Report from Ground Zero: The Story of the Rescue Efforts at the World Trade Centerby Dennis Smith, Charles Stransky, Paula Parker, Jennifer Jay Myers
"Immediately after two hijacked jets struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, Dennis Smith, a retired firefighter who had served eighteen years with the New York City Fire Department, reported to Manhattan's Ladder Co. 16 to volunteer in the rescue effort. Among those missing in the tragedy were 343 firefighters, many of… See more details below
"Immediately after two hijacked jets struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, Dennis Smith, a retired firefighter who had served eighteen years with the New York City Fire Department, reported to Manhattan's Ladder Co. 16 to volunteer in the rescue effort. Among those missing in the tragedy were 343 firefighters, many of whom were his friends and longtime colleagues. Having spent his career as both a respected writer and a member of one of the city's busiest firehouses, Smith became determined to use his unique background to tell the story of the disaster and its aftermath with the empathy and understanding that only an insider could bring to it." Report from Ground Zero is a narrative of this three-month period, a time that has permanently altered the landscape and character of America.
Read an Excerpt
September 11, 2001, 8:48 a.m.
For decades to come people will ask of each other, where were you . . . ?
I am sitting with Arnold Burns, the chairman of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, talking about the needs of youth. I have known this former deputy attorney general of the United States for twenty-five years, and because I am on the board of a Boys & Girls Club in the South Bronx, I am also a member of his board of advisers. We happened to run into each other the way New Yorkers often meet, in unlikely places—in our case, sitting in a laboratory anteroom, waiting to have our blood drawn for annual exams. Suddenly, a nurse enters and exclaims that a plane has crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
I look at my watch.
It is 8:48 a.m.
In Manhattan most people arrive at their offices ten or fifteen minutes early. Many have carried little white bags from local coffee shops, and are just now taking seats at their desks, anticipating the day's work. How many people are already in the World Trade Center? It must be thousands and thousands. What a terrible accident this threatens to be.
I picture the firefighters now responding to the alarm. I know what they are thinking. They are thinking of conditions. For every fire, however, the conditions can never be truly imagined until you arrive on the scene. I remember that from all the alarms I have responded to in my own life. Thousands. Each time there is the anticipation. I never knew what would meet us at the alarm location, never knew what had to be done, just as these firefighters now do not know. A report of a plane's going into a building is just the first part of the story.
I am a retired New York City firefighter, and an honorary assistant chief of department. Engine Co. 82 and Ladder 31 in the South Bronx, where I worked from 1967 through 1973, were then among the busiest fire companies in the city. I am on the board of directors of several fire-related not-for-profits, and I am chairman of a foundation that seeks to improve the health and safety of firefighters. I have never lost contact with my friends in the fire service since my retirement in 1981, and I feel still very much a part of "the brotherhood." Indeed, once a member of its ranks, I don't believe one ever leaves them. Friends call me "brother" all the time.
At 9:03 I arrive home to find my wife, Katina, staring in shock at the television. Another plane has just gone into the south tower.
The second crash leaves no doubt that we have been attacked, so many thoughts begin to flow through my mind. This is no accident. As every American must be doing at this moment, I wonder: Who would do this? Who could pull off something this horrendous? This is not as simple an act as parking a truck loaded with 7000 pounds of fertilizing chemicals in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City. No, this could only have been the result of the carefully plotted efforts of a group, and it would have to have been supported by a government or some organization with very big money. And people would have to have been willing to effect their own deaths. Like the kamikazes. But where were the kamikazes today? Just one place that I know of. Only the terrorists of the Middle East would do this. They had tried before, in February 1993, and now they have come back to try again.
"I will give it a little time," I say, "and then I have to go down there."
I know the drill, for I have been to similar emergencies. I can picture what the scene will be like at the crash site. It is a major disaster, and will be crowded with professionals—firefighters, cops, emergency medical technicians, nurses, and doctors. During the first hour of operations fire department personnel will be rushing from place to place. To an outsider it might seem like pandemonium, but it will be controlled and orchestrated by people who know fully what they are doing.
Pumpers will be connecting to hydrants; ladder trucks will be positioning their aerial platforms; roof men, can men, irons men, and engine men will all be helping, lifting, carrying people out of the buildings. Chiefs of every rank will respond. There will be battalion chiefs who wear golden oak leafs, division chiefs who wear golden eagles, division commanders who wear one gold star, deputy assistant chiefs who wear two gold stars, and assistant chiefs who wear three gold stars. Each will have a specific job, each will direct personnel to preassigned duties in evacuation, rescue, or firefighting. The chief in charge, probably Pete Ganci, the chief of department, a circle of five gold stars on his collar, will be setting up his command post in accordance with prefire plans at the fire control panels in the lobby of the first building hit. He will begin to divide the emergency into grid sectors, and assign areas of responsibility. His aide chiefs will be generating blueprints, computer images of specific floor plans and elevator banks, prefire evacuation plans, and personnel assignments on each alarm transmitted. There will be lists of each of the three engine companies and two ladder companies that will respond to each alarm as it is transmitted. How many alarms will there be? I ask myself. Five alarms is normally as big as it gets. But this is not "normally." A situation requiring more than five alarms used to be transmitted during my years on active duty as a "borough call." But now the department's Starfire computer system not only makes the first five alarm assignments, but also tracks and moves the nearest ninety engine companies and forty ladder companies to the fire—a force equivalent to twenty-two alarms. Whatever it is called, it will be like a borough call, I think, and companies will come from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.
I wonder about the conditions. What is the heat like below the fire, going up to it? Heat rises, but there is also radiated heat to consider. How hot is it above? Will the men be able to do a search above the fire? What is the integrity of the stairwells? Can people get down from the floors above? What is the strength of the ceilings and floors?
There are thousands of people working in those buildings. Will the evacuation be orderly? Is there enough room to carry equipment like stretchers, hose, Stokes baskets, generators, ropes, and ladders up the stairwells while hordes are coming down? These are all questions that must be going through the mind of the chief of department, if he is there, or the chief in charge, in addition to assessments of firefighting tactics. Is the standpipe system in working order? Is there electricity? Are there fail-safe generators? Are any of the elevators operable to at least get the hose and heavy equipment up? How will the wind affect the burning? Do we go in from the north side of the building or the south? What is the possibility of an inverted burn, in which fire travels downward in high-rise buildings? At which floors do I place my command stations? How many chiefs do I have? Where will I put the staging areas?
The irony of "twin" towers does not escape me, for they present two major incidents to the fire department, one in each of the buildings. I know that rescue will be the paramount concern. Will this prove to be the most serious rescue operation in our history?
Helicopters are certain to be dispatched to pick people off the roofs, but I wonder about the thermal columns. Can a helicopter get close enough to drop a rope and a man? If the fire is too great, they can't place the people on the street at risk if the chopper falls.
I can see now on the television just how much fire is coming out of the buildings. Entire floors are involved. I've been in the World Trade Center many times, and I know precisely what is involved. There are many large areas with no interior columns, lots of open space for a fire to burn freely. This would be a five alarm call even if only one building were involved. Besides the helicopters, all the special equipment companies will respond—the hazmat team, the squad companies, the rescue companies, the mask service unit, the high-rise unit, the field communications units, the foam unit, and the fire boats. There will be no need of volunteers like me. This is a fire and rescue operation, and New York has twelve thousand firefighters. Within an hour, I am estimating, the operations will have been planned, the defenses put in place, and the rescues and evacuations will be under way. Thereafter, there might be a need for assistance both in caring for the injured and cleaning up.
I am attached to the television as if every friend I ever had is about to cross the screen. The helicopter shots are mesmerizing. In my mind's eye I try to visualize what is happening in the towers as I see the flames shooting from their sides. How many have been killed by the impact of the planes, and how many have been burned by the fires? How many will be living, and how many will be dead? How many will be trapped on the fire floor, above the fire, and below the fire in collapsed areas? And the firefighters? How many flights of stairs will they have to run up, and how many minutes will it take them to reach the fire floors? How many firefighters are at this very minute racing into the buildings to get to those who need help?
How many will be caught above the fires? It looks like there are ten stories above the fire in the north tower that haven't been hit directly by the plane, and maybe twenty-five stories above the fire in the south tower. Oh, my God, I cry to myself. How many people are on each floor? An acre each floor. Maybe two hundred or more? Thousands. And what will they do? Did the planes take out the fire stairs? The fire will go right up the wells, like a chimney. No one will be able to get to the roof. Maybe the only way they can be saved is by extinguishing the fire and bringing ladders in. That will take hours, maybe days. It is so hot above a fire. I have been there many times in the tenements of the Bronx, hot and dangerous. And if the stairs are out, the situation will be untenable. How many are trapped at this very moment, trying to come to grips with their own end?
How many? It is a natural reaction to contemplate the numbers. But I know that I must think only of the individuals affected. Even one person is too many to be in the presence of such mortal danger, yet I know that fundamental to this terrible incident will be the numbers.
The heat must be extraordinary, generated by airplanes with fuel-filled wings. I remember a question on the lieutenant's test of many years ago: What is the expansion factor of a one-hundred-foot steel beam as it reaches the inherent heat level of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit? The answer is nine and a half inches, and I try to gauge how hot this fire before me is burning. Is it intense enough to bring the steel to 1200 degrees? The smoke is first very black, indicating the burning fuel, and then white as it rises, indicating great heat. It is not a good sign. If the steel stretches, the floor will collapse, and that will only make the rescue effort more difficult.
We are at the beginning of a war, I think as I begin to change my clothes. No one could send two planes into our largest buildings without a grander plan, and I fear there will be more to follow this disaster.
I find an old Engine Co. 82 T-shirt, an FDNY sweatshirt, jeans, and heavy black hiking shoes. This is just about the same kind of uniform I wore when I used to work on Engine 82 in the days before bunker gear, neck protectors, sixty-minute air tanks, and personal alert devices. I make certain to bring my badge with the department's picture identification card, certain there will be tight security everywhere I go today.
At 9:45 a third plane goes into the Pentagon, and I begin to make my way to a firehouse.
The notion of an enemy's attacking us in the innocence of our early morning is repellent. The Pentagon—the very heart of our military strength. How could they have stolen these planes? The question vibrates within me. How could they have gotten onto our planes with guns or weapons? Why didn't someone notice what they were doing, or suspect them? But it is not like us, we Americans, to be suspicious. It is our optimism that prevents us from attributing evil intentions to others; it is our need to protect the rights of everyone that leads us to think the best of people. And that is our strength, actually; this basic freedom to walk around freely without suspicion makes America what it is. But it is that very attitude that also leaves us so vulnerable. One might argue that the price we pay to protect our freedoms is to be tolerant of strangers. All any American needs to do is to look around his community to recognize that we are indeed a nation of strangers. Our cultural diversity is so great that even our good friends and professional colleagues have cultural traits and assumptions that we do not share, or even understand. That is the way it should be in an open society. But how do I explain to myself, and to my children, that our freedoms have led to this horrible event?
It angers me; I want to know whom to blame. I am certain, deep in my heart, that this attack is connected to the first attempt on the World Trade Center back in 1993. Ramzi Yousef, who planned that bombing, and his cohort, the blind sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, are today in federal prison. The sheikh has been in Springfield, Missouri, since 1995, serving several life sentences. Yousef was sentenced to 240 years in a maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado. I remember how defiant and remorseless they were, and that memory only serves to anger me even more.
I can shake that feeling only by picturing the firefighters climbing up those stairs in the highest buildings in New York. It is a tough climb in any circumstance, but they will have mask tanks on their backs and hose and tools in their hands, equipment that will make them about sixty pounds heavier. It takes a person with exceptional commitment to do this, and I know it will not be easy for them. I am thinking about this as I go down the elevator in my building. How easy it is for some of us, and how difficult for others. On Lexington Avenue the streets are packed with people. The trains have stopped, the buses are not stopping at the bus stops. I must find some way to get down to the World Trade Center.
A killing storm of terrorism has transformed our lives. We have been swept from a peaceful Tuesday into a calendar of war. New York, Washington, D.C., and a quiet green meadow in Pennsylvania have been attacked, and our fields are now strewn with the remains of heroes. All of us in the Western world are shocked, awestruck, puzzled, and furious.
There is no center to this day, no middle or end. All its remaining minutes and hours will be collapsed into that single instant at 8:48 a.m. when September 11, 2001, became the saddest day of our history.
Officer Will Jimeno
Port Authority Police Department
* I am working at the north terminal entrance of the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street at 8:48, and my good friend Dominick Pezzulo is working right across from me at the south entrance. Both of us graduated from police school just nine months ago, and we were assigned here together. We are tight, me and Dominick. I can see him just across from me as Sergeant John McLoughlin comes to ask for volunteers to go to the World Trade Center. Sergeant McLoughlin had spent ten years in the emergency service unit, and he knows every inch of the WTC, and so Dominick and I are glad to be able to go with him. Don't forget we are still young on the job, though Dominick is 35 and I am 34.
Our inspector commandeered a bus, and we sped down—the sector cars opened the way for us. We go to the north tower, and then we go under the buildings to go to the south tower, to get to the lobby there. We are one floor under the main concourse area, where all the stores are, and pushing a cart filled with equipment, air masks, helmets, axes, tools, and so on. On the back of the cart, pushing, is Antonio Rodrigues, and just to his left is Christopher Amoroso. [Suddenly I hear a loud noise and] look over to the sarge and say, "Hey, Sarge, is there a second plane coming?" And, just then, it is like an earthquake when the plane hits the south building. We are just about in the middle of the concourse, between the two buildings, just below and a little south of the big golden globe, when huge parts of the tower and shock waves come down into the plaza area, cracking all the cement. The whole concourse above us collapses. There are a lot of civilians all around, and I don't know what happens to them, but I think it has to be bad. I can see Liberty Street before me as I feel a ball of debris hit us. Now, I see a huge fireball coming at us, and I yell, "Run! Run towards the freight elevator!" [The fire has come from the fuel that has poured down the elevator shafts.]
Dominick runs first, I am behind, and the sarge is behind me. Antonio is behind the sarge, and Chris is bringing up the rear. But Chris never makes it because the shock wave pushes him back into the main concourse area, and he takes the worst of it. Dominick and I and the sarge just make it around the corner, but Antonio doesn't. Everything just starts hitting us, and then the wall comes down on top of me. I am flabbergasted. My friend Dominick is crushed down in the push-up position, and my legs are pinned completely by heavy concrete. Sergeant McLoughlin sees the walls breaking apart, and they are falling on him. And the ceiling falls on him, [pinning him] twenty feet away from me. I can't see him, but I can hear him. I keep calling out for Amoroso and Rodrigues, calling and calling for two minutes straight. But there is no response.
The lights are flickering, but they don't go out. Dominick begins to wiggle himself out. Sergeant McLoughlin, being from ESU, does everything by the book, and so we are talking about what we have to do. I have an old pair of handcuffs and I begin to scratch at everything around me, trying to free up some of the concrete. The sarge is thinking Dominick will get free and work to get me out first, and then together we will work to dig Sergeant McLoughlin out. The sarge is hurt bad, and he has a few thousand pounds crushing down on him. But he keeps talking to us, to steady us, keep us calm.
Dominick is a weight lifter, and he finally pushes everything off him. He gets free, and he is in an area about three feet wide, and he begins to work on getting me out. My left leg is completely stuck under immovable concrete. He is bending over just a little when we hear the collapse beginning. I didn't know it was the tower. I just hear the most horrifying noise I've ever heard. It was like a huge train coming at me with the roar of the devil. I don't think Hollywood could ever duplicate that sound, and it is right above me, coming down. Everything is shaking. I said, "Dominick, something big is happening," and I put my arms over my head. I am lying on my back, like I am in bed, and I am looking upward. I try to get fetal. Dominick stands up, and backs up about four feet. The tower comes down. Nothing moves me or John, but a huge cinderblock the size of a dining room table comes down, and it hits Dominick right across his legs and it slams him down. Then all the debris falls all around us. I can see that Dominick is hurt pretty bad. I keep saying, "Dominick, are you okay?"
And I can hear him gurgling. He says, "Willy, I'm hurt bad." I can see him, and it looks like he is sitting down, but he has all this stuff on him. We keep talking, and I say, "Dominick, keep awake."
But he says, "Willy, you know I love you."
I say, "I love you, too, Dominick." I think about all the things we did together, everything we did in school, the good times at work, the emergencies, the sitting around after work. I know now he is leaving us. He's dying.
"Just remember me," he says. "I died trying to save you guys."
"We'll never forget that, Dominick. Just hold on." I start to yell. "Dominick, just hold on!"
"I'm going," he says. I see him now putting up his arm. He has a gun in his hand, and he fires a shot with his gun, off in the air. A last-ditch effort to say, "Hey, we're here," and then he slumps over, dead.
This is real tough. He's a friend of mine and just a few feet away from me, and I can't go to him; I can't help him. He's a family man, and I know how much he cared about his wife and two children. He was a schoolteacher, too. He could have done that instead of being a cop.
I cannot budge an inch. I keep talking to John McLoughlin now, to keep him awake. The radio is dead, but I keep saying, "Sarge, I know you're in pain, but you have to get on the radio, you know, it's our lifeline." And through the night, I have to get nasty with him. I say, "Sarge, keep alive! You can't die on me because I'll have nobody, and I won't make it. I'm dead."
The whole time we were both awake, and a couple of times he began to fall asleep, but I yelled to him, "Sarge, stay awake!"
So we were all alone now for hours. It is dark. I worry about fire because I can see flames every once in a while, and then they go away. I can see some light, off a way. I don't know what it is, but I hope it is a void someone will come into. The sarge says, "Look, they are going to go by the book. They won't come until morning because everything is unstable, and they will need daylight."
I say, "Hey, Sarge, I don't know if we can make it overnight." I am thinking of my wife, Allison, and my daughter, Bianca. She's just 4, and I want to see them again. And my wife is having a baby, a girl. We're going to call her Olivia. I ask God to let me see my little unborn Olivia, and somehow, in the future, to let me touch the baby.
Suddenly, now I hear a voice. "This is the United States Marine Corps. Is anybody here; can anybody hear us?" This is Staff Sergeant David Karnes and a Sergeant Thomas. I start wailing, "PAPD Officers down. 8-13."
Before I know it, he is on the pile above us, and I ask him, I say, "Please don't leave us. This is Officer Jimeno, who has a little girl and another on the way, and Sergeant McLoughlin is down here; he has four kids. Please don't leave us!"
And he says, "Buddy, I am not leaving you."
And I believed him, he just stayed. He got on the cell phone and made some calls to his wife, and his sister. His wife is in Manhattan, and his sister is in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and he told them where he is so they can send people to us. Rosemary, his wife, couldn't get through on the phone lines, but luckily Joy, his sister, got through from Allegheny. That was so smart to use both family members to call for help. He's an accountant, and he put on his Marine Corps clothes and came down from Wilton, Connecticut, to help. About a half hour later, the cavalry came. We are forty or fifty feet south of the golden globe in the middle of the plaza. There is a raging fire on top of us, and because everything is so sharp, the hose gets cut and they begin sending buckets of water up. There is a firefighter, Tommy Asher, who's at the front of the fire, and he gets so mad when one of his water cans, the CO2 cans, gets empty, he throws the can at the flames.
It takes them almost three hours to dig me out. I think my body just shut the pain off, but once they got the concrete off me then I really started to feel it. I had severe compartment syndrome, a crushing injury where the body swells up and the blood has nowhere to go. When they touch my leg, I am in such pain. The wall had fallen on my left side. My left leg is severely crushed, and my right foot has a very bad sprain, and is still swollen.
It takes about eight hours to dig Sergeant McLoughlin out. He's about fifteen feet back from me, but I keep talking to him all the while. He was completely pancaked. The ceiling came straight down on him. He wants more than anything for them to take the weight off. I hear him saying again and again, "Can you please relieve the pressure?" When I was on the Stokes basket and going up the hole, I said, "John, just hold on, they're getting you out." About a hundred firefighters and cops passed me out from group to group.
They take me to Bellevue, and I am in intensive care. They start doing tests, and connecting me to machines. Then they bring in Firefighter Tommy Asher. He was right there in the middle of all that smoke, and I guess he must have collapsed himself. I find out he's in Engine 75. But Asher checks himself out the next morning and goes back to fight the fires. I don't see John McLoughlin until two or three days later, and then only briefly, the back of his head, because they were taking him to the operating room. It was a week before I saw his face, and we really didn't talk for weeks. He is hurt bad, and it is all hard work for him.
The way I personally look at it, I've been to calls with the New York Police Department and the New York Fire Department. To me we are all public servants, and that day at Ground Zero it showed. We all went in there, and we were all wearing the same color made out of the same cloth. We only have a twelve-hundred-man police force in Port Authority, but we all wear shields, we all wear uniforms. We all had a job to do. *
Judy Jonas, Wife of Captain Jay Jonas
* An installer from the cable company came in to change our cable, and he said he was listening to the radio and heard a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center. My first reaction was to call Jay and ask him about it because he works down there, in Chinatown. So, naïvely, I called the firehouse, and the line was busy. And a few minutes later my nephew, Jeremy Cassel, called—he's a firefighter with Squad 61—and said, "Are you watching this thing?"
I said yes, and was pretty calm. "Is Jay there?" I asked. I thought, The line was busy, and maybe he wasn't.
"Yeah, he's there, but it's a fire, and Jay is a pretty good firefighter."
I had a Cub Scout leaders' meeting scheduled, for a den mothers' conference, and Donna McLoughlin and Lynne Bachman came. We are all den leaders in Cub Scout Pack 63 in Goshen, New York. Donna's husband, John, is a Port Authority police sergeant, and he had actually set up the evacuation plan for the twin towers after the bombing in 1993. John was at work as well, in the twin towers. We sat in my kitchen with the television on, and Donna said, "I know John's not there. If he's there, he's working on the outside."
A neighbor called, who's in Rescue 3, and assured me that Jay was okay. It was just a fire. And I was okay until the first building came down. When I watched that, all of a sudden it wasn't just a fire anymore. I think I fell apart when that building came down, for I knew that my whole life could be falling apart with it.
Jeremy has asked me if I wanted him to go down, that he would go right away, and I thought, He has a wife and two children; I didn't want him to go. But the department had a recall, and he called again and gave me his cell number.
Donna and Lynne kept saying, "Oh, they evacuated that building. Everybody must be out." Jeremy and three other firefighters came into my kitchen on their way down, and he said, "Don't worry, we are going down to get him." Jeremy was a lifeline for me, for if Jay was in there, they would know what to do to get him out. They did calm me down a little bit before they left. In the next hour I had at least twenty-five calls, from family and friends, and then looking out of my window I see that a police car and the local fire chief's car are pulling into my driveway at the same time. This made me panic for a second. How could they know? But it was two of our friends stopping by to give me their numbers, and to say they are available for anything.
Then the second building collapsed, and I don't know why, but it wasn't affecting me the way it did when the first building did. I was upset, but it wasn't changing anything.
We have three phones, and they were all going at once. Someone called and said that Car 6 had called over the airwaves, and Jay used to be the volunteer chief here and he had Car 6, and I thought he was sending a message that he was okay. I said, Oh my gosh, this is great, reassuring. I called all three schools to find out what was happening with our children. I was concerned with Jennifer, who is 15, because they would have the television on in her school. I called the nurse and said just find her and tell her that her father is okay. And I was going to call John's school, he's 9, and Jane, who is 5, but the phone rang again, and I was told that it wasn't him, it was someone else. That made me feel very upset. Because now we're back to not knowing.
We were looking at the TV closely, looking to see if we could see John McLoughlin on the outside, or fire trucks, or anyone I know.
Then at about quarter to eleven, I get a call from Billy Butler's wife, Diane, and she tells me that Jay is trapped, but that they are trying to get him out. So now I am thinking that Jay is trapped, but that Billy is there trying to get him, and Billy is like a football field, so I know he will get to him. Billy can get to him with just his strength alone, so that's a good thing. He's on the outside working in.
But when Jay worked in rescue, he would tell me about certain jobs he had where people were trapped, so I know what the word "trapped" means. Many people who are trapped don't make it. So I am not very comforted. But it is good to know he is alive and they are trying to get to him.
I am watching the television, and they have only one thing to show, the building going down again and again, a hundred times. Every time I watch it go down I say, "How can anybody survive this? How can anybody be in there?" It is very stressful, and the wheels start to turn.
I am thinking that Jay was probably thinking about the Yankee game in there. And then I'm thinking, Oh, my God, how do I tell three kids that their dad is dead?
My emotions would go up and down depending on who called. When my brother called, I was hysterical because we lost both our mom and our dad in the last five years. I'm one of five, and we have been through those deaths, and I couldn't bear doing it again.
Jeremy calls me when he gets to Ground Zero. Every time I talk to him I break down, and I am putting like a thousand pounds on this young man because I said, "Jeremy, he's in there, go get him."
Later, when I look at pictures of the site, I can see how it wasn't so easy to just go in there and get him.
At about 2:30, Jeremy called me back and said, "I can hear his voice—he's out. It's going to take me an hour to get over there, Judy, but I hear him talking on the department radio; he's out, and they are taking him to the hospital."
We are all under such stress that I say, "Well, he's not brain dead. He's talking, anyway. I'm still thinking that he was buried up to his eyes."
In the meantime, when school got out at a quarter of three, Donna McLoughlin went home. Back in '93 when the bombing happened, her husband never called until late at night, and he had not yet called. But later that night, John's brother went to Donna's house and told her that John was missing. He was last seen walking from tower 1 to tower 2 when tower 2 collapsed. I went over there for a little while to be with her.
About fifteen minutes after Donna left my kitchen, Chris Staubner from Rescue 3 called and said, "I just kissed your husband twice."
I was so relieved. "Well," I said, "don't get used to that."
Chris said, "He's walking over to get his eyes washed out at the ambulance."
He's walking, I thought. Every piece of information helps. He's in better shape than I expected.
Jay finally got a phone that worked, and he called me. All he kept saying was "I love you," and he must have said that a hundred times. "I love you, I'm coming home."
I was so happy, I said to Jay, "I'm going to give Billy Butler the biggest kiss he ever had," thinking that Billy was one of those who got him out.
And, Jay said, "Billy? What about me?"
It was then I learned that Billy was inside there with Jay all the time.
The next morning, Wednesday, they found John McLoughlin. He was forty-five feet down in the debris. It was a miracle. He was the last person taken out alive. But he was severely injured, and they rushed him to Bellevue Hospital.
So they had gotten Jay out, and they got John out, too, the next morning, and I thought that was unbelievable, so why wouldn't I believe they would find lots of people and rescue them? We just had that hope. Then, seeing these guys going down there every day, and coming back, talking about desperately digging down for their buddies into these pockets, and then hearing that there was nobody there . . . It is very overwhelming. Every wake I go to I have to say, this could have been me talking to all these firefighters tonight. This could have been me. Thank God, we were very lucky.
I don't know why. *
Dispatcher John Lightsey
John Lightsey has been a volunteer firefighter for twenty-five years in Hampton Bays, a small town on Long Island. He has also been a dispatcher for the last five years for the New York Fire Department, and the morning of September 11 is his turn to be up on the radio. He is working in the Manhattan dispatcher's office, which is located in a landmark building on the 79th Street transverse of Central Park. Dispatchers are assigned various types of duty at the start of each working tour. Today, as every day, some are working the phones with the 911 system, others the voice alarm system with the firehouses, and still others the DD desk, which is where the dispatching decisions are made—which fire company will be sent to investigate a complaint, for example, or which will respond to a report of a water leak, or a gas leak, or some other emergency that does not require a full first alarm assignment.
A call comes in reporting a smell of gas in the downtown district, and the 1st Battalion is called, as is Engine 7, and they are sent to investigate.
Not much happens in the early morning, at least not before nine. John knows that soon after that, many companies will be leaving quarters to go to company medical exams, training appointments, or regularly scheduled building inspections. They might also be attending a recently started program at the Brooklyn Headquarters Building where companies get outfitted with the newly mandated fire protective outerwear called bunker gear. For whatever reason they leave the firehouse, though, they must go on the air and inform the dispatcher when and why they are leaving quarters. The dispatcher will give them the necessary approval and note the time of departure for the records.
* Suddenly, [at about twelve minutes before 9:00] Ladder 10, or it could be Engine 10, calls. Ladder 10 and Engine 10 are in the same firehouse, just across the street from the south tower of the World Trade Center. The officer does not wait for an acknowledgment: "A plane hit tower 1 of the World Trade Center. Transmit the box."
Just then a department voice alarm comes on. It is [also] someone from 10&10, saying, "A plane just went into tower 1."
I transmitted Box 8087, the building box for the north tower.
All of a sudden every phone in the dispatching center began to ring.
Not long after I transmitted the box, Battalion 1, on his way over there, came on and said, "Transmit a third alarm for this box."
Just after that, a battalion, I think Battalion 1, said "Transmit a fifth alarm."
And then, when the second plane came in, we got the order to transmit a second fifth-alarm assignment. We had at least twenty-five engines and sixteen trucks, maybe five or six battalions. Here in Manhattan we dispatched everybody, every company, from 125th Street on down. We sent them right on down to the World Trade Center—everybody on the west side, we sent them to #1 World Trade Center, and everybody on the east side we sent to Box 9999, at 2 World Trade Center. There was a lot of chaos. There was so much going on I couldn't tell you exactly what the names were, or who was transmitting what. At the time, we sent everybody out there instructions that they were to bring every piece of equipment they had in their quarters.
People caught in the towers were calling in, from above the fire floors. From what they were telling me, these people were very excited. You could see what they were dealing with on the TV. Normally we would call the division chief on the air, and give him the floor numbers. We realized that no one was going to get to those people above the fire. So we had to decide, do we transmit this on the air, or just put the information on the side and transmit everything going on below the fire floors?
I knew I had the biggest event in my life when those towers came down. No one would ever, ever even dream about something like that. Marine 6 was transmitting over the air, and everyone started yelling, Urgent! over the radio—tower 2 had just come down.
The worst thing was when everything got to dead silence after the collapse. For at least fifteen or twenty minutes there was dead air. We tried to raise anyone at the location. We tried to raise Division 1. We tried raising field com. Some of the companies. But nothing. We kept trying and trying. We had turned the TV off because we all had a lot of good friends in there, and it got to be too much. A few of us still can't come to terms with this. Just the thought of it all, trying to accept it.
All during the day we gave each other little hugs, and support each other. My tour had started at 7:00 a.m., and I stayed until eight or nine that night at the radio. I stayed there for three days straight. We just spun out on the floor and got some rest.
I get teary eyed because of the people I knew who we sent down there. Just thinking about them being down there. Or feeling guilt about assigning all those companies at the same time. We didn't follow the rules; we went above the rules. We went ahead and assigned more than was necessary because of the instinct. A chief, Joe DeBernardo, told me, "You have to look at it this way. You are not going to stop a firefighter from going in," and he said, "what you guys did down there in sending as much manpower as you did, you ended up saving a lot more lives than what they lost."
Hardly anyone here talks about it. We go to the wakes and the memorial services, but we don't talk about it much. A few of us leave the room when we do the four-fives [the traditional fire alarm signal for a death in the line of duty]. They get upset. Everyone is still pretty stunned.
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