WTC: This Is Their Story - Part I

Firehouse® continues to present the extraordinary stories of those FDNY firefighters who were at the scene of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

We continue to present the extraordinary stories of those FDNY firefighters who were on the scene and operating in different areas before, during and after the collapse of the World Trade Center's 110-story twin towers following the terrorist attack on 9/11. The interviews were conducted by Harvey...

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The firefighters from Ladder 43 entered the stairway and worked on removing those still trapped. I wound up standing alone outside the wall. There were five floors of fire in one of the nearby buildings. I wasn't sure we were going to get back they way we came. It was getting bad. Debris was falling down all over. It was luck that Picciato heard me on the radio. Ladder 43 did the best they could to save people's lives. They were fortunate to get an assignment to get the people out.

FDNY Photo
Battalion Chief, John J. Salka Jr.

Battalion Chief John J. Salka Jr. Battalion 18
22 years

Firehouse: You responded from home?

Salka: Yes, I went to the battalion. And then from the battalion, we went to the division. Everybody was forming up there, breaking into teams, each with an officer and five firemen. We loaded a bus up and got going. We left an officer in charge of the firehouse to get the rest of the guys. We jumped in the spare chief's car. We had (Battalion) Chief (Richard J.) Blatus, myself, Deputy Chief Mike Rappe, two 18th Battalion aides, Steve Calcutti and Jack Shavon, and a driver. We went down the East Side, from the Harlem River to the FDR Drive, then took the FDR down. It was desolate, just emergency vehicles going south, pedestrians running north.

We got off at the Brooklyn Bridge exit, right near City Hall, and that's when we encountered all the dust and the paper and the debris filling the streets. We stopped right outside City Hall, at City Hall Park. We got out of the car there. We sent the division van back and we tried to stay together, then we started walking. We ended up getting some paper masks from an ambulance right there and put them on. We all had radios.

We ended up running into (Deputy) Chief (Tom) Haring, who had some kind of command post starting to be set up there. My brother-in-law was working in 10 Truck that morning, so I was trying to get down that way to see what was going on. I said to Blatus let's try and get down there. I don't recall exactly where we walked, but we walked south, I think down Broadway. Then we made a right and walked past 10 Truck and west on Liberty. We were encountering debris all over the place. It was unbelievable.

Firehouse: What was going on in the other small buildings? Were they on fire?

Salka: There was fire, heavy fire. I remember walking past 10 Truck - 10 and 10 (the shared quarters of Engine Company 10 and Ladder Company 10). It was all just blown out. The doors were blown out. The windows were blown out. You couldn't even really tell it was a firehouse.

We kept walking south. We were trying to just get over that whole terrain. There was a command post. That's really where we were trying to get to. I remember walking down the West Side and 7 World Trade Center was still really going pretty good. Everybody was worrying about it falling over. Even though we were probably way out of range of it, everybody was keeping an eye on that building. We ended up walking under the pedestrian bridge. Rescue 1 was under there, and a couple of other rigs. The bridge was down, collapsed on these rigs. And people were yelling don't go under there, it's unstable. We made our way through there between the rigs. We came out the other side and we encountered (Deputy) Chief (Nick) Visconti, who was on the radio. We heard him.

Firehouse Collection
Engine 206 from Brooklyn and firefighters operate on Church Street in front of a high-rise hotel.

Now, I've got to backtrack because when we were on Liberty Street, I think it was right about when we got to 10 and 10, I heard somebody say Ladder 6 on the radio. I said Ladder 6, that's Jay's company, I wonder if he's working. So I heard his voice. I thought I heard his voice. I got on the radio. I said 18 Battalion to Ladder 6, is that you, Jay? He said yeah, is that you John? I said yeah, so we started talking. And, of course, he was talking to a lot of people, but I got in there and said where are you? I'm in the north tower, we're in the B Stairway, which didn't exist anymore, not in the configuration that we'd recognize it.

We called him a couple of times and said where's your rig, is your rig parked out on what street, were there any other rigs near your rig because we kept making our way closer and closer. Then I could actually see some rigs. There were a load of rigs there that were just either partially crushed or partially buried near that overpass. We asked Jay did you walk straight in from your rig because we couldn't see his rig at all, but he didn't recall that.