Monday, September 12, 2011

The 50-Hour Day-Tour

Everyone in New York has their own “9/11 Story,” this is one is mine – it’s one of the more fortunate ones.

I’d worked with the FDNY (New York City’s Fire Dept.) since March of 1986. 2001 opened as a particularly deadly year for the FDNY. There are just TWO tours in the FDNY, a 9-hour day tour that begins at 9am and ends at 6pm and a 15-hour night tour that begins at 6pm and ends at 9am. Generally firefighters arrive early (about an hour before their shift begins) and dress in their work-duty uniforms and relieve another firefighter on shift. Overwhelmingly most FDNY firefighters “exchange tours,” in what is called a “Mutual,” or “mutual exchange of tours,” which allows two members to, in effect trade tours and work 24 hours straight, with more time off in between tours. You can either work “a slant,” (a night tour followed by a day tour), or an “up and down” (a day tour followed by a night tour).

I worked an “up/down” 24-hour shift on Friday, January 12th of 2001 in Ladder-44, stationed on Morris Avenue near 167th Street in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx. We had three major fires in that twenty-four, the first two were first due and on the third, we were assigned on a 2nd Alarm around 7am and overhauled a fire building a little north of us in the West Tremont section of the Bronx until after 10 am. As a result I didn’t get back to quarters until after 10am and finally finished showering and dressing just before 11am Saturday morning!

I remember thinking to myself, “Well, they’ll probably have a quiet weekend.”

Usually after a spurt like that, things quieted down a little afterwards.

I was scheduled off until Tuesday night.

Early Sunday morning I got a call from Mike Ciampo, who’d worked the Saturday night tour. Turns out they’d had another fire around 8pm that night at 166th Street and Teller Avenue…and Don Franklin, who’d had the Roof position, was killed. He’d died when his heart gave out after lugging over 100 pounds of gear to the roof (including his SCBA, the Roof Rope and the gas-powered Partner Saw), then dropping down to the fifth floor fire apartment and helping them overhaul that, digging out the bodies of the two tenants who’d died smoking in bed.

The entire next week was a blur. A lot of Donny’s family lived on Staten Island, as did I, so I spent that week driving them up to the Middletown, New York funeral home for the wake and funeral in the FDNY’s family transport van.

Don’s death tore up the firehouse and it took a long while for many of the guys to recover afterwards. My last exchange with Don was jokingly profane, hardly what I’d have liked to have been my last words to him. I’d caught a number of recent jobs (fires) with Don before his untimely death. One, in which I joined him in 44′s bucket to take a bunch of HUD windows that were always a chore to remove (lots of cutting, then separating the broken pieces and then tearing the broken pieces out of the frame. . .and another in which he took me via the bucket to the roof of an isolated building and then dropped down to cover some of the windows as the OV. The roof was already bubbling when I got up there and fire was showing through a few of the roof vents. I cut a first hole and before I was ready to “pull it” (remove the roofing material and push the ceiling below down into the building to vent the roof), Donnie was back to give me a hand. generally you never leave a man alone on an isolated roof, but I know Don would make it back for me no matter WHAT, so I never really gave that a second thought.

I missed Don and miss him still. . .and I wish our last exchange was firehouse “ball-busting.”

In March, the city began “drafting” guys from various firehouses to teach at “the Rock” (the FDNY’s Training Academy). Another firefighter in our firehouse was grabbed, but he had three small kids at home and his wife worked, meaning tremendous child-care costs. He asked if I’d take the detail to teach two classes in Ladder Company Operations over that summer and I did, despite the fact that it was four day weeks opposed to two 24s each week.

In early April, I was sent for “Ed Meth” (Educational Methodologies) in advance of the training. The first class began later that month.

During that first class, “The Father’s Day Fire” occurred with dozens of firefighters injured and three (Brian Fahey, Harry Ford and John Downing) killed.

Our firehouse Engine-92/Ladder-44 hosted that Collation as the firehouse with the last Line-of-Duty (LOD) death always holds the Collation for the next member killed LOD.

It was a three day Collation in Queens and after the third day, I was called in for Overtime in ladder-44. Only Danny Perella (the Chauffeur) and I (the OV or Outside Vent) were assigned to L-44. Around 1am we were called to a taxpayer (a one-story commercial building) on 161st Street.

There was a lot of fire in that building and Danny took the pedestal controls on top of the rig, as I set to “fly” our Tower Ladder’s bucket. As I entered the bucket, Danny said, “It looks they’ve got about a dozen bays roaring inside. Maybe we can get this bucket into the store and start knocking that down.” I nodded and gave him a thumbs up to make sure he knew I was good with that.

I’d taken an SCBA (Self Contained breathing Apparatus) but hadn’t donned it (put it on), so it lay on the floor of the bucket as I hovered ten feet over the store’s entrance, while firefighters cut the gate. It was pretty hot right there and I was beginning to think about donning the SCBA to get a few breaths, when I saw our Roof-man, a detail from nearby L-27 pouring out what looked to be a sandy or gravelly mix from his hand.

He notified the battalion Chief on the Roof that we might have a gypsum roof. Given the gypsum roof’s penchant for collapse, there are generally no fire operations conducted on gypsum roofs. The Chief ordered an evacuation of the roof and I brought the bucket down to roof level to get our detail and the members of Rescue Company 3 off the roof. R-3 refused to comply and continued their cut, finding wood boards beneath and alleviating the gypsum roof concerns.

It was the first fire I’d been to since March and I was glad to get it.

In August, a first year (probationary) firefighter died at a brush fire on Staten Island. This was during the 2nd class I taught. It brought the LOD death toll for 2001 to five before the end of the third quarter of that year even began.

On Saturday, September 8th, the 2nd class I was with graduated from the Rock. Monday the 10th and Tuesday the 11th would be my first tours back in the firehouse. Monday was a brilliantly sunny day, with temps in the mid 70s and Tuesday was expected to be the same, making me wish I’d had a 24 set up so that I could’ve had at least one of them off.

I got in around 8am as usual and changed into my work duty uniform. Tuesday was a relatively uneventful day with about a half dozen runs for minor incidents like food on the stove, electrical emergencies, water leaks, etc.

Tuesday started out the same way, except at 8:45 am Billy Heaney announced from house watch that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.

I was in the kitchen with most of the other guys and remember assuming that it must’ve been a small plane because commercial pilots are trained to dump a plane into water rather than risk hitting a populated area, but when the news came on seconds later, the hole in the North Tower looked to be too big for a small plane.

That quickly escalated to a Fifth Alarm and then around 9 am a second jetliner hit the South Tower and Lieutenant Mike Finer came into the kitchen and said, “THIS is WAR!”

I was still trying to process all this, but it turns out Mike was right.

A little before 10am the South Tower collapsed and around 10:30am the North Tower fell, as well. There were TWO people very close to me, one I KNEW was downtown that day and the other could’ve been. My wife worked in lower Manhattan at Mitchell and Titus an accounting firm. She wound up one of those people covered in dust walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. My brother Jim worked in ladder-105 in Brooklyn. They lost their rig and six guys that day.

I tried calling them but the cell phones weren’t working any longer. Jim was on vacation (the first vacation he’d split in 20 years), and was at a Company golf outing in Virginia. He came back to New York that day as the FDNY instituted a full recall, requiring every member on active duty to report in.

The FDNY’s day tour starts at 9am and ends at 6pm, but after the two towers collapsed we knew for sure we weren’t going home anywhere near 6pm that night.

As the day wore on we were initially scheduled to head down to Ground Zero a little after 6pm, then it was moved back until 9pm, then midnight and finally we were taken down there around 4am.

On the way down, we were told “there were only six stories left standing.”

That turned out to be wrong, there weren’t ANY parts of the buildings left standing, just two large, maybe 40’ piles of rubble, mostly pulverized and powdered contents, with some jagged steel girders jutting out at odd angles. The cement lattice that ran up the first three stories of the Twin Towers jutted from the ground like the fingers of a skeleton’s hand jutting up through the earth.

On the West Side Highway, two enclosed walkway bridges were collapsed down across the roadway and most of the surrounding buildings were stricken by large pieces of debris from the Towers.

The streets around the area ran like rivers and everything in the area was covered in a thick coating of dust that looked yellow in the generator-fed emergency lights that turned the night into day.

The other thing that stood out was the strange, pungent smell that pervaded that entire area, a mixture of fuels, burning materials (fires still raged hundreds of feet beneath the street level and other things...impossible to describe but I’d remember in a second if I came across it again.

Those first few hours were near chaos. We searched areas on our own, until a Chief Officer would come to move us somewhere else. We worked through all of Wednesday and through most of Wednesday night searching some of the surrounding buildings facing the Towers. No one had come out alive from the rubble since noon of the 11th and no one would after that. Initially it was reported that some 30,000 body bags were ordered, but that was before, they realized that they weren’t going to find many bodies, nor even many body parts. . .mainly only small pieces (a part of a jaw bone, a single digit) that were DNA tested to ID the victims.

We stayed there until a little after 10am on Thursday morning, the 13th. After that we worked one 24-hour shift ON and one OFF, alternating between the firehouse and Ground Zero – the first 24-hour shift at Ground Zero, the next in the firehouse.

The first few days we had only those painter’s dust masks, then they gave us filtered re-breathers, which most guys just hung around their necks.

On a sunny day during the second week, I was standing on the perimeter of one of the piles with about a half dozen other firefighters with our re-breathers around our necks.

Initially I was focused on the pile, we were the “FAST Truck” (prepared to pull out any workers who went down in the pile) and didn’t notice, but after a few minutes, I started noticing what looked like white particles floating in the air. It certainly wasn’t snow, so whatever it was couldn’t be good. I looked around and no one else had their re-breathers on, so I sheepishly began pulling the straps of the thing over my head and fastened it into place. When I looked around after I’d pulled it up, the other guys had done or were doing the same thing.

The first couple of weeks were a blur and the final week down there had us on a weird schedule, with 19 hours off between sets. You’d work 7am to 3pm, than you’d be back 8pm to 3am and so on. That schedule really threw off your internal clock, prompting some complaints from some quarters to which then Commissioner Tom von Essen infamously quipped, “Suck it up,” resulting in a barrage of abuse headed his way.

By October we were pretty much back in our firehouses for good, with a crew from across the Department permanently detailed to ground Zero.

The Memorials began shortly after and for a long time, we spent most of our off days attending Funerals or memorial services. Most of the time you’d look for the names of guys you knew and attend those, other times you just picked one and went.

As jarring as Donnie’s death was nine months previous, this was unfathomably more momentous and E-92/L-44 lost no one that day! I knew about 45 of the guys killed that day, about a dozen were from the first class I taught and the rest were guys I’d worked with along the way.

Occasionally I’d think of the irony of how I’d never wanted to work in lower Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn, even though they were closer to where I lived, because they weren’t busy enough – L-44 had been among the busiest Truck Companies in the FDNY in Occupied Structural Work, or OSW. I’d always felt better off, even safer working in busy Units because everyone there wanted to do the work, many transferred into such places and they were used to doing work, so there were generally fewer major mistakes.

I was lucky.

Lucky I didn’t choose to work where I lived (Staten Island). Lucky I chose to pay the tolls to work in a busier firehouse. I began my career in East Harlem in the 30th busiest Engine Company in OSW, moved to the 8th busiest Engine Company in the University Heights section of the South Bronx, then on to the busiest Engine (E-92) in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx. I “crossed the floor” to Ladder-44.

I was even luckier that BOTH my wife and my brother Jim made it home.

My wife’s been symptom free since day one and though my brother was on four different lung medications right after 9/11, he was able to work until 2004. While he is in the early stages of emphysema, he’s been working with and doing well so far.

Everything until early October of 2001 remains a blur of images in my memory and for awhile I’ve noticed that everything AFTER 9/11 seems to have occurred “only yesterday” (seems so close, I can touch it), while the things that occurred even just before that day, seems like a million years ago.

Two events in October of that year stayed with me. The first was getting home after a night tour and turning on the TV as I shaved. My wife must’ve left it on C-Span before she went to work and I remember hearing shouts and wild slogans, but I couldn’t make it out from the other room.

I remember walking half shaved into the bedroom to see an A.N.S.W.E.R. rally with a bunch of filthy scumbags blaming America for the attacks of 9/11.

I remember thinking, “It didn’t take long for these scumbags to crawl out from under their rocks.”

The other was an exchange with a younger firefighter in L-44. Jimmy W approached me on the apparatus floor and said, “That could’ve been ANY of us, down there on a detail.”

I thought about that for a moment. He was right, but he was also wrong.

I told Jimmy, “I wouldn’t count ourselves lucky Jim, neither of us knows what coming down the pike for either of us. We could die tomorrow or forty years from now…and if either of us could know what was in store for us, maybe six or eight years of agonizing suffering with some kind of cancer or lung ailment, maybe we’d consider these guys who at least got a quick death to be the lucky ones.”

There were a lot of really sad stories around 9/11, as you’d expect. In my brother’s Company (L-105) Frank Palumbo, a man my brother Jim called “the greatest father he’d ever seen,” as he kept his ten kids perfectly orderly whenever they visited the firehouse. Or Henry Miller, a 28 year veteran less than two weeks short of retirement, or Tim Stackpole, who’d been severely burned on June 5th, 1998 that left two firefighters (Scott laPiedre and James Blackmore) dead.

After that fire, Lt. Timothy Stackpole worried he might never return to work again, but he threw himself into months of arduous treatment and physical therapy, and after finally making it back to Light Duty, after some months working light duty at Ladder 103 in Brooklyn, he was finally allowed to return to full duty just months before 9/11.

In fact, just the Thursday before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Lieutenant Stackpole was promoted to captain.

He died just five days in that rank in the attacks of 9/11.

The Harrell family lost two members, Stephen and Harvey, both FDNY Lieutenants.

Stephen Harrell was part of one of the most tragic 9/11 stories. Marty Celic, who ran track at Mssg. Farrell H.S. on Staten Island was killed in 1977 in an arson fire on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His brother Tom ran “the Marty Celic Run” for over two decades after Marty’s untimely death at twenty-five. Tom Celic heeded his parent’s wishes that he not join the FDNY, so he took a job with Marsh and McLennan. Ironically enough, despite never working in the FDNY, Tom Celic was killed in the 9/11 attacks that turned out to be the largest disaster in FDNY history. Odder still, is that Marty’s former fiancĂ©e, went on to Marry another firefighter...Stephen Harrell.
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