Working 9/11 – A Fire Lieutenant’s Perspective
9/11 was not a duty day for me, so I was sleeping in, recovering from the runs the day before. My ex and I woke up around 8, fed Keegan, and putzed around the house. Around 10 we got ready to go downtown to check in at my restaurant, make sure everything was running ok. We had the radio on in the van as we drove downtown, trying to make sense of the news, We couldn't tell from the snippets we heard what had gone on in New York City and Washington D.C.
Johnny, the cook, looked up at us as we came in the back door at the restaurant. “Oh my God. They're attacking us!” We had no idea what he was talking about. It took him a few minutes to explain what was going on, or at least as much as he or anyone knew.
We were all speechless trying to fathom this. We had nothing to compare it to. This was how people must have felt when they heard about Pearl Harbor.
A few minutes later, my fire department radio crackled. Tones dropped for an all-call alarm, alerting everyone on the department to listen up and get ready to respond.
“Attention Miami Township Fire Rescue, please respond to your station for an all-call.” Jeez, what was going on? I clicked on the radio. ”Miami Lt. 4 responding Station 1, two minutes out.”
I got to the station. All the bay doors were open, other firefighters had already shown up and were milling around. It was about the quietest I had ever seen the station, especially with so many of us there. No one was wisecracking that day.
I went to my locker and put on my gear – for once, double- and triple-checking my snaps, making sure I was ready. The chief came over and pulled me aside. “Listen, Mikey, you know what's going on, right?”
“All I know is the World Trade Center got attacked and collapsed, hundreds of brothers missing.”
“Yeah, well, we don't know what we're gonna run into today. I want you to be first due today.” I nodded. First due meant I would be the lieutenant in charge on 801, our first-run rig, In our fire department structure that meant I would be first command officer on every scene that day.
.”I want Jack as my driver, though.” Jack and I had run together on the same department since '83 and worked with each other since I joined Maples in 1978. He had been chauffeur on my engine since I made lieutenant in 1989. On a day like this, I wanted someone next to me that I trusted and that knew implicitly what I would want one every scene without me having to tell him. And someone that watch my back and was not afraid to tell me I had missed something, or that I was making the wrong choice with five guys’ lives on the line.
“You got it. You want your crew too?”
“Alright, Rita's not here yet, but Jimmy is. You pick a couple guys to round out your crew.” He went over to Dave, the other lieutenant there that was on-duty, and told him that my crew was going to bump his off. He was not a happy camper.
I picked Owen, a former Marine who had seen combat, and Dave, a volunteer who was a college professor in real life, to round out my crew. I hadn’t worked with them that much, but I trusted them and I trusted their judgment.
Colin came back over to me. “He’s not happy, but he knows why I did it. A-team today buddy.” He hit me on the shoulder and went off to his next task.
I gathered my crew up. It was not our typical morning happy go lucky pow-wow. Everyone was quiet, looking at me. I was trying to think of what to say.
“Look, I don’t know what to tell you guys. Nobody knows what’s going on, or what we’re gonna see out there. We already lost several hundred brothers today.” We had heard about the collapse of the towers in NYC and knew hundreds of firefighters were presumed dead, anywhere from 200 to 700. No one knew what the real numbers were.
I usually ended off with “Words For Today”. Usually, it was something safety related, something like “Be Safe Out There” or “Visors Down All Times”. The default was “We All Go Home”, words that I lived by for my crew. It was my job as lieutenant to make sure we all went home – a responsibility I took very seriously.
I wondered what to say next that day.
“””So today’s words aren’t everybody goes home, or anything like that. Today’s words are “Do Your Fucking Job””.
I looked around at the grim faces. “We all real clear on what that means?” They all nodded, one by one, as I faced them in turn.
We clasped hands in the middle of our circle. “Rock n roll, guys.” It was the most somber “rock n roll” I’ve ever said.
Nobody said a word. We broke the clasp after what seemed like an eternity to go check our rig. It was the most thorough check that 801 ever got.
Tones dropped for a run. We all froze, fearing the worst. Central Dispatch came over the air.
“Attention Miami 805, 801. You are needed for chest pain at 1816 Whitehall Drive. Miami 805, Miami 801, chest pain at 1816 Whitehall Drive.”
Jack fired up 801, waiting for the air brakes to kick in. The medic unit pulled out first onto the apron, since they didn’t have air brakes. We heard them go on the air. “Miami 805 responding with three.” They made a right coming off the station apron, sirens blaring, on the way to the scene.
801’s air brake reached pressure. Jack nodded to me, but I could hear them too. I reached for the mic.
“Miami 801, responding with five to 1816 Whitehall drive on medic assist.”
The cab was silent as we pulled out, the muted wail of the sirens still echoing through the cab.
I’ve never felt such dread on the fire department. What would normally be a run of the mill run, now had us all thinking, “Is this our last run?”
We pulled up to the scene behind 805, leaving enough room so that the medic crew could get the gurney out with no problem if they needed to transport.
“Miami 801, Central, on scene. Miami Lieutenant 4 establishing Whitehall Command.”
“Miami Lieutenant 4 clear, establishing Whitehall Command, 801 on scene.”
I sent the crew up to assist the medic unit. Jack and I sat in the front cab of 801, silent, on edge, looking around for anything unusual.
805 ending up transporting after a while. We went back to the station, silent, all feeling like we dodged a bullet, feeling relieved, but stressed knowing we had a lot more calls to go on.
There were a fair amount of calls that day, mainly medic calls and several with people reporting odors, smoke, loud unexplained noises. Everyone was jumpy, but we had to respond to every call, not knowing what it really was.
It may get called in as chest pains, but was it really? It’s well-known among first responders that a favorite tactic among suicide bombers, terrorists, and mass murderers, that there is a second wave of explosions designed to take us, the first responders, out. Believe me, that weighed heavily on our minds as we responded to calls that day.
I have never had such dread responding to calls as a firefighter, or lieutenant. There were no big calls that day, a lot of false alarms where people thought they heard or saw something. But every single call that day on the way to the scene, I thought it might be my last call.
In 29 years on the fire department, I’ve survived a 5 story fall, fell off a few roofs, fell through weakened floors into burning basements, and more “Holy shit I am gonna die” calls. I was never more sure than 9/11 that I was not going home that day. That sense of dread going out on every call sticks with me every 9/11. I’ve never had that feeling before or since.
And the FDNY brothers in the 9/11 documentary, taking orders, starting their way up the staircases in the World Trade Center to render assistance, knowing there was a helluva chance they were going to die?
They were doing their job. It makes me proud to be a firefighter. We follow our passion, we believe in our mission, and we do our job.
And we do this for our brothers and sisters on the fire department. Especially the absent ones.