Firefighters faced unparalleled perils

By LEAH RAE
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: Sept. 30, 2001)

Fire Lt. Timothy Ryan still feels the ashes on him.

Almost three weeks after climbing through the rubble of the World Trade Center, searching in vain for signs of life, the sorrow clings. Firefighters for miles around the scene are only beginning to deal with the grief over what they saw.

"I have some type of coat, of their spirit," Ryan said from the back yard of his new house on Freedom Road in North White Plains. "I wish I could do more."

"Stress debriefing" sessions are being held at area firehouses to encourage firefighters to talk through their experiences. There is the shock and sorrow of pulling bodies from the rubble. There is an intense frustration among those who were not called to go. And families are facing up to the dangers of the job, now terrifyingly real. Some 343 firefighters are missing or dead in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

In New York City, firefighters have barely had time to reflect.

"You couldn't start dwelling on the enormity of this catastrophe because you'd lose it," said Capt. Frank Hudec of Ladder Co. 79 on Staten Island.

"To this day, I still haven't looked at the list. I just deal with each death as it comes along," he said. "One day just rolls into the next. It's just one big, bad dream that just won't go away."

Tuesday

On Sept. 11, Hudec and his crew were rushing over the Verrazano Bridge toward lower Manhattan after the first plane hit. A dispatcher redirected him to downtown Brooklyn, because all the truck companies in that area had left for the scene.

After the second crash, it was clear that New York was under a terrorist attack. Firefighters were in serious danger, and Hudec wanted to be there to help.

By 11 o'clock, Hudec's company was driving through smoke in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and out into a shower of ash. The ladder truck headed toward the firehouse at Greenwich and Liberty streets. The Twin Towers were gone, replaced by a cavern of smoking ruins.

Fires were igniting all over the deep, dusty pile where the towers had fallen. Up in the bucket, into the dense smoke, the men searched for flames and tried to put out as many fires as they could. Air masks were useless after 20 or 30 minutes. The men went up in twos, staying in the bucket for as long as they could breathe.

When the wind shifted, glass showered down. Heat waves came in blasts. Nearby, a giant piece of the World Trade Center protruded from a building, threatening to fall.

Hudec tried to keep track of the men in his crew as off-duty firefighters swarmed in. He didn't want to lose anyone else.

***

Firefighter Joseph Oliva sped down the West Side Highway with a contingent of rescuers from New Rochelle. They were tense. No one knew whether another attack was coming.

At 11:30, Oliva stood in the middle of the disaster he'd witnessed on television. Firefighters looked shaken, like a bomb had just hit. New York City's communications were down, and fire officials were trying to put things in order.

New Rochelle firefighters relayed messages between two command posts, as officers determined which crews were on the scene and which ones should be called in. It took a while to realize that whole companies, some of the city's best rescue teams, were missing.

That afternoon, Oliva watched as a 40-story building crumbled in a burning heap. Next to him, a New York City firefighter had a voice coming over his radio, calling, "Mayday!"

In the place where two 110-story towers once stood, everything was in such small pieces, thought New Rochelle firefighter Peter Escobedo, who was called down at 4 p.m. Other than the twisted I-beams, he saw only small rocks, rubble and dust. About 800 people searched the hills and craters. Eerily, there was no noise.

Crushed firetrucks were dragged from the pile, with windshields missing.

"This is death," Escobedo said. "The people who were in these rigs are no longer here."

Wednesday

At Station 2 in White Plains, Lt. Ryan's shift ended at 8 a.m. Wednesday. The previous day he had been called to the Westchester County training center, then sent back.

Ryan took his gear and marched over to the Metro-North station in a group of 18 firefighters. If they weren't needed as rescuers, they decided, at least they could go to a hospital and give blood.

Near the Jacob Javits Center, they boarded a Nassau County police boat and headed down the Hudson River to the North Cove. The scene looked something like a ticker tape parade, something like a volcano. The White Plains crew waited for word on how they could help. At one point, they pulled debris from a pile. Not far away a couple floors of scaffolding were in danger of falling, and they had to move.

Near the firehouse at Greenwich and Liberty streets, Ryan grasped the size of the disaster. Pieces of the Twin Towers stuck out of the rubble like toothpicks. The surrounding buildings had gaping holes. Steelworkers torched off pieces of steel so firefighters could take them away. A New York City lieutenant called to Ryan, someone he knew from officer's school.

When a young man's body was found in the rubble, Ryan noted the wedding ring on his finger. He worked more feverishly, hoping to find someone alive.

***

Oliva had an assignment: to clear glass from a hollowed-out hotel where deadly shards were falling. Oliva and 30 others went to the fourth floor, passing a banquet area on the way up. Just as they prepared to pop out the windows, they saw people below running away like ants. There were screams.

"Everybody out!"

An elevator had crashed down, and a chunk of the building had fallen off the back. That alerted the architects and engineers, who were watching for signs of collapse.

When the body of a New York City firefighter was found in the rubble, New Rochelle firefighters backed up. New York City firefighters would follow a ritual. They took their helmets off, placed a helmet on the body bag and passed it down the line.

On trips back home to New Rochelle, Escobedo saw people cheering and calling them heroes. "This is for the guys underneath the rubble," he thought.

Thursday

Hudec got up Thursday after a restless night on Staten Island and drove to the firehouse at 6 a.m. He was planning to go back to Manhattan. But as he reached the station, he smelled smoke.

Men were running from the firehouse. Two blocks away, a two-story house was burning. During a search of the house, Hudec was hit with a backdraft and thrown down a set of stairs.

After being treated for burns on his neck, Hudec headed into Manhattan.

There is one man missing from Ladder Co. 79: Frank Esposito, a firefighter in his early 30s who was detailed to an engine company out of Brooklyn on Sept. 11.

A close friend of Hudec's is also missing. Firefighter Steve Siller, also of Staten Island, drove toward the World Trade Center as soon as the first plane crash was reported. Leaving his car near the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, he sprinted through the tunnel with his gear until an engine company picked him up.

Siller was last seen at the corner of West and Liberty streets, when the Twin Towers were still standing.

"Everybody is just pulling together as best they can," Hudec said. "Especially the New York Fire Department. When things are at their worst, we're at our best. And it's always been like that."

***

The debriefing sessions, a form of peer counseling, began 11 years ago and have expanded since then. George Reale, a retired deputy chief in New Rochelle, started calling around and organizing groups soon after the terrorist attacks. By Friday, Sept. 14, he was working with departments to handle the effects of post-traumatic stress.

Firefighters will be feeling the emotional impact for some time, Reale said. They may have sleeplessness, fatigue, irritability, or a tendency to withdraw. After the Oklahoma City bombing, counseling for rescuers continued long after the work was done.

Some firefighters feel a sense of guilt for not being part of the rescue, or frustrated that they couldn't do more. They feel an immense sadness over the loss of about 6,000 lives. Some have reached the point of regret over bringing children into a dangerous world.

"The memory of this event is not going away," he said.


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