from. He said ESU 2, where are you from? I answered Rescue 5. I said where's ESU 2? He said Upper Manhattan. I told him Rescue 5's Staten Island, and he said, boy, we both came a long way for this. He also said, what are we doing working together, so I guess it takes the twin towers to come down for us to work together. We just started talking. We were just talking like that for a while and just with our flashlights guiding the people for their exit.

Now, the flow of people seemed to stop. It really slowed down, so he said, I guess we'll go back to the staircase. We went back to the staircase and there were eight people there. At one point, I asked a fire officer who was coming down if I could borrow one of his men because I wasn't sure where the female Port Authority cop had gone, and I went to the left of where we had been working to search for her. I asked, can I borrow one of your guys for a second? He said yes. The left windows were all taken out on that level and you could see the beams and you could see that the South Tower had come down. I remember saying to the guy, look at that, the tower came down. I said, I'm looking for a female Port Authority cop I was working with in this area. I didn't see her. There was fire in that area and his officer wanted to get out of there, so they left.

Photo by FDNY
The remains of Tactical Support Unit 2 (TAC 2), which was driven from Staten Island to the World Trade Center site by Firefighter Bill Spade. The Special Operations Command unit carries a generator, a light tower, lights, a hydraulic rescue system, special tools, a winch, a rear-mounted crane, a top-carried 14-foot inflatable boat and a 15-person raft.

There were eight of us left in the staircase. It was me, three firemen, a civilian and three cops. The sergeant said to me, I think it's time we get out of here. I closed the door to the staircase and asked everyone to count off. I remember we counted seven. I said, wait, did I count myself? We counted again and we said all right, there's eight. The civilian was a heavyset male, he probably walked down the whole way himself and was unable to walk and farther, so we said we're going to leave. I said, we'll leave together, we'll stay together and we'll make decisions together. Everybody said all right.

We started leaving the North Tower. We got to what I now know to be 6 World Trade Center and there was an alleyway in between. We had to cross there. There was an overhang, it seemed like a 20-foot overhang. We had to cross that little way and the cop went first. He looked up and he said, OK, it's clear for you guys, and the rest of us went across. I had come in this way, and so had the others. I said, I came this way, you came that way, we all said we'll go together, we'll go your way.

We started walking in between the tower and 6 World Trade Center. I looked to my left as we were walking in this alleyway underneath the overhang and I was checking out windows already blown out. I said, if anything happens, that's where I'm going. We hadn't been out of the trade center maybe more than a minute or so when I heard that same noise again of the twisting steel. All eight of us were within a 10-foot circle as we were leaving. I heard that noise.

I didn't look back. I took two steps toward that window that I had picked out. I remember seeing a shard of glass on the bottom right and thinking that I had to be careful of it. I took two steps toward that window and I was blown into the bottom of the window. The force just blew me right into the window. I remember smacking up against it.

I was down on my knees. My hand was reaching up and I was at the window sill. I tried twice to get up in the window, but I couldn't pull myself up into it. I was just thinking, I don't want to get pinned here with my legs bent behind me, with something coming down on my legs, I've got to give it one more good shot. I gave it a good effort and I got into the window and I tumbled in.

I stood up in the room and I started getting hit by things, and I realized that I had lost my helmet. I went down to my knees and covered my head. At this point, I said good-bye to my wife. I said good-bye to my 6-year-old and I said good-bye to my 2-month-old son and I thought, he'll never know his dad. But I said I'm not going to give up like this, so I just stayed in a ball. Then, more debris fell and everything covered me. It seemed like a minute or so, then everything stopped and I was still alive. It was just light debris that was on me, maybe ceiling tiles, grids, panel grids and some duct work.

I cleared off the debris and looked around the room. I saw the three other firemen. My mouth was full of debris, so I reached in my mouth and was pulling it out to get an airway, then I thought of that bottled water. I reached in my pockets, but my water was gone. I realized that I had lost my water, my flashlight, my helmet, my halligan. I had nothing. I stood up and saw that the windows we had come in through were all filled up with debris and things were on fire. Everything was smoking on that side. We were in a corner room, so the back half of the room had windows and they seemed to be all filled with debris. It seemed like we were trapped in this room.

Earlier, when the first tower came down and we were stuck in the staircase, I tried to open the door twice. It wouldn't open. I got on my radio. I looked at the staircase and I said, Mayday, Mayday, staircase C, then I realized my radio wasn't working. The sergeant had come down the stairs and asked what was wrong. I said, my radio isn't transmitting. I tried to turn it to make sure I hadn't changed channels, but my radio had gone out at that point.

So now back to this room. I had been without a radio the whole time and the lieutenant who was there had a probie with him. He was clutching his probie pretty tight, keeping good track of him, and there was another young kid in the room say 25, 26 years old, a young male, light skinned and I can't tell the helmets. The lieutenant asked me, do you think I should call Mayday? I said to him, Mayday? We're beyond Mayday. Nobody's coming for us in here, we've got to get out ourselves. The lieutenant said, why don't we get down to the floor and breathe the air from there? I said, that's no good, when the wind changes, the smoke is being blown into the room. I said I'm not dying in this room, we've got to breach the wall and try to get farther away.

Photo from the Firehouse Collection
The apparatus of Ladder 113 from Brooklyn was parked on West Street. Everything from the location of this rig closer to the World Trade Center site caught fire after the collapse.

I looked around for something to breach the wall, but I couldn't find anything. We tried hitting it a couple of times and we were spent. We weren't getting anywhere. Then, the young kid, who was kind of by himself, said to me, I think I found a way out. I said, if you found a way out, I'll leave. I said, I can't see, so he grabbed my hand and put it on the wall. I followed the wall along, and up at the top of the window there was a way out. He helped me get up there. We climbed up to the top of the debris over the window. It was the last window and jumped out 10 or 15 feet into a debris pile.

The other guys followed, so four us were now outside. The lieutenant asked, what are we going to do now? I had no helmet, and I felt very vulnerable to anything hitting me, so I said, we'll just stay here underneath the overhang until the smoke and everything clears up, then maybe we'll be able to find a way out. I remember looking to our left, what I now know to be probably a walkway. There were explosions to our left. There seemed to be cars or whatever else, things exploding, and it really looked like a scene from a war movie. I repeated, we'll just stay here underneath the overhang until it clears up. Then the young kid said, I think I see a lamp post. He ran about 60 feet straight ahead. We were up on the concourse level, about 30 to 40 feet above the street. He ran to the edge, I guess there used to be a railing there, but it was gone. He saw the lamp post. It was one of these that run out both ways over the sidewalk, and we were about 10 feet or so from it. It would have to be a 10-foot jump just to get to the lamp post. I asked him, what are you going to do? He said, I'm going to jump to the lamp post and slide down it. It was a pretty good jump, but before I could even say that, the kid jumped. He seemed to land in some soft metal, it kind of gave a little. He fell flat down and I was wondering if he was going to get up. He got up. He never looked back. He just got up and started taking off.

I was yelling to put up an aerial because I could see a truck company's rig in the distance. I could make that out. It had debris on it. Whether an aerial could have gone up, I don't know. The lights were going and you would expect to see guys congregating around it, but nobody was around. The kid had disappeared into the dust, into the smoke.

I'm at the edge now. The lieutenant's there with his probie and me. He asked me what I was going to do. I said, I'm not jumping. I remember telling him, I'm 42 years old, this body isn't going to make it like that kid did. I'm not going to kill myself, we made it this far. I remember reaching in my pocket and finding tubular webbing. I tied it off to a beam and hung it down. I remember also thinking they had taken it away from us, but if I had a personal harness, we could have slid in it. I said, we've got this webbing, we can slide with it a little and take 10 feet off our fall and then drop down. I said, stay here, let things clear, if we hear that noise, we jump. Twice I had one foot over the edge with the webbing wrapped around me, thinking I was going to give it a shot, but I really didn't feel like jumping at that point.

I was still looking out toward the truck. I just kept looking out at the truck. I always expected to see firemen around it and it seemed to be from that side, which was the east, the sun was rising at that time and was right over what I think now was St. Paul's or whatever is that church that's on the corner of Vesey. There's no high-rise there, so the sun was able to make its way through, and I could make out the shape or the form of a staircase, maybe next to a truck. I told the officer, I think I see a staircase, so we started walking alongside this building, and sure enough there was the staircase down. We had to climb over some beams and debris to get down, but I told the lieutenant and the guy, come on, I found a way out. I just kept on going.

I was walking up the street and there wasn't a person around. It was just burnt-out vehicles, things on fire, fire trucks and police, everything just desolate. I got to the first corner there, and I tried to look up at the street sign to make sure I was going in the right direction, but it was covered with dust. I couldn't make anything out. I remember seeing a train, so and I thought I would go underground and just walk uptown along the tracks to get away. But then I was thinking, I'm already above ground and I don't want to get stuck underground again, so I stayed above ground.

I kept walking up the block a little. There was a deli on the left-hand side and a guy came out of the deli, he said, are you all right? I was just walking. I said, no, I can't see and I can't breathe. He said, come on in, I'm a policeman. He was an undercover cop. He gave me some water off the shelf, washed my eyes out, washed my mouth out. He said, anything else? I said, yes, do you have any more water? I got to wash my face and he gave me a towel and washed my face off. Again he asked, anything else I can do for you? I said, yes, you can call my wife. I tried calling my wife, but couldn't get in touch with her, lines were down. He said, is there anything else I can do for you? I asked him to take me to a command post, I had to find a chief or somebody to check in with.

We walked farther up the block, I guess to Broadway and Vesey, or maybe Park Row. Up that way we saw (Deputy) Chief (Tom) Haring. I had known Chief Haring from the 8th Division and also from the 1st Battalion. I had no helmet. My eye was swollen at this point and I had bruises and cuts. I just went up to him. I remember saluting him and I said, chief, there's been a collapse, I was with eight guys and I think we lost four of them back there between the buildings. He said, get in an ambulance. I got in an ambulance and they took me to Metropolitan Hospital. I remember being interviewed by the PD and a bunch of other people.

Photo from the Firehouse Collection
Steel and debris cover first-due Ladder 10's apparatus after the first collapse. After the second collapse, the rig's running boards were even with the street when it was uncovered while rescuers looked for missing members.

They told me they had lost a lot of guys. I never really knew how many guys. I remember at one point, when I was stuck in that building, I thought I was going to be the only fireman to die and they were going to criticize me, how the TAC guy worked by himself that day or something, and how he shouldn't have. I remember also telling the PD that I was with two guys from ESU 2 and they had to look for them and Bobby La Rocca.

While I was in the emergency room, I was able to get in touch with my wife. They gave me a cell phone which got through. I just told her, I'm alive, I'll probably be in the hospital a couple of days, but I'm alive, don't worry. She was happy to hear that. That was it.

It wasn't until that night that my brother-in-law Tommy Aiken, who's a fireman in Rescue 5, called me and he told me that everybody was missing. And I said, what do you mean everybody? He says, everybody. I started naming guys from the kitchen table that morning and he said, Bill, they're all missing. I just couldn't believe that - every guy. As it turns out, we lost 11 guys and I was the only guy that came back alive.

The next morning, I was able to get in touch with my wife again and she said to me, I've got bad news. And I said, I already know, I spoke to your brother last night and he told me everybody's missing. She said, no, I've got bad news. Joe Driscoll was a good family friend, and we called him Uncle Joe. She said Uncle Joe was on Flight 93, she said, Uncle Joe died.

I remember telling her, give me all the bad news now because I can take it, I'm at an all-time low. I hung up with her and that was it. I just sat in my hospital room for three days by myself and I guess I took it in little by little. I still didn't know the magnitude of it all until they came to pick me up and drove me downtown to the tunnel and I saw my brother-in-law, Tommy Aiken. Three guys from the firehouse came to get me and drove me home. When I saw the state troopers, the National Guard, then it really hit me. I said, wow. I think I was kind of in a little shock and couldn't believe what had happened.

The PD came to interview me three or four times during my hospital stay and they kept on saying, we lost a lot of guys. That's all they would say. I never really got names. I remember hearing Reverend Mychal Judge lost his life and then I saw the sun shine through that morning. It was almost like it was him shining through to show me the way to get out. Looking back, maybe I saw 30 or 40 guys that day, and only two are alive that I knew.

When I was with that police sergeant, he said, we'd better get out of here, and I said, you're probably right. Before he counted off, I ran upstairs and was yelling for Bobby La Rocca. I went halfway down the hallway of probably the third floor of the North Tower, yelling Bobby, Bobby, and there seemed to be nobody around. It was all black. I guess he just knew it was time to get out at that point and Bobby wasn't around.

But I remember when I called my wife that afternoon in the hospital, I got in touch with her and the first thing I said is, you've got to call Rescue 2 and tell them I was with a Bobby La Rocca. He used to be in the company, now he's the lieutenant. He was with me. He was off duty. Nobody knows he was there. You've got to tell Rescue 2. You've got to let them know or call Rescue 5 and let them know. That was my main concern when I was in the hospital. I think I found out a couple of days later that he was alive. I spoke to him a couple of nights after I got out of the hospital. He assisted the woman Olivia out. I believe he took her all the way to the ambulance and that's when the South Tower came down and the female Port Authority cop had re-entered the building. I believe that's how she passed away.

My radio went down as soon as that first tower came down. I even checked it. When you're in TAC, you're out, you're getting a meal, you're doing this, you're away from the rig, I'm trained to listen to that radio. I never heard anything, get out or anything like that. Maybe I wasn't paying attention in the beginning, when we were getting all the people out. The people jumping, that took your mind off a lot of things, but maybe a couple of where are you, where's the command post, transmissions like that I remember hearing. I remember once in the very beginning hearing TAC 1 chief say where are you to a SOC chief and they had a little conversation. I thought about teaming up with TAC 1 at that point, but I said it's a big complex.

Rescue 5 got back from the steam leak, I think, around 9:20 or so, and they didn't get to the trade center until maybe 9:35, something like that. I had been there. I got there maybe five minutes after the second plane hit. I saw Pete Carroll from Squad 1 and three guys from Hazmat, the only guys in SOC I remember seeing. I knew one guy from Hazmat, Marty De Meo. I knew him well and he was one of the guys who passed away. He was the guy that came up to me asking for tools. He was with two other guys.

Earlier, when I was in the lobby of the Marriott, I heard Chief Cassano saying, you four companies to the 70th floor. At that same time there was an urgent, third plane, OEM advises third plane headed toward the towers. Everybody stopped for a moment. Then some guys were getting on the air, shoot the plane down, a couple of two or three transmissions well, is it coming, let's get out, but it was mainly let's just do our job and keep on going.

I remember Chief Cassano standing there by himself and right next to him was the security guard for the Marriott. He just was standing there, and I told him, you should just get out of here now, but he was just standing there like he didn't know what to do. I remember just telling him, you can just leave now, and that was it. Not many people around. Everything was organized. No panic whatsoever the whole time. Like I said, no notice it was coming down if you were there. And the one came down. People say, why didn't you leave? Never expected two to come down. Never expected one to come down.

I tore my ACL on my right knee, my breathing was affected, the whole right side of my body was injured. That shard of glass that I was worried about black-and-blued my whole right side of my body. I know it was from that piece of glass going in the window. On my face I had abrasions and contusions and black eyes. I was about 20 to 40 feet from that window. I took two steps toward it and I was blown into it. I had to climb up to get into it a little. I still had my Scott on at that time. I should have ditched that long ago. It was a minute from the time we left the North Tower to when it came down. We were only 40, 50 feet away from the tower when it came down.

That lieutenant and the probie and the other young guy, I have no idea who they were. Maybe the guy was from 24 Engine, the kid who jumped. There was somebody that jumped that had two ankle injuries. Somebody gave me the radio transmissions later. I just listened to it a little and there's one point where I thought the guy was from 24 Engine, the officer.