Island firefighter remembers a day that was unforgettable

John Wholihan, retired from the FDNY, went back into service on Sept. 11

Monday, September 09, 2002


Editor's note: Retired firefighter John Wholihan also served as the Wagner College equipment manager for the school's sports teams for many years, and recently stepped down as the head coach of the Petrides School's boys' high school basketball team. He and his family are now residents of Naples, Fla.

The phone rang. It was my Aunt Gail in Long Island. She told me to put on the television, saying that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. I flipped on the TV and couldn't believe what was happening.

Immediately, my wife Donna and I jumped in the car and headed for St. George, where we wound up behind the Richmond County Bank Ballpark. By this time, the second plane had hit. Serious had become terrorist. When the first building began to fall, I turned to my wife.

"I have to get home. I have to go over to the towers," I said. Being married to a firefighter, even a retired one, she didn't ask questions. She knew.

When we got home I slipped into my FDNY shirt and put my helmet in a knapsack. I kissed Donna goodbye and told her that I loved her and my sons. Then I rode my bicycle to my old fire company on Brighton Avenue and Jersey Street in New Brighton.

When I arrived my first question was about Jack Connolly, a lifelong friend who married my cousin Dawn. He had called Dawn from work just after the second plane hit. Jack's brother Kevin is a firefighter in that ladder company so I was hoping for some good news, not yet understanding the magnitude of the attack. I learned Kevin had already gone to the WTC, so with the help of Firefighter Dave Caputo I gathered up whatever spare gear I could -- gloves, flashlight and pants -- got on my bike again and rode to the ferry.

At the ferry I was one of about 50 other firefighters and police officers, all looking to go across to help. As we were going across the harbor, the ferry workers were handing out gloves, flashlights, batteries and masks, all the time listening on the radios and watching the remaining tower burn.

Just as we were about to dock, the second building fell. At once we all knelt down on one knee to pray for all those people, and for what we were about to do and see. I remember the captain saying that we should prepare ourselves for things that no one has seen before.

When we docked we were immediately engulfed by hundreds of people running to get on the boat. What they did when they saw us seemed like a scene out of a movie: They just stopped -- everyone of them covered in the black soot that's a familiar sight now but was scary to see then -- and parted so that we could walk through and past them. Then they started to clap and cheer us on. It was a wonderful feeling and gave us a needed lift for the job we were about to undertake.

Amid papers flying everywhere, and under a cloud of thick black smoke, we hopped on a city bus. Then a chief and captain took over; they put everyone's name on a sheet of looseleaf and made teams of six and seven members, combining full-duty guys with retirees like myself, that would work together once we arrived at the site. After about five minutes on the bus, we decided we would be better served walking to the command post, so we got off, stepping into blackness and six-inch-deep soot.

This is where I met up with lifelong friends Don Newman and Tom Henri. We decided to stay together and work our way to the towers up Broadway. Black smoke and debris still engulfed us as we walked past burned-out and crushed Fire Department and police vehicles, stepping over and around beams of twisted metal.

We didn't know whether we were walking north or south. We had to look at building addresses to know which way we were heading. We could still hear explosions going off, which reminded us that we should be extremely careful.

At first, we didn't encounter many civilians, and even fewer firefighters. I used to work at 4WTC, so when we got to the Burger King across the street I knew we were close, but the smoke was too thick to see anything. We walked even more slowly and cautiously.

As we approached a little clearing, we saw the Twin Towers -- or what was left of them, a big pile of twisted burning steel. We felt like we were in a dream; I know I was in shock. All we could see was the mountain of rubble, cars, piled on top of one another, smoldering city buses, and fires in buildings 4-5 and 7.

It took what seemed like an eternity to go down one block to 10 Engine-10 Truck (Ten House) where there had been a command post, climbing mountains of rubble to get there. When we did, we located a chief trying to coordinate search and rescue crews. First, however, he wanted us to search the Ten House for bodies and told those of us that didn't have proper gear on to get some or leave.

We searched the quarters and, thankfully, turned up no one. There were still a few pieces of equipment and some bunker gear left hanging, so I put on Firefighter Clazton's turnout coat. We met up with another friend, Gary LiGreci, and we all set out to search and rescue.

It wasn't an easy task. There were cars and buses everywhere, some in good condition some totally destroyed. I don't remember how long we were there, but it was starting to clear up enough so that we could see. We searched the buildings directly across the street from 1WTC but were ordered out after about 20 minutes. We then started searching cars and buses that were on top of one another.

After many hours, my friends were trying to get me to leave. I was retired, they pointed out. Also, the smoke was making me very ill. Danny finally convinced me to take one of the longest walks I'll never forget, back to the ferry.

By the time I returned to Battery Park, there were a hundred ambulances waiting to receive the victims and casualties. Another friend, Willie Wright, a lieutenant and EMT worker, was working one of the ambulances. I remember he checked me out and gave me some water. He wanted me to stay with the ambulance, but after a while I left and continued to the ferry. There were hundreds of emergency workers filing off the ferry, many of them friends. We exchanged hugs and words of encouragement.

Once on the ferry, I realized it was the same one I had taken that morning. The ferry hand that I had left my bicycle and knapsack with came over to me and showed me to my things. I realize now I never thanked him, or even asked his name.

When I got off the boat everyone was anxious to speak with me because I was one of the first emergency personnel to come back from "Ground Zero." At first, many people wouldn't or couldn't believe what I was telling them, that the buildings were maybe 10 stories high, just piles of twisted metal. After the medical team checked me out and released me, I began the long walk from the ferry to my house near Snug Harbor. Many people stopped to see if they could help or give me a ride. I thanked them but declined all the offers. I needed to walk and think about what we had just been through. It seemed so surreal.

When I made it to my house and saw my sons, Shane and Brandon, and my wife, Donna, I broke down and cried, not only for what I saw but for what I knew everyone else would find out -- that there would be few survivors among the early groups of firefighters. Even I underestimated how many. As the days went on, the list kept growing. So many people were missing. Months went by and we kept going to funerals.

I took a shower and changed clothes. I kissed my family good-bye and went back to help my friends.

Needless to say, it was a day that will live with me forever. I can only hope that in spite of all the death and destruction, no one will ever forget the courage and bravery of so many.

None of us will never be the same.