As I begin this column, it is exactly one week to the hour since those creatures crawled out of their cesspool and hijacked four planes, sending thousands of innocent people to their deaths, including hundreds in the fire and other emergency services. The earliest many of you will read this column will be November. Who knows what will have transpired between now and then.
Life is supposed to be good now, but it is anything but that. I retired from public service on Sept. 1 to operate my consulting company on a full-time basis. As I awake on the morning of Sept. 11, it seems like a perfect day. But like many of you, I sit in horror after my wife tells me to turn on the TV, since a plane has hit the World Trade Center. As I make my way from my home office to the TV in the family room, I think about the military plane that hit the Empire State Building in 1945. But before I turn on the TV, it does not feel right. Our aviation standards are much higher today and air controllers have highly sophisticated computer systems that vector planes away from such possibilities. But wait! It must be foggy and a small aircraft has hit it.
All my conjecture is wrong after the TV screen comes on. Multiple floors burning, a big hole covering multiple floors on one side of the building, thick black smoke (must be lots of hydrocarbons burning) pouring out of multiple floors and people hanging from windows. This cannot be happening!
Shortly thereafter, the TV announcers are recapping that a commercial aircraft has hit the World Trade Center. It must be intentional. The sky is crystal blue. Just then, as you know, the second plane hits the other tower, generating a huge ball of flame and sending debris falling to the street.
My immediate thoughts go a million miles an hour. What about the people on the street below? All that glass and huge chunks of debris raining down on them! What about the poor people in those towers, on the planes and the families watching on TV?
As the smoke thickens, it is clear the aviation fuel is burning hot. What is the time/ temperature curve before steel or protected steel fails at those temperatures? Unfortunately, those watching TV find out when the first tower collapses. My first thought is of those in the fire service who are in the building or the street below. No doubt we've got a lot of people dead, I think.
I suddenly notice I have tears streaming down my face. But wait again! We have been indoctrinated since children that men do not cry. But this time it is different. As the second tower collapses, no doubt we have people below trying to rescue those from the first tower collapse or even in the tower attempting to make rescues. Again, the tears stream down my face, as I know not only have we lost hundreds or thousands of innocent people, but many in the fire service.
I begin to think of all the friends and acquaintances I have in the FDNY. I think of my good friend Paul Maniscalco, now off the track on a job-related disability, who was the EMS incident commander during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I think of all the lectures I heard him give on the 1993 incident and the many talks we had over dinner. One figure sticks in the mind from those talks and lectures - 50,000 people are at the World Trade Center on a daily basis. I later check on Paul and he tells me he knows 68 people who are missing.
Like many of you, I have not slept well. I find myself rising at all hours to watch TV for the faintest glimmer of hope that many people, including firefighters and EMS personnel, will be found alive in the rubble. However, the TV screen tells me something the average person cannot see. There is no evidence of desks, chairs, computers or any other office furniture. It is only steel, concrete and dust. If those items were incinerated or destroyed, so were the people. Again, I feel that lump in my throat again beginning to build and the tears soon follow.
I watch TV footage in the ensuing days of the rescue and I begin to discover all those important issues in the fire service are no longer important. I see union firefighters working beside volunteer firefighters. I see medics from the private ambulance companies working alongside government municipal services. I would later learn many private medics also lost their lives along with two FDNY paramedics, and I again find tears streaming down my face.
Those who responded to the scene were just like you and me. When called upon, they responded and did their job without hesitation. Unfortunately, they were on the wrong shift or assigned to the wrong engine house on this particular day.
The fire service is a tightly knit community. The members of Rescue Squad 1 in St. Louis last year made a little friendly wager of fire department T-shirts with the members of Rescue 1 from the FDNY over who would win the baseball playoff games between the Mets and the Cardinals last year. Unfortunately, all the members of Rescue Company 1 who made the wager are missing.
There are many other occasions when I find a lump in my throat or tears flowing from my eyes - when I see the picture of the firefighters raising the flag on a demolished flagpole from the World Trade Center, when I see the firefighters ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, when I see baseball and football teams wearing FDNY hats, when I see firefighter honor guards presenting American flags at a sporting event as "God Bless America" is played, when I see images from the funerals of firefighters. I see the despair in the eyes of Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen as he stands behind Mayor Giuliani at press conferences, knowing he has lost 343 firefighters and EMS personnel.
I look over the list of those missing from the FDNY to see if I recognize any names and unfortunately there are some. I also see two names that are the same and one has a Jr. behind it. My fears are realized later when I find out a father and son have died and/or missing in the World Trade Center and the other son, also a member of the FDNY, is searching for them in the rubble. Again, tears fill my eyes as I think of the loss that this family has suffered.
The fire service will rise again. But we will never stop mourning those we lost, and remembering the contribution they made to the community and to the fire service. When you think of them and their unselfish sacrifice, it's OK to cry.
Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the managing director of The Ludwig Group, LLC, a professional consulting firm specializing in fire and EMS issues. He retired as the chief paramedic of the St. Louis Fire Department after serving the City of St. Louis for 24 years. Ludwig has trained and lectured internationally and nationally on fire-based EMS topics. He can be reached at 314-752-1240 or via www.garyludwig.com.