“We’re basically extended brothers, all of us,” says a New York City firefighter. “It’s the one job where you look forward to going to work. We are living out our childhood dreams of being firemen. And now…that close family we had is abruptly gone.”
Every New Yorker is now familiar with the devastating losses suffered by the FDNY on September 11. As I watched the firemen on television sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center, or their vacant stares after grueling hours of work, emotions rose to the surface. I had always been a huge fan of firemen, stopping on sidewalks to watch their trucks race by, horns blaring, American flag flapping in the wind. Those men were on their way to run into a burning building to save someone. They were pure courage and determination.
I’ve tried to stay away from writing about September 11th, afraid of my own feelings and not wanting to belabor the situation with more personal reflection. But when I was offered the chance to talk with a firefighter here in Williamsburg, I immediately said yes. He wanted to talk about what he saw; he wanted to explain his feelings and ongoing reactions.
The firefighter asked not to be identified due to the high emotions running throughout the Department, and so I’ll call him “Frank.” He sought anonymity because he didn’t want his comments taken the wrong way. What I can tell you is that Frank is a 30+ year-veteran of the Fire Department and he was there on September 11th.
Frank stared at the floor or the ceiling during most of the interview, which took place at his home in Williamsburg in early November. During our conversation, he choked up numerous times, and managed to smile only a few times. He started out by explaining how close firemen were to each other, but we quickly came back to that morning’s deadly events.
There were eight men at the fire command post at the bottom of the World Trade Center. When the explosions occurred, six went one way and two went the other. Only the two made it out. Frank knew all of the men at that post. Those six were the first he knew that were gone. As the list of missing firemen grew, he stopped counting lost friends after he got to 40.
Frank arrived at the site on the first day, and there he sifted through the piles with everyone else. “My eyes were burnt red from the smoke and dust,” he recalls. “Absolutely bloodshot and stinging. Being down there is so much worse than seeing it on television. All the dust, the mountains of rubble, the smell of burning plastic, it burrows into you.”
The worst impact, though, was on Frank’s emotions in the days and weeks that followed. “I was depressed, my muscles were tight all day, I’d go to the bar after work just so I could go to sleep that night, I couldn’t cry. That was the worst. I couldn’t cry and that’s what I needed to do. As it turns out, attending the funerals was the best thing I could do. It allowed me to begin letting things out, one funeral at a time.”
The funerals numbered in the dozens in the immediate weeks following the attack. Images were on the television, in the newspaper, in my mind, of thousands of men in uniform lined up to pay respect to their fallen comrades. While those ceremonies began the healing process, I ask if they also reminded him of how many people the Department had lost and what effect that was going to have.
“This really hit the Fire Department,” he says. “Can we recover? Sure. But it’s a long healing process. You work with these guys 15, 20 years, know all their kids, listen to their retirement plans, have dinner with them, sleep in the same building, know which buttons to push with each guy, trust your life with them, go fishing with them, have a beer with them. For 20 Years. And then…they’re gone.”
This closeness, this intense bond that grows between the men, is perhaps the strongest and most durable part of Fire Department life. It also explains how the firemen acted at Ground Zero.
“Down at the site,” Frank reports excitedly, “firemen dig until their adrenaline is gone. I see them sitting on rubble like zombies. They have no energy left at all, they can’t even think. But someone yells ‘I think I found someone!’ and they’re up and running. I’m not sure where that energy comes from. Maybe it’s because of their training. Someone might be alive. Maybe it’s because their friends are still buried there and just getting one more out feels like victory.”
Frank’s excitement quickly fades, however. “I have wives call me to ask where their husbands are because they haven’t seen them for a week. These guys stay at the site because they just can’t stop digging. They can’t give up the hope. They work 20 hours, find a lobby to sleep in, get up and work another 20 hours. They don’t know they’ve been gone from home for a week.” It is apparent how as time began to move forward after September 11, the heroism of the firefighters gave way to frustration and sorrow.
And that anguish clearly came to the surface in early November, when firefighters scuffled with police assigned to restrict recovery efforts at the site. “There was just a bunch of frayed nerves,” Frank says. “Someone probably hit someone on the shoulder or pushed someone and it just set them off. These guys need to cry. There’s women down there giving massages to the workers after the shifts. I’ve seen firefighters lay down, utterly exhausted after 20 hours of work, and as soon as her hand touches their back, they start crying.”
The corps of volunteers that formed downtown to help the workers and firemen are also familiar to all of us now. People passing out boxes of socks or water bottles by the dozens; restaurants setting up food kitchens so the men can eat. This need to help by all of us blossomed into the unprecedented outpouring of support and money and homage seen at every single firehouse in the city.
“What the city has done for us is unreal,” Frank says. “I can’t express enough how unbelievable the outpouring has been. The food, the supplies, the socks, the flowers, the candles. These guys so appreciate what people did for them. It gave them a distraction, just for a moment, and that is so valuable. “I remember a group of people walked to our firehouse holding candles and held a vigil outside. I can’t explain how I felt. The guys and me…we just stood there and cried. That diversion, that space in time where we got to just feel again, was so important.”
I think that support effort gave all of us a space in time. I wanted to do something. I needed to do something to try and fix this mess somehow, even if just for me. Walking up to firehouses and reading the notes people taped to the walls left me speechless. I stared at the makeshift altars set up and tears welled in my eyes.
Firemen risk their lives every day. We know that. They know that. When three died earlier this year in Queens all at once the city was shocked. What happened in September is beyond comprehension. I wanted them to be avenged. I wanted to grab those terrorists by the throat and shake them. I wanted to know what this firefighter thought.
“Is the war the right thing to do?” Frank asks rhetorically. “Yeah, I think right now it’s the only way to handle it. But in the future it’s going to have to be different. It’s not going to be over when we get bin Laden. All his cells are already paid for. Besides, he’s just a poster boy for the movement. He happened to have a lot of money, that’s why he became important.”
I switch the topic, not wanting to give Osama any more publicity than I had to. I try to gauge how Frank was dealing with it personally. “Right now, I go day to day. One day will be okay, the next not so good. But I try and distract myself with my photography. I like to take pictures, never went to school for it or anything, just liked doing it. It stops my train of thought. I stop thinking about what happened and only concentrate on what I’m taking a picture of. It’s sort of like therapy. I could spend $80 with a shrink or I could spend it on film. I choose the film.”
How to speak about the aftermath of September 11th is understandably still quite difficult for Frank. “When I was told about this interview,” he says, “I thought about what I wanted to say, how to get across how close we all [firefighters] are. I thought about telling a story about one firefighter to you, what he felt and what happened and what he saw. But you start thinking about that one firefighter and then you start thinking that that story happened 343 times that day. You can’t separate it out. We’re firefighters. We are one family.”
I ask him if he thinks this will forever change the Department or permanently alter his way of thinking about the job. “Even after everything that has happened, it doesn’t change my feelings about the job. Sure, we got hit. But we got 25,000 people out. That’s what we do.”
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.