With the black dust dissipating into gray dust, Mel and I separate as he heads to the command post, wherever it is and I start my search for my wife Jean. I am in a dazed and confused state, just suffering through the second collapse, but my instinct tells me I should walk back to our apartment and maybe Jean got home in time.
Walking on Albany Street, where just a short time ago I was being careful not to step on body tissue that is now covered in snow like gray dust. I make my way towards West Street, I notice firefighters attempting to extinguish a handful of cars on fire, a fire officer directs the operation from on top of another vehicle’s roof. I walk passing by L 113’s cab of the rig is on fire, and four ambulances that were positioned at Liberty Street and West, two of them are blown over and the back doors are open. Other than the team of firefighters extinguishing multiple car fires, I do not see anyone else.
Finally I run into a familiar face, it is Lt. John Ryman, I used to work with him in L 5 years ago, he is attempting to gather names of firefighters missing. He jots my name down on another sheet. I don’t feel like, nor do I have time for small talk and I keep walking towards home. I next run into Capt. Paul of L 10, he is assisting a fireboat crew establishing a large diameter hoseline water flow to incoming companies. I tell him about Jean, he knows my wife and I tell him I need to search for her. He tells me to “do it, do whatever you need to do”.
Walking up my street, I am about to enter my apartment house. Tony The ‘Doorman’, immediately comes out, “Fireman, do we have to evacuate?” he says suspensefully. “Tony, it’s me, Dan”. For a second he has a confused look, I am covered in gray. Tony finally realizes it’s me and I ask him; “Did Jean come home, have you seen Jean?”. He stops, and looks overwhelmed with distraught, “No, I have not seen her”.
The elevators are not working and I climb the nine floors to my apartment, number 9F and bang on the door. I left my house keys back in my locker in the firehouse. I bang again, but there is no answer. It’s the last straw and I am overcome with grief. I believe that Jean died with her office colleagues when the Tower collapsed.
I walk back down the nine flights, I am confused as to what action to take. I need a break to sit and pray for guidance, I am swamped with despair and confusion. Outside our apartment is a green bench seat that I sat on, waiting for Jean to come home from work when the weather was nice. It’s our spot and I sit and begin to pray. “Please GOD, keep Jean safe, give me directions, please guide me, what do you want me to do, where do I start”.
My thoughts are interrupted by a photographer who is snapping photos of me. There is nobody else around, and I politely ask him to stop, “this is not a good time, please move on” and the kind photographer obliged.
At that moment I received the message loud and clear from GOD, it’s simple; “ENTER YOUR APARTMENT”. The message is clear and I re enter my apartment building, I find Virgil, one of the building engineers and tell him I need a hammer and chisel. He looks quizzically at me, and I reiterate; “get me a hammer and chisel”. Virgil is back within moments and he and I climb the nine floors to my apartment where I proceed to force entry into my apartment using the hand tools.
As soon as I force open the door, that very second the telephone rings. It is Jeans Aunt Lee and she is inquiring about Jeans welfare, “Where is Jean?”. I tell Aunt Lee that I don’t know, I need to look for her. Immediately Aunt Lee goes into a panic, “She’s dead, IS SHE DEAD?”, I try to console her, I tell her I need to go and look for her, but she persists, and I’m forced to hang up on her. Immediately the phone rings again, and I’m thinking Aunt Lee, but this time it’s my dad, who never calls me. He asks if I’m “OK”, I tell him I am, but I need to go find Jean.
“I KNOW WHERE SHE IS!” he exclaims, I cannot believe what he is saying and he reveals that “Jean is at the ‘Chinatown’ firehouse, do I know where it is?”, I reply; “Of course I do, Dad”, he follows up, “Jean’s Mom called us, she is at the firehouse, she just got off the phone with her Mom!”. With that I slam the phone down, turn my forcible entry handtools back over to Virgil who is witnessing these few amazing minutes. I slam the door shut and relocks, thanking Virgil as I make a mad dash down the nine flights of stairs once again, skipping over every other step.
My truck is right where I left it, now covered in gray, I reach under the bumper where I kept a spare key in a magnetic container and take off. The roads are clear and empty, I pull up to the quarters of L 6, a firefighter is on HW and I ask if he there is a “Beautiful Red Head here”? He points to the tv room door that is closed. I open it and there is my wife, covered in gray and soaked to the bone. She is surprised to see me all covered in gray, figuring I would still be at my study class on Staten Island.
We embrace, and she asks, “Where were you?”, I simply don’t have the energy or strength to elaborate, and say “You don’t want to know”. Jean and I are blessed to be survivors.
Sadly, my partner from Proby school has died, Lt. Joe Leavy of L 15 along with the proby who helped me inspect the rig and had a positive attitude Scott Larsen. In addition, Fireman Pete Bielfeld who I was partnering up with on 9/11 died, he left a note and his keys in a locker at L 10.
Also, killed was Harvey Harrell who I was sitting next to during our Fire Tech prep class on Staten Island just before a firefighter bursting through the doors announcing the WTC has been hit by airplanes.
L 5 sustained a heavy hit, Lt. Mike Warchola, the President of our “Hot Dog Club” working his very last tour, Tommy Hannafin an outstanding basketball player, my mutual partner John Santore, Greg Saucedo, Louie Arena, B2 Aide Faust who spoke "way to fast" and Paul Keating who was finally “on time” perished along with Lt. Vinny Giammona who told me only weeks before that these were our “Glory Days” and about to celebrate his 40th Birthday.
Three employees from the Bank of America where my wife worked were killed. In their memory, BofA purchased and dedicated three engines for replacement.
May we Never Forget the innocent lives of those who perished from such a cowardly act. May we remember those who have died since of illness, those who still suffer and their families.
And yes, Vinny, you are absolutely correct; those were our "Glory Days".
Thanks for reading and allowing me to share. KMG-365
Dan, so many of us here have been following your stories. From your days riding with your Uncle Jack, your Volly Days in Long Island, the very busy NYC EMS Days, followed by a few years in our Nations Capital very busy DCFD.
Then came your FDNY days as you worked in some of the busiest fire companies in the city. Companies such as Engine 88/Ladder 38, Ladder 112, Ladder 5, and finally Ladder 31.
You used some of your gifted talents to teach others as a Fire Service Instructor.
Quite frankly, a resume that is second to none.
As I've said here before. I remember that day we first met about 20 years ago and your were the chaffer of Ladder 5. Of course as you know, "you sure made my day when you parked that fine looking FDNY Tiller Ladder Truck perfectly in the sun so that I could get that very special - collectors photo - of it".
Then you told us here your story of September 11th, as you, and so many of your Brother Firefighters, as well as police officers, EMS workers, and civilians paid a terrible price that none of us had ever seen before.
I would also like to add that one of the NYC EMS personnel on the scene that day was this site owner, now FDNY Lt Tommy Bendick. As I understand it, he survived by crawling under a fire truck when those Towers collapsed.
Dan, not only have you done a good job in writing all these stories of Glory Days, but also your wife Jean has done a very good job in writing the book: "By the Grace of God", as she tells the story of her survival and the survival of her husband, FDNY Firefighter Dan Potter.
Although this has been posted on this site elsewhere, I think showing it here would be the perfect place to show it again.
Dan - Thank you for providing the Glory Days stories you shared with us. You did a remarkable job sharing a wonderful career, not just within FDNY, but also DCFD. You have been a very important hero of - the Glory Days. You shared, as the saying goes, "the good times and the bad times', laughs and tears - as well as remarkable individuals who also were part of - the Glory Days. I really appreciated your details and experience about the WTC. You and Jean are true heroes and I admire you both. And thanks for the skillful and touching way you wrote this remarkable story. We felt like we were with you and were introduced to many colorful firefighters and friends you worked with. I admire what you accomplished and your career of service to help others. Thank you Dan.
Thank you Willy and Mack, I never thought my collection of Glory Days would be this comprehensive, I just found myself living in the moment typing away and strolling down memory lane which I found exciting to revisit. And with you guys and the many freinds who shared their anecdotes really added to this thread and triggered more recollections. I have to confess, the September 11 remembrance is the first time I ever wrote about my day with Jean and the events leading up to our reunion. I have done oratory interviews, but not with the depth that I wrote about, I wanted to get it right. So thank you, my friends, it took nineteen years and I'm glad to have shared it with you, you have all been very gracious, encouraging and uplifting I am thankful to have met and broke bread with many of you, and again to the Bendick Family for allowing me to post my stories. I am forever thankful that this forum has created long lasting friendships.
I have a couple of more memories about the aftermath of 9/11 coming up and that will bring Glory Days to a close.
So, I salute you, my friends! Best always, Dan
Dan, I'm sure you have plenty more stories to tell us.
Let me also add here. When you were the guest on the "Gettin' Salty" Podcast, many guys told me they wish you were able to go on for another couple of hours. They sure enjoyed that show.
Now let's go back to March 24, 2019, page 1, when this all started. I quote "Johnny Gage":
"I wanted to ask Mr Willy if I could create a new thread and Mr Willy gave me his blessings".
So Dan, aka "Johnny Gage", PLEASE REMEMBER, when you write your book or Hollywood buys the film rights to your stories, "Don't Forget your buddy Willy, who should certainly be entitled to a part of your royalties". Wouldn't you agree it's the right thing to do.
All in ALL, we THANK YOU DAN for taking the time to write your stories for us and we ALL hope you will continue with them. Don't worry about how you like or dislike Pepes Pizza in the topic; "The Facts are in". Just continue with your Glory Days stories okay.
Thank you sir. I appreciate you sitting down to write this and telling your story. I understand your feeling about your wife. My wife was in the 1993 bombing and I couldn't find her for a couple hours. Turns out she was in a cafeteria about 30 floors above and had to walk down the stairwell in the smoke and dark. I kept calling her office phone and it was going straight busy which never happened. I found out soon after what happened and she finally called a couple hours later. She did get on Geraldo's tv show for her trouble! I read your posts and enjoy your recollections keep 'em coming. God Bless you and your wife.
I have suggested to this group the book "Firehouse" by David Halberstam. It is basically the individual story you just read, but of an entire firehouse. The ending of the book discusses five months after 9/11 the discovery of a ten second TV photographer out take. It is believed to be shortly before 10:00 am and shows the "classic" members of Ladder 35 as they descend the stairs into the lobby of Building Four and head for the lobby of the south tower. If you can read this chapter and not end up crying like a baby, you are a tougher person than I.
It’s the week after the September 11th attack I am sitting at the kitchen table in L 10s kitchen with a hot cup of coffee in hand getting ready to start another twenty four hour shift the FDNY implemented. We now have to work a modified work schedule, twenty four hours on and twenty four off. We do not have a formal roll call because neither E 10 or L 10 has a rig, personnel are reporting for duty but there isn’t any fire apparatus for them to man, it’s as if the firehouse has been forgotten. Sitting next to me is actor Harrison Ford who stopped in for a cup of coffee and to thank us and to share his thoughts. It’s a nice gesture but I can see in the eyes of the Liberty Street Brothers they are not overwhelmingly excited to meet this admired actor, there is a sullen look in their eyes.
Jean is recovering from her narrow escape from the falling South Tower, her leg muscles are tender and sore and she has difficulty walking from descending eighty-one flights of stairs and running through the WTC Mall. On September 11 just as the South Tower began to collapse, a Police Officer grabbed Jean by the arm as she exited the mall lobby near Church Street and brought her down into the subway station to avoid getting struck by falling debris.
After the Tower came down, the subway station began to fill with unbreathable dust, Jean had fears of suffocating and decided to break away from the Police Officer and head above ground and take her chances. Back on the dusty sidewalk, the air thick with gray dust began to lift a little. Jean realized how close she was to the Towers' rain of steel, impaled steel beams were now sticking up after penetrating the sidewalk not far from the subway station.
Jean needed to get further away as the North Tower was still belching fire and smoke, she kept reference keeping the North Tower behind her as she proceeded to swiftly walk away. Entering Chinatown, Jean is desperate for a glass of water but the shopkeepers are rolling down the security gates and locking up their businesses. An Asian Gentleman notices Jean as she struggles down the sidewalks and offers her a glass of water and a safe spot to rest.
I have always told Jean, in the case of any emergency, seek a firehouse or pull the fire alarm box, the Brothers will be there to help. The gentleman introduces himself, his name is Jamie. After the glass of water, Jean is able to sit for a moment then asks for the nearest firehouse. Jamie escorts her to the quarters of E 9 and L 6 on Canal Street.
Relocators from the outer boroughs are occupying the firehouse, before Jean enters the firehouse a friendly passerby notices Jean's obvious distress and dusty gray attire and offers her phone for Jean to use as most phone services have now been knocked out. Jean will make a call to her Mom and relieve her, stating that she is fine and that I am on Staten Island taking my promotional prep class. After handing back the phone Jean introduces herself to the relocating firefighters, they offer her a place to sit in the small television room.
The mound of twisted steel has become known as “The Pile”. At L 10’s quarters one of our first missions was to clear debris off the roof and repair the many holes of different sizes. The third night rained and the roof leaked like a sieve drowning out the bunkroom and exhausted firefighters who were taking a few minutes of respite. Finally after clearing the front of quarters and removing the ambulance that was parked inside the firehouse, the next step was organizing the apparatus floor that was filled with debris and equipment. The quarters were slowly becoming a sector Command Post.
(Front of L-10's Quarters, ambulance still in left bay)
In addition to repairing the firehouse we manned bucket brigades awaiting for the heavy equipment to arrive and begin lifting the steel, that would take a couple of days. Scraping and scratching the dusty ground and pulling out small ribbons of steel was very frustrating, laborious and tedious. To break the monotony, I broke away and searched the many voids from the collapsed skeletal shell that laid across from the firehouse. The top floors of South Tower twisted and fell to the ground in front of the firehouse as the rest imploded, the skeletal remains had many openings to explore. The ground was very slippery, uneven and shaky, it was important to make sure you always had solid footing and another team member.
During our rescue attempts we were vigilant listening for tapping on the steel beams from victims attempting to contact us and give indications of their whereabouts. Thus, whenever anyone thought they heard a sound, hundreds of firefighters operating bucket brigades or searching in the vicinity came to an immediate silent halt, only to resume a few minutes later when nothing was actually heard.
I remember one particular day a transit was set up to monitor the sway of a nearby building overlooking the sight and thought to be in an unstable position, possibly collapsing on top of us while we operated. Engineers feared it may topple over and crush us while we were digging. The contractor provided the employee with an aerosol horn and was instructed that if the building started to pitch forward he would alert us with a blast signalling for us to high tail it out of the collapse zone.
About an hour or so, I recall our crew heavily engaged digging when suddenly the horn blew and the contractor yelled over his bullhorn; “Run!”. There’s a mad dash of a sea of firefighters, we trip and stumble over ourselves scrambling out seeking safety. But it is a false alarm, after a few minutes we get an “all clear” and we return to our digging sights and passing tidbits of debris through a bucket line. About a half- hour goes by, the contractor again blows the horn and tells us again to “RUN, RUN!’, except, other than a few, nobody runs. We all look at the hazardous building that is supposed to collapse, satisfied that it is not about to topple on us, we resume our search. The horn does not blast anymore.
(My 2 photos compiled; early morning, 2 days after 9/11 . View is from roof of L 10. Twisted top of South Tower. Underneath the tower were four story business offices and entrance to subway, now obliterated)
About the fourth or fifth day I began to notice firefighters at the site wearing brown Carhartt overalls. At L 10 we’re still wearing our prescribed dusty contaminated uniforms that we did not have time to wash, I spoke with a Chief strollin by and requested he find out who was responsible for issuing the overalls and please see to it that the L 10 members would also be properly outfitted, he was surprised by the oversight and assured me he would rectify the situation. Once again, it seemed as if the firehouse and personnel had been overlooked. The following day a cache of overalls, gloves, breathing masks, flashlights, work boots and socks was delivered to the firehouse.
From that point, L 10’s quarters was becoming a stockpile of goods and equipment. We also received hundreds of boxes of American flags that were piled high on a table top. We were using the flags to cover our deceased members in a stokes basket. Staff chiefs were flying the flag over the WTC site on top of L 10’s quarters and saving them.
After digging all morning long, I went back to the firehouse kitchen for a breather. In the kitchen is a Stock Exchange representative. The Stock Market just reopened the day before with much fanfare. On the second day, I was asked along with a handful of other Ten House members to walk over to the Stock Exchange and participate in the historic “Ringing of the closing Bell” at precisely 4:00 PM indicating the end of a trading session at the stock exchange. The physical ringing of the closing bell has become a ceremonious event where visiting dignitaries visiting the stock market are given the honor of ringing the bell.
Our small crew is escorted to the Stock Market, we follow the rep as he snakes us through the stock market floor. The floor traders are exuberant, applauding and cheering us on, the scene is very emotional, many of the traders have tears and they pat us on the shoulders as we walk by. We are led upstairs where the bell is overlooking the floor. There is a small group of Police Officers there too, one of them presses the button to ring the bell, once again there is loud applause from the trading floor.
The ceremony now concluded, we trudged back to the firehouse and resumed our positions on the Pile, there is work that needs to be done.
Thanks for reading and allowing me to share. KMG-365
“GET OUT, GET OUT, EVACUATE, GET OUT”, I can hear someone running down the hallway of the Best Western Hotel in Midtown, in the background the building's deafening fire alarm is blaring. Jean and I have just stepped out of the shower and laid down on the bed after a grueling day, but now we find ourselves hustling to dress, grab a few items, slip on shoes and a bathrobe and evacuate.
Hobbling down six flights of stairs we finally make it to the street where other people from nearby buildings in the vicinity are also evacuating and running from the immediate area. A police car is passing by and I flag it down holding out my badge, I ask the officer what is going on and he tells me post haste, “There’s a bomb in the Empire State Building, this area is being evacuated, get going!”
It is the day after September 11. Twenty four hours ago Jean and I were reunited at the Chinatown firehouse after the towers came down. As we embraced, united once again, I asked Jean where she wanted to go and she said her mom’s home. Her Mom and Dad live just the other side of the New York State border in the Poconos section of Pennsylvania. We hop into my gray dust covered GMC pickup truck and make our way out of the city, we don’t have a plan, but she wants to be with her folks, understandably so. Travelling north on the Thruway there is virtually no traffic and I am making good time, but heading toward the city Police have blocked off the exits. Every few minutes I have to pull over to flush out my eyes that are almost slits with bottled water, they are red and swollen and filled with gritty dust, I want to scratch them out of my head, they are so irritating. We made it to her parents home in about ninety minutes, record time.
We decided to stay the night, on television it’s the first time we catch the news coverage with the second plane crashing into the South Tower. There is a report of tens of thousands people missing including firefighters. The news source reports the death of Fire Chief Pete Gancy, the news reports sound unbelievable. After a hot shower and borrowed clothes, I just want to lay down. I hardly slept, but when I dozed, my eyelids fused together from the dust, even after repeated attempts to soak my face in a basin of warm water. My face was burning with the sensation of pins and needles. Jean was unable to walk, but painfully hobbles after evacuating eighty one flights of stairs and trudging through Chinatown.
The next morning we headed back home to Battery Park apartment. Since the morning of September 11th was beautiful and cool, we left our ninth floor windows cracked open for fresh air, open enough that gray dust and human souls covered our entire apartment. Our building was in a cordoned off area where residents were not permitted to return. Jean and I were able to skirt around the security after I identified myself and made our way back to our apartment. The avenues and streets were now filled with twisted steel beams that were dragged from the outer perimeters of the WTC site. Along the Avenue and sidewalks were abandoned vehicles with broken windshields, bicycles, shoes and baby carriages left behind covered in gray dust. What was once our home, was now a haunting ghost town.
At first I thought we may get by staying here but quickly realized the apartment was unlivable. Inside our apartment, the electricity was shut off and dark, each step we took we kicked up dust as we tried to pack clean clothes and toiletries, every nook and cranny of our apartment was covered. With the electricity out, I had to empty out our filled refrigerator into trash bags.
My first mission was to find a place for us to live, there was no information given of when we could re-occupy our home, we were virtually homeless. Looking through a telephone book before leaving Jean's parents house I contacted a Best Western in Midtown, they said they had vacancies. After collecting what we needed from our apartment, that would be the first stop.
We left our apartment and headed to Midtown, the Best Western hotel was down the street from E 1 and L 24’s quarters. I stopped in and I asked for permission to park in the firefighter reserved parking spot in front of quarters. The gracious members allowed me to. I noticed the dusty and damaged L 24 apparatus sitting outside across from where I parked, someone wrote through the dust, RIP Andy. I knew my buddy Andy from L 112 was promoted to Lieutenant and assigned to E 1 and asked a firefighter standing outside the firehouse if it was him. He said it was, and then informed me that a list of all the missing firefighters was in the back kitchen of the firehouse. I was surprised, and said a “list?” Up until then, I did not realize the severity of missing members.
In the kitchen I was handed four pages of a double column list with names of missing firefighters, then handed another four page list of missing fire officers. Every time I came across a name of someone I knew, it felt like a punch to my gut. There would be sixty names. Along with me, Jean was sharing the same heartache.
Overwhelmed with grief, and in pain from yesterday's attack and evacuation, Jean and I ambled our way down the street to check into the hotel, we didn't have a bite to eat and no sleep as the hours blurred past. We were looking forward to just crashing on the bed after a hot shower, when suddenly the building's fire alarm began to blast and someone running down the hall telling everyone to “GET OUT”. With no place to go, and in night clothes we needed to figure out a plan, quick.
“OK, now where do we go, any ideas?” I said to my wife Jean after we were evacuated from the Best Western hotel in Midtown. We are both looking at each other half dressed with wet hair from showering. I’m not familiar with Midtown but Jean has worked in offices nearby for many years and is very knowledgeable about the area, and suggests we head over to the Park Lane Hotel located at Central Park South.
Arriving at the Park Lane Hotel, Jean stays in our vehicle as I go inside and request to speak to the Fire Safety Director, it is a little past 8:00PM. My hair is wet and uncombed, my clothes just thrown on, I could pass for a vagabond as the Fire Safety Director approaches. He first notices me and I can tell by his grimace he really does not want to deal with me.
I introduce myself as a NYC fireman and tell him what just happened minutes ago with me and Jean, I ask him if there is a room for us to stay tonight and that all matters will be worked out in the morning since I left my credit card behind at the other hotel. He looks a little flabbergasted at first then amazed, and promises to “take care of us”. Immediately the Doorman and hotel personnel come to our aid, in the lobby as Jean enters, we are provided with white robes and he tells me they will secure my vehicle while escorting us to a room, "not to worry".
The night is quiet and we finally fall asleep. The next morning I see the same Fire Safety Director before I head off to the ‘Pile’. I ask if they had a vacancy for a few more nights, and if so, could we please stay until I find out what is happening with our home. He is very welcoming and tells us we can stay.
The following morning, there is a request from the Fire Safety Director, he tells us that the hotel owner and NYC legend, Leona Helmsley, would like to meet with us in the lobby before I head off to the Pile. Jean and I are going to meet; “The Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley, who with her husband built a very wealthy real estate empire owning many hotels and buildings, including the Empire State Building. She got the unflattering moniker because of her flamboyant personality and reputation for tyrannical behavior of her staff members.
Jean and I are in the lobby, unbeknownst to us, so is a New York Post newspaper photographer. Leona comes out of an elevator with her small maltese dog she calls “Trouble”. Leona approaches Jean and I and assures us that we can remain at the Park Lane at her expense until our home becomes livable again. Jean and I are moved by her generosity. She now turns to the news photographer, but first asks me to hold her beloved dog “Trouble” advising me that “she's trouble, you know”, I accept the hand-off and cradle the dog as Leona proceeds to write out and sign a check to the “FDNY Widows and Children Fund” of deceased firefighters for five million dollars and presents it to the NY Post photographer.
Jean and I are amazed by her generosity. After she presents the check, Leona holds out her arms for me to return the pampered doggie Trouble, I said, “She’s no trouble at all”, but I don’t get a chance to finish the sentence when the pooch chomps onto my left hand. Laughing, Leona says, “See, I told you she’s Trouble” and walks away back towards the elevator.
After meeting with Leona and the Post I headed back downtown to L 10’s quarters. E 10 members are now responding from E 7’s quarters on Duane Street. L 10 does not have any fire apparatus, the members are in limbo and suffering, the firehouse has now been taken over by command. The members are a company without a firehouse and apparatus and becoming forlorn by the day, there is no return to normalcy they once knew. Today we have visiting firefighters from Columbus, Ohio and I give them a tour of the firehouse and view of the WTC scene from the rooftop of L 10.
Back in the kitchen, Captain Paul came up to me to tell me that he knows where L 10’s apparatus is and proceeds to describe the landmarks and vicinity where the remains of the rig is. He instructs me to take the new proby, fresh out of the training school only weeks before to assist.
We cross Liberty Street climbing along the uneven terrain of sharp and slippery debris toward West Street and the front of the Marriott Hotel. The steel debris covers all of West Street, there isn’t a hint or indication of the four lane roadway that lays underneath. Jagged steel covers from the WTC site entirely across the street and up against the Financial Center building. We made it to the area in front of the Marriott Hotel that Captain Paul indicated and looked around, I looked down and told the proby that we found L 10. He looks surprised and says, “I don’t see any truck”. I said, “we’re standing on it”. I point down and about a foot or so under the debris you could make out the top of the aerial ladder, the sides of the aerial ladder have been completely bent over sideways. I tell the proby our mission; we are going to dig down as far as we can to inspect the bottom of the truck, in case any firefighter dove underneath for protection.
(L 10 before the second collapse of WTC #1)
Little by little the proby and I take turns tunneling downward behind the rig digging and removing debris creating a tight hole that can only fit one person. The floors and debris are compacted, and removing the rubble bit by bit is tedious. Every few inches you can make out carpeting indicating different floors that have been hardened and compressed into solid mass. It takes hours to get several feet down working with our hands and small hand tools, volunteers walking by offer peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made by school children that we devour and taste delicious, and other volunteers with eye wash solutions flush out our eyes are a blessing.
Finally, after tunneling for many hours we have scratched the road surface, the apparatus has been crushed down and stands about six feet tall, apparatus tail and warning lights are melted off. The aluminum portable ladders stored in the rear have been melted, the last remnants hanging like frozen icicle drips. Nearby the NJ Task Force has been watching us, they have a remote telescope camera that can be inserted into the melted tail light hole and search under the rig. Thankfully, there are no victims underneath.
The following morning I returned to the hotel. I am exhausted and unable to walk. Jean shows me the stack of telegrams that have been slid underneath our door from every major television morning news program that wants to interview us after the Post published our story with Leona in today's paper. Larry King calls our room persistently requesting our appearance on his nightly television show, we take the phone off the hook and decline all offers. The country is saddened about the attacks and fatalities, It is not about us nor are we willing to share our survival story and good fortune. Nor do we have the right answers and are afraid to offend anyone, it is a very sensitive time. Jean heads out to work in a nearby office building where her company has set up temporary work accommodations. I hit the rack, unable to move and in excruciating pain. I realize, this is not good.
It is towards the end of September and Jean and I just received word that we would be able to reoccupy our apartment on Rector Place in Battery Park, a measly two blocks from the devastated WTC site. Our ninth floor one bedroom apartment faced the South Tower, on 9/11 we kept our windows cracked open a few inches allowing the gray cloud of dust to infiltrate. We have been keeping a close tab on the cleaning process and accessibility to our apartment since our area was evacuated then cordoned off. A week before we returned we were told we could hire a contractor to go in and clean our apartment, it took five people a few days to clean and remove gray matter and departed souls that covered everything, everywhere. During that time, the building staff was going through a massive cleaning effort with contractors scrubbing down the building inside and out and disinfecting the HVAC ductwork system and filters that were loaded with contaminated dust.
Finally we have returned, and I’m now back in my bed laying awake staring at the ceiling. I can hear the constant hum and churning of machinery at the pile, which I got used to. What concerns me and wakes me up is when the noise ceases. From working on the pile I know it’s because a body was discovered, packaged and in the process of being removed. The silence is unnerving.
Even though we were happy to return home, after giving thanks to Leona Helmsley and her staff for their gracious accommodations, returning was difficult. The ambient air still had the acrid offensive smell that attacked our sinuses and streets were still muddy and filthy. Many businesses and grocery stores were still closed and we did not have regular mail delivery, in fact we had to travel to midtown to retrieve our mail. Certain streets were impassable filled with twisted steel, including one block away the beautiful trees that lined the sidewalk were cut down to store mangled fire apparatus stacked on one another awaiting to be removed.
Our neighborhood was still sealed off to visitors, anytime you left the confines of the area, you had to show your driver's license in order to reenter through one of the two checkpoints. Slowly we started to see our neighbors return home one by one, although greeted warmly with hugs, nobody smiles and is overwrought with despair.
Directly in front of our apartment house, Rector Place was a tree lined block that made a one way loop around a grassy park in front of our building. It was a beautiful peaceful oasis that Jean and I used to sit quietly on the plush green lawn with other neighbors reading the Sunday papers with a cup of coffee. But now, the park has been taken over by the National Guard and their heavy vehicles has shredded the park into a muddy mess with deep tracks. Everywhere you look, it is depressing, lacking color and vibrancy. Death hangs in the air.
With no bus or subway service to the area I drove Jean to work at her temporary Midtown office. Her Boss works in another temporary office in New Jersey and her office colleagues are dispersed to other locations, nothing is normal. In the afternoon, I stood by her office and picked her up when I could, otherwise she had to use a car service to return home. My brain was in a state of discomposure making adjustments leaving the downtown ruins to pick up Jean at her office in Midtown where life seemed unaffected and carrying on, then returning back home was distressing.
I have been working at the pile with agonizing back pain that I have never felt before these last few weeks, chomping aspirins like m&m’s, and I have now been placed on Medical Leave after reporting to the Bureau of Health Services. The Doctors have scheduled me for a series of tests to diagnose my ailment.
In between a bunch of tests that I have to drive to in Brooklyn and the upper East Side of Manhattan, I attend funerals at a blurring pace. So as not to miss any, I placed yellow posted notes on my refrigerator of funerals that are scheduled. I attended most of the Manhattan and Staten Island funerals. If I personally knew the deceased firefighter I traveled either to Long Island or upstate for his service.
Many days I attended two funerals if they were nearby. I recall one in Staten Island where two nearby funerals were taking place within a half hour of each other. We’d stand in formation as the body was taken into the church, then literally run down two blocks to another church and assemble in formation, then high tail back to the first as the body was coming out of the church and so on. The funerals were always sad and heartbreaking, many children with confused faces holding hands and looking up at their Mom in tears. With so many funerals scheduled, some funerals had a paltry turnout. Thankfully firefighters from other fire departments across the country came through and bolstered attendance, I always appreciated seeing out of town firefighters among our ranks. The FDNY Pipes and Drum members were stalwart in representing the fallen brothers no matter how many funerals were that day or where they were held, members from the Band appeared and performed magnificently piping one of ours home.
Between our involvement of 9/11, home severely damaged, returning and living at the site, attending funerals and keeping medical appointments I thought my brain was going to explode, Jean had the same apprehension. Other firefighters at the site could return home, or go back to their firehouse for respite and take a break from the grievous stress. Jean and I could not, we had no sanctuary, we lived in a virtual war zone.
“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” was yet to be commonly identified and diagnosed as a symptom of witnessing a terrifying event. In addition, NYC was in the midst of an anthrax scare followed by a plane crash in Queens that everyone thought was the beginning of another attack. It didn’t help that every morning the local news agencies warned us to be on ‘high-alert’ displaying a color schematic indicating the possibility of another assault.
Even though we were glad to be home, and tried to make the best of it, we knew we could not stay any longer. Jean and I always felt blessed and fortunate to live in such a beautiful neighborhood and community, and now at our wits end, we reluctantly decided to start looking in Westchester County at communities we did not even know existed. Jean was renting our apartment from a work colleague and asked if we could break the lease. He understood completely, “you need to get out of there”.