Monday, September 12, 2016

Memories from Firefighter/Volunteer gatherings, New York City, 2001-2002

Fifteen years ago I was living in New York City when the World Trade Center attacks occurred. The following is taken from notes I wrote in 2001 and 2002, when I met and talked with firefighters who were working on the site, which they first referred to as “the pile”, and later called “the pit.”

I volunteered for the Red Cross in November 2001. We served meals at the Marriott World Financial Center, just south of the World Trade Center site, where meeting rooms were turned into rooms of food, recliners, and other amenities for the firefighters, construction workers and police … everyone working at the site.

The room was filled with letters and cards from kids and adults from around the world, that were sent to the rescuers. The rescue workers did sit and read them. Some wanted to talk, some looked like they just wanted some quiet.

When a firefighter dies, everyone goes to the funeral. Firefighters from Canada came to New York to help attend funerals.

Fireman Tom started organizing parties to thank the volunteers, having firefighters and volunteers meet at bars and pubs around the World Trade Center, giving business to the local bar owners who were suffering. For many months, I attended these casual fireman/volunteer gatherings, having a beer and talking with the firefighters. I had written down some of the pub’s names: Brady’s, Rosie’s, Suspenders, The Roadhouse. Don’t know if any are still in the neighborhood, 15 years later.

Talking to an older battalion chief, I was asking what they were going through, and what he did when he wasn’t fighting fires. He talked about his sailboat that he keeps out on Long Island, and he likes to go out alone on his boat for peace and quiet.  He talked about what they were finding, and I said I was interested to hear about it, but if he didn’t want to talk about it, that was okay.  He said, no, it’s probably better I talk to you about it rather than bringing it home and telling my wife and kids about it. I was glad I could be of some little help.

I remember hoping these guys find someone to talk to. Several told me they don’t talk to their wives or families about what they are seeing and going through. They don’t want to burden them.

Young firefighter was in his car, not working that morning. Turned around, headed back in to grab his gear and go help. In the Bronx, he ran into traffic, and had a hard time getting into Manhattan, as they weren’t letting people in. He showed his badge, and got in. He got stuck in traffic for around 10 minutes. He finally got downtown, grabbed his gear at the firehouse, and was running down towards the burning towers. He was several blocks away when the first tower fell.  All he kept thinking was if it hadn’t been for the traffic jam, he’d be in the tower by now.

Fireman was in his back yard, on 9/11, getting ready to paint his house, a beautiful morning, when he got a call, and… now, months later, he felt it was stupid, but he’s afraid on a nice morning, to go back out to his yard and get ready to paint.  I assured him that wasn’t stupid.

One man said their firehouse lost 7 firefighters, and had only found a few remains. One man was identified, they found his leg and recognized the tattoo on his leg.

Retired firefighters looking for their sons.

One firefighter lost 21 friends, and many more acquaintances.

Very soon, all they were finding were bones.  Raking through the dirt looking for bones.

The firefighters I met were tough, blue-collar type guys, with a love for their work, a positive spirit; they’re there to help people, to put out fires.

I have often wondered if it’s testosterone that causes men to often get some sort of adrenaline rush from charging into battle, wars, violence. But firefighters apply that drive for good, they run into burning buildings, charging into a fire, running into battle, but to help people, to save people, not to hurt people.

One said, a good day is when you have fires to go to and take care of. It’s a bad day for the homeowners, but a good day if you’re a fireman.

One loves working in the poorer neighborhoods, because the neighbors really know them, they get calls for help by lots of neighbors… and more fires to help with.

I don’t remember exactly what we were laughing and joking about, but with self-deprecating humor, one fireman told me, “Well, they call us New York’s Bravest, not New York’s Smartest.”

I asked one young firefighter, on your one day off, will you rest? No, he was going to Vermont, to go skateboarding.

I danced with a firefighter who was a good dancer... he may have had a few too many beers, but the other guys seemed to look out for him and make sure he was okay.

So many of them really love their jobs. They can’t think of anything they’d rather be doing.  One fireman said, all he ever wanted to be was either a policeman, a fireman or a cowboy.  He started studying to be a cop, didn’t like it, switched to firefighting, loves it.  “As far as the cowboy thing, I listen to country music, so I figure I’m covered.”  I guess if you live in NYC and want to be a cowboy, listening to country music is the closest you can get.

Most firefighters work other jobs, mostly construction.  We decided, if you are going to build a house, you may want to check your local firehouse, you’re likely to find carpenters, framers, masons ... many crafts are represented.

The firefighters told me, the towers fell to the west, and twisted slightly as they fell, so for example, the north stairwell would be found facing a completely different direction. 

The south tower fell into the Marriott World Trade Center, which had been evacuated, but people died in that building when the south tower fell on it. I later met a man who had worked at that Marriott. His boss was out of the building, but went back in to make sure everyone got out safely. He did not survive.

I remember when the EPA announced within mere days that the air was perfectly safe to breathe down there. There is no way that could be true. That smell in the air of burnt plastic and electrical, with a weird smell of powdered concrete persisted for months. Sometimes even many blocks uptown, the subway door would open, and there was that smell. Ugh. It was awful.

Every year in September, I do not need to be told to “Remember” or “Never Forget” the events of September 11th. I was there. It’s still difficult to see World Trade Center images, and I think that will always be true.

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