I’m heading in for my first day tour to L 31 for my new assignment, turning off from the Bruckner Expressway onto Longwood Avenue a couple of quick right and left turns puts me on Intervale Avenue and about five minutes from the firehouse I grew up in as a teenanger, it’s like a dream come true. I’ve worked in great companies and revered my time with them, but the historical nature of returning to my grassroots has me feeling nostalgic and curious as the present is about to collide with the past.
It’s been a long time since I have been back in this neighborhood that captivated and enthralled me as an impressionable teen. The community has completely changed from the numerous rows of scorched wasteland of vacant apartment houses, abandoned vehicles and open running fire hydrants. The cobblestone streets have now been neatly paved over with blacktop and lined with townhomes growing green grass front yards. Remaining apartment buildings appear vibrant and well taken care of and I haven’t noticed any empty lots of garbage nor a stripped abandoned vehicle anywhere. There is a lot of townhome construction on various streets but no large projects.
Crossing under Westchester Avenue the subway number 2 and 5 trains run overhead on the El, I know the firehouse is a minute away and I’m eager to return to this magical joint called “La Casa Grande”. Instead of parking along the street as I recall the guys did years ago, the firehouse now has a dedicated parking area across the street in a fenced lot where I pull in to park my GMC pick-up. I take a minute checking out the firehouse and surroundings from the parking lot, I’m being bombarded with golden memories of my time with Jack. I’m experiencing a “Back to the Future” moment.
In a fluky coincidence, I notice that L 31 is responding out of E 82’s bay door just like it did when I first entered the firehouse as a kid. Today L 42 is set back in the firehouse as their house is being renovated, and E 82 is angled to respond from that bay too. In the early 70’s, E 82 and E 85 responded from the L 31 bay, they sat side by side in the extra large deep bay and L 31 moved over and responded out of the E 82 bay that was shorter.
Entering quarters early enough this warm summer morning before the day tour I drop my gear off near the housewatch with a hello and “reporting for duty” handshake to the fireman on watch then proceed to the kitchen to drop off a couple of danish rings I picked up from a bakery. I start the ball rolling by shaking a few hands and introducing myself as the “new guy”, there are a few guys sitting at the kitchen table and they are very welcoming, some are surprised that a nineteen year vet has transferred into the company. I oblige them with small talk without getting into specifics, there will be time later. The Captain I can tell is a bit freaked out though, he thinks I’m some sort of “administrative plant” that is going to report back to some secret commission on evil doings. I have to laugh, this was a Bronx fallacy I’ve heard before.
A young fireman helps me find an empty locker upstairs so I can change into my work duty uniform. This is the first time I have ever been upstairs in this firehouse, when I rode with Uncle Jack, I hung out on the first floor. Putting my work duty clothes on I can’t help but wonder what locker was Jacks, or where was Dennis Smith’s? For all I know, maybe I’m using it. In Dennis’ s book he mentions cleaning out a locker for union paperwork to be stored in, I casually glance around to see if there is a locker as such, but I don’t notice any.
All dressed and ready to go for my first tour I relieved a member on L 31 near the rig, I have the irons until the change of tour in about a half hour. Back in the kitchen I pour myself a cup of Joe and join the troops, as they chat away I listen but I’m deep in thought. I get the feeling I’m in the movie “Field of Dreams”. Like the part where Kevin Costner is waiting for “Shoeless Joe Jackson” to emerge from the corn field but only in the likeness of Charlie McCarthy or Mel Hazel. I can almost see a young me sitting where I used to sit when the big guys were here, the historical significance of this firehouse is oozing and I’m sucking it all in unbeknownst to the others.
I greet my new boss entering the kitchen, Lt. Mac. Coincidently, the very first time I rode with L 31 as a teen, the officer's name was Capt. McCaffrey, and my new boss’s name is very similar with just a letter off to make it different. At the change of tours I get to meet my new crew, all find young men with experiences from proby to twelve years on, the LCC is the senior man of the company who will be retiring soon. One guy stands out, Kenny, he is very welcoming and spirited, we review the TL together. Today I have the can, no surprise as I’ll have to validate my background and experience a little at a time, until the officer feels comfortable with me, it’s like starting all over again. It could be frustrating, but I knew this goes with the territory and I’m fine with it, it’s to be expected and in a few weeks it will all be behind me.
I found out Kenny was studying for the upcoming promotion exam as I was. He showed me a study room that was on the second floor, it had a long makeshift desk along the wall where students could read and take notes quietly and privately.
The firehouse is active with the addition of L 42 members, and that reminds me back then when I rode the beehive of activity with four companies stationed here. It seems like the L 42 guys have occupied the basement in a makeshift tv room.
I’ve been here about a month now and caught some nice first due truck work that I was looking for and getting back into the groove. The newness and nostalgia has subsided and I’m not the new guy anymore. But since I’m a Ladder Chauffeur I find myself being detailed to L 42 often and that’s fine, I’m still in the firehouse just working across the floor. I get a kick driving the streets that I’m familiar with from the Dennis Smith book, Stebbins, Tiffany, Hoe, Jennings, Fox and all the others have a ring to it.
Toward my second month with L 31 this day tour Lt. Mac has two surprises for me, the first is a red L 31 insert that I gladly accepted. I had to maintain my cool but I was jumping for joy in my head, the frontpiece is an immense honor to wear like Jack, Charlie, Mel and all the other guys I knew back then did. Those guys were my inspiration and mentors, just sharing this small piece of treasure was humbling, what could be more exciting? Wham, the second surprise, the boss nonchalantly mentions I’m the Chauffeur today.
Thirty years ago, I sat for the very first time in the front seat of L 31 next to the legend LCC Jerry Albert as a young teen and rode the next three years sharing the same front seat with other legends like Charlie McCarthy and Lt Bob Farrell, even when he became Captain. And, today I will occupy that iconic "seat", an unimaginable ultimate milestone. A career full circle I couldn’t be any happier.
However, in each life some rain must fall. I have been in L 31 for three months and enjoying the routine, new friends and fire duty. Today is September 4th, 2001, a day after Labor day and this morning we had a nice “all hands” basement job on Bryant Avenue near Freeman Street in a private dwelling. I had the irons, forced the iron gate, crawled in with the officer and can and located the fire in a back room like old times, just like riding a bike. Back in the firehouse a few of us were talking about the job when the truck boss approaches me at the kitchen table and says that “L 31 has to supply a man for a thirty day detail to the 1st Division, L 10 for manpower”. He also states that “it is not my detail, and I don’t have to take it”. He continues “but since you live so close, would you consider taking it”.
Of course I’d rather not, and he puts me on the spot. I want to show I’m a team player and as I think more about it, I’d have more study time. With the promotion exam only a month away, I could get extra study time in since I’d have no commute and usually lower Manhattan shuts down after 6 PM. Plus, L 10 is a fine firehouse within walking distance from home, so I say to the boss, “fine I’ll take it, happy to help out”. The detail starts September 8th. Sounds like a plan, so what could go wrong?
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed! KMG-365
L 10's Quarters that face the South Tower; WTC #2 on Liberty Street.
Milestone reached when I was asked to Drive L 31, some 30 years later after riding in the front seat as a teenage buff.
Jack Mayne and Mickey Maye were both great guys to work with in the firehouse and at a job. When I went to 82 Maye was still president of the UFA, losing his re-election bid. The first time I worked with him was a night tour. I came up the stairs and Mickey was standing in front of his locker. We said hello to each other and that was it. A little later I went down to the kitchen and "Milly" was cooking the tour meal, Mickey was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. Milly said to Mickey "hey big guy get the plates out for the meal." Mickey got up and started to do so. I said the Milly "give the guy a break, first tour back." Milly said "he's back he's back." A little later into the tour we had a nasty first due tenement fire, heavy fire with the hard to take yellow brown smoke throughout, no masks then. Mickey took a feed and was sitting on the lower floor stairs throwing up. Every ff who passed him going up or going down said pretty much the same to him "welcome back Mick, miss us?" Mickey took all the ribbing in style, he was back. And we were all better off for it.
I found this link that references the area known as "The Hole" that Johnny Gage talks about in post #237 on the Glory Days thread. Known as the worst neighborhood in NYC to this day. If things continue on the downward spiral they are currently on, other neighborhood may soon rival "The Hole".
The morning alarm clock is about to buzz at 5:30 A.M. but my beautiful wife Jean awakes beforehand and shuts it off hopping out of bed in one motion. This is the usual wake up time for Jean, plus today is going to be extra busy for her. Jean is employed by Bank of America which has offices on the 81st floor in the North WTC # 1 Tower, the tower with the antennae on the roof. Jean and her colleagues start their days at the office at 8:00 because of the early banking hours in Europe, it is also the time Flight 11 takes off from Boston Logan Airport headed for Los Angeles. Jean is the executive assistant for the Financial Managing Director who occupies the office next to her desk. Today there will be a large meeting scheduled with corporate managers flying in from Charlotte, North Carolina and she needs to make sure all the preparations, provisions and notifications have been finalized so that the meeting will go off without a hitch.
Today is September 11, 2001. Jean and I have a small one bedroom apartment on the ninth floor in a residential high-rise apartment house on Rector Place abutting the Hudson River. It's a beautiful apartment building and apartment, our view is towards the east where we can partially see the World Trade Center South Tower among other city structures. Oftentimes I’d watch with amazement as the window washers cleaned the South Tower windows every few weeks suspended on scaffolds.
Today I was supposed to work at L 10, but a quick group change by Captain Paul gives me the day off and so I will take the opportunity to head out to the Fire Tech prep class in Staten Island for the upcoming lieutenants exam next month. In the meantime, while Jean prepares for work I whip up her favorite dish, an asparagus omelette and black coffee. She will eat and run, while I stay out of the way and sip my coffee on the couch reviewing the study material from last week one more time. Fire Tech is a structured study program that covers all the material for upcoming Lieutenants and Captain promotion exams and I haven’t missed a class in two years.
After breakfast Jean walks to the North Tower that is only a few blocks away then takes the elevator to the sky lobby on the 78th floor and from there switches to another elevator that will stop at her floor, the 81st. She will be at her desk promptly before 8:00 and all set to go. From her desk she has expansive splendid views of Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge to the southern
tip of Manhattan where you can see the Staten Island ferries shuttling back and forth. It is not uncommon to see a helicopter flying below.
I’m temporarily assigned to L 10 for thirty days, the firehouse is located on Liberty Street along with E 10 in the shadow of South WTC #2 Tower. I volunteered to take the detail from my assigned unit L 31 to downtown L 10 because of manpower issues, actually, a lack of. There is a large turnover of manpower in this area as young firemen seek and transfer out of Manhattan to firehouses that have more fire duty in other Boroughs and that creates manpower shortages. I began the detail on September 8 and on my first day tour I was sent to drive L 15 located on Water Street that is quartered with E 4.
E 4 and L 15 have a huge but rather quiet firehouse that faces the East River near the touristy “South Street Seaport”. On the third floor is a virtual machine shop the members put together and in another room one of the members has a very elaborate HO model train set up. Checking in for duty I ran into an old buddy, Lt. Joe Leavy who was heading home. Joe and I went through proby school together, literally side by side. He stood next to me when we had squad formation at the rock, we experienced our proby training together. I haven’t seen him in many years, but it was fun to catch up before he left. After roll call, helping me inspect the Seagrave Tower Ladder is a young fireman named Scott Larsen. He’s a bear of a guy with a keen sense of humor and very informed about the contents of each compartment we inspect. I really like this young man, he has a great positive attitude and I think of the pleasure it is to work with young firemen like Scott who have much to offer and a fine future ahead.
[ L 15, photo by Mike Martinelli ]
The following day I worked at L 10, this is not the first time I have spent time here. When I was a fireman with L 38 in 1987 the department came out with a program called “Career Path”, and you could volunteer to work in a downtown First Division Company to gain experience in high-rise firefighting and other types of Big City emergencies and action. I liked the idea and volunteered to do my ninety days at L 10.
The L 10 firehouse was fairly new at the time, in fact it still had brown bay doors instead of the traditional red. The Liberty Street firehouse was large and spacious, but lacked charm, it had the feel of an elementary school with brick block walls throughout painted a blah high gloss cream. The housewatch was up in the front corner of the firehouse that had a perfect view of all the commuters who walked by every morning and evening going to and returning from their jobs on Wall Street and the surrounding area from the WTC subway station across from the firehouse.
A modern kitchen in the rear of the firehouse had large airy windows facing Cedar Street. On the second floor was a large bunk room where all of the beds for both companies lined the outside walls and a small weight room on the third floor. Only thing missing was a comfortable television room, so the members of the company constructed a very stylish brick laid television room on the apparatus floor behind the Ladder truck that accommodates four couches.
[ The 'TENHOUSE' pre 9/11 ]
After working the day tour at L 10 one of the young firemen needed the night off and so I offered to work for him. I’ll “bank” the tour and have him repay me just before the lieutenants exam is scheduled giving me more time off to cram. Now in the sitting room watching the premier of Band of Brothers on HBO, L 10 Captain Paul pops into the room and we have a quick chit-chat. I like the Captain, I worked with him a handful of times before at L 5, he’s high spirited and pleasant to talk with. Since I have not been assigned to any permanent group yet, the temporary set of tours I’m finishing up with would have me working during September 11th. Tonight he has stopped in to tell me I am getting a group change and instead of coming in on Tuesday, September 11, I should report for duty Thursday morning. I’m fine with the change and since I’m off Tuesday, I will be able to attend the Fire Tech course given at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Catering Hall on Staten Island.
Jean heads out for her job and it’s my time to get done and travel to the prep course.Today is Primary Day, city folks will be voting for a new Mayor as Rudy Giuliani’s limited two terms are completed, Mike Blomberg is running against NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson for the coveted spot. Out of the shower I grab a new L 10 black golf shirt I bought the other day from the firehouse commissary to wear with my jeans and black penny loafers. The L 10 shirt is unique, instead of the typical St. Florian cross, there’s an embroidered fireman that stands on top of both WTC Towers holding a hose as flames shoot from around the towers. The stitching is colorful and the words say “L 10, On Top of the World”.
Since I’m assigned to L 10, I am allowed to park inside the lower level basement of WTC #2 where the FDNY has ten reserved spots. I had to get a pass from the Port Authority and show it to the Police Security everytime I had to retrieve my silver GMC pick-up truck.
[ WTC underground parking permit ]
Heading toward Staten Island and the VFW, I pop a cassette into my player and listen to the recording from last week's study lecture instead of listening to the regular hogwash on the vehicle radio. Students are permitted to tape the lectures and lessons, and so I use every available opportunity to cram in study time. The morning weather is crystal clear and cool, more beautiful than usual with an incredible cloudless blue sky, if you had to order a perfect day, this was it.
[ Punch card for Fire Tech admittance ]
I like to get to class as the doors open, Fire Tech has an arrangement with the VFW to instruct these prep courses. Entering into the VFW you show your Fire Tech “attendance” punch card at the desk where two firefighters sit. One punches a star shaped hole into the card while the other hands you a packet of study material for the following week and a fifty question practice exam for the material you studied this past week. From there you enter the catering hall through two wooden swinging doors. The VFW has a large catering hall, there are about ten uncovered wooden top tables set up with six chairs evenly spaced throughout. I like to grab a seat up in the front, I can set up my mini cassette recorder and hear the instructor clearly. Today I’m sitting alongside a guy I say hello to, he introduces himself as Harvey, he seems very studious, I’ve noticed him before and I’m glad to meet him this time.
The room is very quiet, there are a few guys sitting at tables diligently going through the fifty questions. I open my packet and begin to tackle the questions in front of me. I am only into a few questions, when there is a commotion in the hallway followed by a fireman who bursts through the swinging doors and shouts: “TWO PLANES JUST HIT THE TRADE CENTER!”
Immediately I jump from my chair and run towards the front of the building, I can see both towers across the river belching heavy black smoke staining the sky. To my right is a green telephone on the wall and I use it to call Jean’s office to find out her situation. Is she ok? Is she evacuating, is she trapped? The professional that Jean is, her phone never rings twice and is always answered promptly, the phone rings again and I hear her voice, but it is the answering machine recording. It’s time I hit the road and get to L 10 quarters as fast as possible.
Michael J. Maye born June 25, 1930 on East 138th Street (shanty or lace curtain?). Graduate of Samuel Gompers High School.....sandhog...Golden Gloves then professional boxer (at least 38 fights-no losses)...Korean War Vet ...Army reconnaissance-the tip of the spear. His two cop brothers advised him to join FDNY. Died February 15, 2013. A favorite tactic at the negotiating table was to light matches, one after another. Wonder if that got that prig John V. Lindsay's teeth grinding.
Jean’s boss is conducting the meeting for several top company executives, it is 0846 when the abrupt impact of Flight 77 into the North Tower sends a shock wave through the building, Jean and her colleagues are thrown from their seats. Ceiling tiles, light fixtures and wiring fall from the ceiling and door frames split from the walls as the building sways, it feels as if the building is going to topple over. In her office, there is slight confusion as to what has just happened, a colleague takes charge and announces “Everyone to the stairs” to begin evacuating from the 81st floor.
There is a strong odor of jet fuel and small fires burning making it difficult to breathe. Jean's boss forgot something back in his office and he sprinted uphill on the buckled corridor hallway. Jean’s office workers immediately began evacuating down the emergency exit stairwell, they noticed nobody else from the floors above following them. People conversed in the hot stairwell, surmising that a small explosion of some sort or small airplane had erroneously struck the building. The evacuation was calm and steady.
It is 0903 when Jean and her exhausted office workers arrived at the sky lobby on the 44th floor to switch stairwells and catch their breath momentarily; they suddenly observed the blistering fireball from the second airplane smashing into the South Tower directly across from them. There was a new found sense of urgency as many co-workers now realized the WTC Towers were being attacked.
[ 44th floor sky lobby ]
From my view on Staten Island, black smoke is belching from the Towers staining the clear blue sky as I jump into my silver GMC pick-up truck and start to race back to Manhattan and L 10’s quarters. I do not know the condition or whereabouts of my wife, only that she works on the 81st floor and it doesn’t look good. As fast I can safely drive, I weave in and out of slower moving cars crossing over the Verrazano Bridge who are viewing the horrific attack, I’m careful of a few cars that are almost completely stopped and like a racecar driver I employ evasive maneuvers to avoid striking them. The Towers are still too far for me to estimate what floors the smoke is emanating from and the pounding uncertainty of my wife’s whereabouts.
Finally off the bridge I am swiftly cruising on the Gowanus Expressway, ahead is a dedicated bus lane for buses only and it’s clear of traffic, a policeman on foot is standing to the side, he’s pointing for me to move out of the lane towards the regular traffic that is creeping along slowly. But I have other ideas and stick out my wallet with badge in hand, the police officer steps back.
I’ve entered the bus lane, both sides of the lane are lined with cement Jersey barriers and they are just wide enough for my vehicle with no room for error. Traveling at a good clip I glance upward trying to visually estimate where the airplane impacted the North Tower and figure if Jean is above or below the impact zone while driving like a maniac. It’s very frustrating trying to get the proximity of impact and then re-focus on the road ahead. In addition, there are about five police vehicles trailing close behind me.
The lane is clear as I enter the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel continuing my race toward Manhattan. Exiting from the tunnel, the traffic is at a standstill and not moving. There is just enough room for me to get by swinging to the left around the stopped buses and exit onto West Street. Directly across the street is a cement median strip that is wide enough for me to park on and not block the flow of traffic in either direction and I park there.
I start hustling up West Street passing the stopped idling buses. Getting closer to the vicinity of Carlisle Street I notice Police Officers who are attempting to cover body torsos laying in the street with yellow plastic blankets, it looks like big chunks of raw beef. I cut down Albany Street, a short cut to get to the firehouse. There is debris from building materials, jet parts including cushions and paper covering the street mixed with what looks like an explosion from a butcher's store of large and small body tissue. I'm careful running tip-toe through the slaughter, but the carnage is everywhere and unavoidable.
Inside the North Tower, hastily making their way downstairs, adrenaline coursing through their bodies, the fire escape stairwell started getting slower with the congestion of additional fatigue office workers whose pace had slowed down . Jean had an impending feeling that she and her co-workers were living on borrowed time, “Let's go, move it” she and others bellowed, the slow pace was frustrating. Climbing up the staircase against the evacuating workers Jean noticed Lt. Vinny Giammona, one of the L 5 lieutenants I drove. She begged him to be careful, Vinny, the lieutenant that liked to joke constantly and dress like Elvis, now had an unwavering look as he ascended the stairs passing by Jean with a quick acknowledgement.
The backdoor of the Liberty Street firehouse on Cedar Street is partially open and I hastily make my way inside towards the front of the firehouse so that I can make a quick assessment of the North Tower. The firehouse is empty, the trucks are at the scene and an ambulance has backed into one of the bays with a few injured civilians laying upright against it being treated by a handful of medical personnel.
I quickly glance up at the towers, paper floats down like a ticker-tape parade as does small metal shavings of the buildings. The smoke directly overhead blocks out the sun with everything below shaded. I’m convinced that the only safe course of action for Jean and her office colleagues would be to evacuate seeking refuge on the roof of the North Tower. It will take a little while but I’m convinced I’ll make my way there.
I hop the steps two at a time to my locker on the second floor to ditch my new L 10 golf shirt with the emblem of the WTC on fire, I want to have a uniform shirt on and pull it out of my locker. It takes me seconds to swap shirts and head back downstairs. My turnout gear is on the rack, gearing up in front of me is a fireman from L 42 that I recognized when I was detailed to drive L 42, it is Pete Bielfield. He has just scurried into quarters coming from the Medical Office in Brooklyn. Every time I saw Pete previously he had a cigar, today is no exception, he quickly tries on bunker gear that fits from the rack.
At the base of the stairs Jean meets another fireman I knew from L 10, John Morabito. Jean asked if I was anywhere on scene, John reassured her I was not, but that she needed to keep moving quickly and run through the lower Trade Center Mall lobby following the advice of other emergency personnel towards an exit.
I’m ready to charge out towards the WTC, and so is Pete, I suggest we work together as a team and he agrees as we begin to dart towards the open bay front door. Suddenly I am intercepted by L 10 Captain Paul, he tells me to take a halligan tool that he has as a spare, Pete keeps jogging towards the South Tower while I turn to get the tool the Captain has in a locker and hands it over to me. It is 0959, from the back of the firehouse I rush to catch up with Pete, just as I’m about to bust past the bay door, a fireman standing there looking upwards at the South Tower, cries out “OH SHIT, HERE IT COMES” at the same time clotheslining my neck with his arm stopping me in my tracks.
Jean has finally evacuated down the 81 flights of stairs from her office, her evacuation taking over an hour to descend from the 81st floor. Entering the WTC lobby she recognizes a familiar face that we both knew, Fireman John Morabito, who is the Ladder Chauffeur of L 10, he is hastily directing people from the lobby of the North WTC to another line of Police Officers who are whisking people from the blazing tower toward safety.
Jean momentarily stopped and asked John if I was anywhere on scene, John reassured her I was not, but that she needed to keep moving quickly. People were being directed to run through the lower floor “Shopping Mall” that connected the two towers. She and her fellow office workers ran through a gauntlet of ankle deep water which was pouring down from the ceiling. The streamline of office workers are directed to exit at the eastern end of the WTC Mall on Church Street near Borders Bookstore. From there, Jean takes a second, turns around to look at the burning towers for the first time from the end of the WTC Plaza, feeling safe and catching her breath. She realizes how close to death she and her colleagues were and sighs a breath of relief. Suddenly, The South Tower begins to collapse.
The fireman standing at the front door of L 10’s firehouse is looking straight up at the blazing South Tower which is directly overhead on the opposite side of the street, as I’m about to charge past he notices the top of the tower twisting, exclaiming “HOLY SHIT, HERE IT COMES!” sticking his arm outwards catching me under my chin with his stiff arm preventing me from passing. My head is forced to tilt back and I also now see what he does, the top of the South Tower listing and beginning to fall.
The rumbling of the collapsing tower, clashing of cement and steel and shaking of the ground got worse and louder in the ten seconds it took for the tower to come completely down, as if a roaring freight train was falling from the sky.
(L 10's Quarters 2 days after 9/11)
A police officer standing alongside Jean, recognizes the close proximity of the bursting tower, he grabs Jean's hand and pulls her into an underground subway station free from the raining debris of steel, glass, cement and everything imaginable inside the one hundred ten stories. Jean realizes the severity of the situation and that she is not as safe as she first thought, and now fears for her life.
In the firehouse the medical technicians and fireman that clothesline me at the door start to run towards the back of the firehouse as large thumps and bangs reverberate above. An Asian civilian being treated for a leg injury sits upright against the front wheel of the ambulance that has backed into quarters. I dropped the halligan tool that Captain Paul gave me and turnout coat I had slung over my arm. Immediately I grab the civilian’s collar and under his arm and proceed to drag him as far back into the cover of the firehouse that now sounds like it is coming apart with loud bangs.
With tornado type wind, a force of debris begins to blast through the open front bay doors, I fall back and drop hard to the floor trying to cover the civilian’s head and face with my leg. The rumble is intense, the floor shakes like an earthquake while hot debris blasts over us as if shot from the back of a jet fighter. And then, it stops and there is complete silence. It’s difficult to breathe, I am surrounded by blackness, it takes an effort to breathe, the air has a thickness consistency of a wool sock and I have to swallow the dust in order to breathe.
Both the civilian and I are completely covered with dirt, dust and debris. My nostrils are blocked and I can hardly hear, but I can make out the civilian. He too is gasping for air and motioning for
me to get him outside. He is pointing to the rear of the firehouse, gagging and trying to say “OUT, OUT”. Every window in the firehouse has been blown out and metal pole hole doors are crushed inward.
I grab the civilian under both arms now and pull him towards the rear of the firehouse, the same door I came through only minutes before. Cedar Street, directly behind the firehouse is black, not a sound or peep can be heard. Finally I hear people who were in front of the firehouse starting to come out from behind counters and the basement. With the air now starting to turn gray, two paramedics are walking down Cedar Street. I stop them and tell them this man needs immediate attention and they focus on treating him and I move on.
I’m trying to collect my scattered thoughts and compose myself. I need to get to Jean, I need to get over to the remaining North Tower to find her and bring her home. Debris still falls from the North Tower and so I am careful not to get hit with any of it. My first course of action is to cut through the Deutsche Bank that is across Greenwich Street from the firehouse. From there I can cut through to other streets and finally West Street.
The debris is piled up and I make my way into the Bank. I do not see or hear any other firemen. I’m on my own. Immediately I’m confronted by six zombie-like civilians who are covered in gray dust, bleeding, limping and crying. They are walking towards me in shock. “HELP US, FIREMAN, HELP US”. None have any life threatening injuries, mostly cuts, scrapes, scared and confused. I advise them to seek refuge toward the back of the Bank, help will be there shortly. They hold each other, it’s a pitiful sight as they head toward the area I suggested. Another woman appears and tells me there is a Nursery by the front of the building, the front where there is a big gaping hole and a large piece of trident steel from the South Tower hangs precariously. She insisted and was concerned about the nursery, and I charged over. The door is warped but I manage to open it. The nursery is empty.
I tell her the same as the other wounded civilians to go to the rear. And now determined to get to the North Tower, but the debris from the Tower has made my route impassable. The debris is piled stories high on the street I wanted to proceed on, and the little St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church that was on the street has been completely decimated. I’ll need to find another way.
(St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was completely decimated)
I backtrack and retrace my steps towards Greenwich Street, the air is still filled with gray dust and deadly silent. As I exit, Mel Hazel, fireman and friend from the days I was a teenager riding with the busy L 31 during the War Years appears like an Angel from the gray dust. I have not seen Mel or spoken with him for over many many years. He recognizes the number 31 on my helmet, his old company and says; “HEY 31, YOU OK?”. I’m stunned, seeing Mel is like an apparition, it’s just him and me, he is now a Fire Marshall and dressed in a dark suit. I respond, “Mel, it’s me Dan”. Mel cannot believe his eyes either and we just hug for a moment. The gray dust is beginning to lift. We can hear fighter jets flying overhead and they are loud, at first we duck, and thought it might be another airline looking to finish off the North Tower.
I fill Mel in on my situation, he carries a cell phone and says let's first try your home, maybe Jean is home safe. But there is no answer. I tell Mell that I believe Jean is on the roof of the North Tower and I need to start heading that way. Mel agrees to come along, however a Police Officer turns the corner hugging the wall of the Deutsche Bank, while running, he yells to us without stopping “HELICOPTER ABOVE SAYS THE TOWER IS COMING DOWN ANY SECOND”.
Instantly, the sound of a freight train begins to get closer once again. Mel and I are out in the open and we cannot outrun the cascading debris, I suggest to Mel we dart and compress ourselves into the outside wall of the Bank hoping it will afford us cover.
We position ourselves in an upright fetal position. The intense fury of hot tornado wind bombards us with debris and an unimaginable roar of a building mashing. I’m holding onto my helmet while Mel covers his head. We are prepared for the big hit, ‘lights out’. But after seconds the roar is over. Squatting shoulder to shoulder next to Mel, I can hardly see him, we are shrouded in black dust and it is difficult to breathe. We feel the need to get further into the open, swallowing and choking on the black dust as we crawl forward on hands and knees. I gulp for air.
Mel and I are now away from the building, I try turning on my flashlight but my adrenaline is pumping so hard my hand is shaking, after a few feet I scratch through the gray thick dust that covers everything and I notice blacktop. “Mel, we’re in the street”, we crawl only a few feet more and in front of us we are blocked by three cars that are mushed together at odd angles and ablaze. The thick black smoke absorbing the brightness of flame.
We stand upright, and the realization that Jean is probably dead hits me. I’m completely distraught and unable to think clearly, I’m numb. Mel says we must have lost dozens of firefighters. I tell Mel, I got to head home, I need to start somewhere to begin my search for her.
Mel and I hug one more time, he is searching for the Command Post and we part. The black dust has given way to gray dust, I can see paper that is burning everywhere, on the ground, window ledges, cars and fire escapes. I’m reminded of the final scene in a thriller movie of total ruination and void of life.