Search This Blog

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

The Day Liberty Cried

By Steven Velasquez
September 11, 2001

This article was written by me on September 11th 2001 while in NYC providing fire suppression services for the people of Brooklyn. Two doors down from our firehouse was a bodega where I purchased a black marble composition notebook and a bag of pens. I began taking notes throughout the night and following day. This article was previously published electronically and in print. Only minor modifications were made to adjust for time differences or add additional facts.

In response to the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in NYC, NY - New Jersey Fire and EMS agencies implemented their disaster response plans under the direction of their County OEM (Office of Emergency Management). In the early part of the afternoon, September 11, 2001, a Task Force of Middlesex County Fire and E.M.S. agencies staged at the Middlesex County Fire Academy in Sayreville, NJ. The following article will detail the accounts as recalled by a South Amboy Engine Company.

Independence Engine 7 responded to the call and staged with 9 additional Engine Companies, 5 Truck Companies and 5 Heavy Rescues. This would form the contingent from Middlesex County. In attendance were the following companies:

Engine Companies

  • South Amboy - Independence Engine 7
  • Wood-Bridge Twp. - Colonia Engine 12-2
  • Wood-Bridge Twp. - Iselin District 11
  • Sayreville - President Park
  • North Brunswick - Co. 2
  • North Brunswick - Co. 3
  • Dunellen
  • South River
  • Plainsboro
  • Milltown

Truck Companies

  • South Plainfield
  • South Old Bridge
  • Piscataway - River Road
  • East Brunswick - Independent

Heavy Rescue Companies

  • Piscataway - New Market
  • East Brunswick - Brookview
  • Old Bridge Township - Cheesequake
  • Wood Bridge Township - Keasbey Rescue 4

Planning Phase

The contingent first assembled in the Fire Academy's auditorium with Middlesex County OEM Coordinators, Bill Prairie, Billy Johnson, Jack Kramer, Bob Burns and Russ Kane. With them was the Middlesex County Prosecutor. The firefighters were offered words of encouragement, praise and caution. Each piece of apparatus was issued two American flags to attach to their driver and passenger side mirrors. They were told that they would be relieved "soon" but could not be assured as to when. In closing Coordinator Prairie wished "Good Luck and God Speed."

Outside was a cauldron of ambulances, fire apparatus and rescue equipment all ready for deployment. Notification was passed around that any "pack-certified" firefighters were to be "clean shaven" or they could not participate in NYC. I had my traditional goat tee and scrambled to find a way to remove the scruff. "Aha!" I thought as I pillaged some of the chest razors from the defibrillators that EMS had. It did the trick, but removed several layers of skin from my face. Boy did that burn! Of course, 10 minutes after I butchered my face, some kid had the presence of mind to go across the street and buy a can of shaving cream.

The Response

The firefighters mounted their apparatus and headed to Staten Island via the Outer Bridge Crossing. As we rolled up Route 287, my view was from the last engine in line. To look ahead and see a column of all that is right with America, brave firefighters, volunteering to face danger, surrounded by the best equipment and draped on either side by American flags flapping in the gentle wind of a sunny afternoon just made me swell with pride.

Right - Div. 8 T. Goldfarb

Within a half hour, they crossed the sealed bridge passing a security force of heavily armed law enforcement officers and bomb-sniffing dogs. An F.D.N.Y brush truck escorted the task force to the quarters of FDNY's 8th Division, under the command of one Teddy Goldfarb who happened to be my college professor in a Fire Science degree program at the time. There, the officers met to receive directions to their final destinations. Independence was assigned to the 11th Division, 57th Battalion at the quarters of Engine 219 and Tower Ladder 105 on the corner of 6th Ave. and Dean Street in Brooklyn. Colonia 12-2 was sent to Engine 249 and Ladder 113, Sayreville to Crown Heights Engine 280 and Ladder 132, Piscataway to Ladder 111, South Old Bridge to Ladder 131, Dunellen to Engine 216, Brookview to Borough Park and the Rescue companies would eventually be sent to Ground Zero - The World Trade Center in Manhattan.

While the officers received their destinations, the contingent staged on a service road just off the Staten Island Expressway. Traffic was heavy as no one was allowed to cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The anxious firefighters stood along the roadside. We smoked cigarettes and made nervous cell phone calls to our families and friends. My nerves were shattered. I was pre-occupied with concern for my co-workers as I too was employed in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center with Empire Blue Cross, Blue Shield. I had departed only a few weeks earlier and was making calls to personnel in our Albany office to check on people's whereabouts. No one knew anything.

8th Division HQ -
Staten Island
As the cars slowly drove by, some waving at us, some giving the thumbs up sign, or opening their windows to say "God Bless You" or "you're our heroes." We were overwhelmed by their show of support though we were numb while they passed. Their voices seemed distorted like in a movie where someone is dreaming, or more accurately, having a nightmare. Some of the faces seemed to pass in slow motion behind the windows of their air-conditioned capsules.

Crossing the Verrazano, we marveled at the horrific sight of the smoke covering all of lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. The absence of the Twin Towers was obvious - and nauseating. Our engine, at the time, was 26 years old and did not have an enclosed cab. We stood and stared while the wind carried the wafting smell of the acrid smoke toward us. A subtle reminder of the hell on Earth that was ahead.

Once we crossed the Verrazano, we proceeded west on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway - toward the smoke. The scene was eerie. When could you ever travel the BQE at one o'clock in the afternoon, on a weekday - alone? The only visible traffic was that of fleeing vehicles in the opposite direction. We proceeded toward 6th Ave. and Dean St. off Flatbush Avenue.

Upon Arrival

Dresser 500 Hydrant

Once we arrived at the firehouse, we were introduced to the crew of Tower Ladder 172 who we would be working with for the next twenty-four hours. A lieutenant from F.D.N.Y would ride with us and serve as our guide. Lt. Rich Smith from the 41st Battalion, Engine 255 shook our hands, thanked us for coming, and began to orient himself with our engine. He also illustrated some of the differences between New Jersey and New York's hardware. One obvious difference was the configuration of their hydrants (Dresser 500 Style). These hydrants require a special hydrant wrench and are magnetically sealed to prevent tampering. Also, they open to the right instead of the left - so much for the old adage "lefty loosey righty tighty." The hydrants threads were dissimilar with ours and required adapters for our hoses to join. We crossed the cluttered street, cleared the crowd of children from around the hydrant and began our impromptu training.

Around the block from the firehouse was a police precinct. To defend against possible car-bombs etc... there were "Jersey barriers" (concrete walls you see dividing highways) placed two blocks away and around the perimeter. One had to gain access by showing credentials to the police guarding the entrance. This was yet another ominous sign of the mortal danger we faced.

Dean St. Firehouse - Engine 219 Ladder 105
Back at the firehouse, a large spread of cold cuts, salads, breads and drinks awaited us. Glued to CNN, the Fox News Channel and others, we ate in slow motion as the images burned indelible marks in our minds and changed all of our lives -- forever. The phones rang non-stop as wives and family members called to find out the fate of their loved ones. The pained look on the faces of the firefighters who answered those phones won't soon be forgotten. We were told that approximately 5 alarms or approximately 400 firefighters were in the towers at the time of the collapse. There were now 3 fifth alarm assignments operating at Ground Zero and FDNY had yet to exhaust all their resources!

We were also told that Tower Ladder 105 was one of those companies and had not been heard from since the beginning of the incident. Translation? Everyone on Tower Ladder 105 was feared dead. The crew consisted of five firefighters and a Captain. One of the firefighters, a "probie," had only been on the job for 2 months. According to the dry-erase duty board that hung in the bay, the crew of Tower Ladder 105 consisted of:

  • Captain Vinny Brunton
  • Firefighter Henry Miller
  • Firefighter Frank Palumbo
  • Firefighter John Chipura
  • Firefighter Thomas Kelly
  • Firefighter Dennis O'Berg

Their black empty shoes lay beneath that board. The sight of the empty shoes was haunting as it was becoming clear with the passing hours that they were never to be filled again. Today, that duty board is enclosed in plexiglass, permanently fixed as it was the last to witness the departure of the names inscribed upon it.

All of us alternated between coming inside to catch the latest news, and going back outside to breathe fresh air, clear our minds, or observe the community around us. The engine's and ladders were getting their assignments and one-by-one began to leave. A Colonia firefighter, Drew Pribush, remembers; "An FDNY Lt. getting a printout and asking for Colonia's officer. He asked us if we minded working in a rough area because they needed us to move up to Engine 249 Ladder 113. We got directions and headed out. We met up with Ladder 159, who stayed with us at 249 until the next day."

While standing outside in the afternoon sun, papers began to fall from the sky. It was hours after the towers had collapsed. Pribush recalled thinking they were propaganda leaflets from whatever country had just attacked us at first. After closer examination, we noticed these papers had company names and addresses from the World Trade Center.


Initially, we felt awkward as we mingled among the professional firefighters. They had so much to worry about yet they went out of their way to assure our comfort. Providing food, offering their bunks with clean sheets etc... We were frustrated because there were no gestures or possible words of comfort that we could offer them. We'd look at them, open our mouths and only silence came out. One person who remained approachable was Lt. Smith. He answered all of our questions. Together, we developed plans of attack in case a "job" came in. He assured us that we could accomplish what needed to be done. We were to work "slowly and deliberately." Think before acting and look to him for guidance. He said to us "we didn't set them, we'll get 'em out but on our terms - at our speed.”

Coming from South Amboy, NJ where our structures are primarily 2 1/2 story frames (residential homes), we are heavily dependent on 150 ft. cross lays of 1 3/4" hose. These are lines that are pre-connected to our pumps and serve as our primary attack lines. Now, in Brooklyn NY, the average structures appeared to be at least three stories and higher. A fire in one of these dwellings, on the upper floors, would require at least four lengths of hose or greater. We made some minor changes to our engines configuration adding a gated wye to our 150 ft. of pre-connected 2 1/2" line. We added smooth bore nozzles to our high-rise packs so we could achieve maximum flow, in gallons per minute (GPM), with minimal pressure at the pump.

Brutus 219-105 house dog
In addition to getting to know their operations and personnel, we also were introduced to Brutus. Brutus is a gray pit-bull - possibly mixed with a weimaraner (or should I say whatever the pit-bull decided to have that night) - with a pinkish colored nose. Very intimidating at first sight, but a big mush after you played with him for a while. Brutus was rescued by the firefighters. With full run of the house, limited only by an electronic leash on his neck, Brutus enjoys his days playing catch with the neighborhood children and munching on 20 oz. plastic soda bottles as his chewy-toys.

The Community

The absolute out-pouring of support from the community was really something to behold. As we rolled down Atlantic Ave., the citizens stood on the stoops or out the windows of their apartments to wave at us, thank and pray for us. NYPD Police Officers were stationed at every street corner for security. As our engine passed, we received waves and nods of affirmation while passing them too. I was living through a greatest dream and worst nightmare all at once. Since my 18th birthday, I always dreamed of working for the FDNY. Here, I got to be "FDNY for a day," on the FDNY's worst day.

Further down on Dean St. was a Puerto-Rican family; sitting in front of their apartment discussing the events and expressing their shock and disbelief. Being the only bi-lingual firefighter, I listened in and walked over to them. While discussing the events, they asked me what part of New York I was from. "I'm not. We're from South Amboy, New Jersey." Their eyes widened as they questioned in heavy Spanish accents "New Jersey? Hay Dios Mio! (Oh my God!)." The magnitude of the incident seemed to solidify as they faced this uniformed visitor from across the river. It was a pleasant conversation and they prayed for my team and I while we protected their lives and property.

Speaking to them in their native language yanked deeply on my emotions and reminded me of home -- and family. Before leaving for NYC, my wife and I had emptied the ATM machine. I asked her to arrange for the children (Samantha 11 and Nicolette 5) to go to their grandparents home in the Pocono's and await further instruction. Never before had I felt such an overwhelming distance from my daughters.

Sopa de Pollo
Later that night, that same family came walking up the block with large pots of homemade chicken soup. The pots were large and heavy enough to require two adults to carry them by the handles. Rice, chicken, potatoes, carrots, corn and more all blended into a warm chicken broth rich in taste and full of Puerto Rican tradition. Again I was reminded of how much I missed my family, my mother and her home-style cooking. The uncertainty of the day begged the question of whether I'd ever see them again but I knew we had a job to do and I was surrounded by good men. I looked toward the west knowing that on the other side of the plumes of smoke, my mom was probably preparing a comparable meal for my family back home (Rutherford, NJ). Another family donated a stack of pizza pies. We didn't touch those because the first wave from Engine 219 was just returning from Ground Zero.

The First Wave Returns

As the sun set, we looked down Dean St. where a transit bus stopped to drop off large, helmeted ghosts - or so they appeared. It was the crew of Engine 219. Slowly, they lumbered up the street with hand tools in their hands - the only remaining evidence from Tower Ladder 105. There were comments that TL-105 was seen on TV crushed under the debris. Some headed straight for the showers. Others remained covered in soot - sort of a badge of courage I guess. You couldn't even tell the color of their hair or eyes.

Exhausted, they sat there watching the TV and recalling what they saw at Ground Zero. One firefighter (Chapman), his head shaking, said "it looked like fuckin' Planet of the Apes." When he entered the scene, he looked to his left and saw an F.D.N.Y. Ambulance crushed under debris - it's emergency flashers were the only thing still working. Eight or so hours later, when he exited the site, that same ambulance was there - its lights still flashing said Chapman.

Initial estimates were that there were approximately ten engines crushed in the rubble. The reality would yield a lot more. They saw fire apparatus "split in half," "split in three," "cabs missing," "burnt to a crisp." They already knew that Department Chief Peter Ganci Jr. and 1st Deputy Commissioner William Feehan were dead. They described what they saw but it need not be repeated here.

Beat up, tired and justifiably upset, these firefighters arrived back in the firehouse and still took the time out to greet us, shake our hands and express gratitude. "Thank you, thank you for coming" came out of their soot covered voice boxes. Some of them, however, appeared to look not at us but right through us as they spoke. We understood.

Memorable Images

A step outside on the apron and a glance to the sky revealed only two things. Columns of smoke and empty skies. Eerily empty skies. We were directly under the air-space of J.F.K., LaGuardia and Newark Airports and there wasn't a plane to be found - anywhere! For the first time in American aviation history, all air traffic had been grounded and any inbound transatlantic flights were being diverted to Canada. An occasional news helicopter and every-so-often the thunderous boom created by military aircraft could be seen, heard - or felt. There were many unprecedented scenes on that day. Those two will last in our minds - forever.

Initial estimates indicated that there were approximately three to four hundred firefighters dead or missing. The guys in the firehouse wandered aimlessly about occasionally exchanging a hug or a look of bewilderment. Conversations throughout the firehouse commented about the personalities and characters of the deceased. "He was a fuckin' good guy, [he would] give you the shirt off his back" was said about more than one of the firefighters.

Another person who really contributed to our comfort was Arty Herlihy of Ladder 105. Arty has been hanging around this firehouse since he was 9 years old. Arty spends a lot of time talking to us - well - about everything. We couldn't begin to understand his pain having lost an entire shift of his Ladder Company - his family. Yet, he took the time to assure our comfort. Late in the night, Arty was badgering Tommy Hetzel - "go inside, use the bunks!" It was about three in the morning and Tommy and I were sitting in the kitchen watching CNN. Well, at least I was. Tommy almost broke his damn neck nodding off, but refused to go upstairs. Both of us wanted to ride this out and gain every possible experience from every moment. After all, when would we ever be directly involved in something of this magnitude again? Tough it out we said.

Several of the guys from Engine 219 and Ladder 105 were attending their annual golf outing that weekend. While at the golf course, they heard the news and raced home at break-neck speeds. They used shaving cream to write F.D.N.Y. across their windshields hoping they wouldn't get stopped by the police. Well, they did get stopped; and then they received a police escort back to the NYC border by highway patrol officers, according to one firefighter.

News Flash! Across the TV, CNN just flashed footage of Ladder Co. 113 - burnt beyond recognition. I began to think: “This is becoming too real. I can't wait to wake up tomorrow and tell my friends of the horrible nightmare I had!”

The sight of ash and soot-covered turnout gear strewn about the floor was gut-wrenching. Like small pillars of stone, the jackets fell into strange shapes over the bunker pants. Lend a bit of imagination, and they appeared to form images of hugging, flailing in pain or absolute lifelessness. They appeared like a small garden of stone, a scene straight out of Sodom & Gomorrah.

Another firefighter at the table says; "It's weird. There are no bodies. Everywhere we looked, not one body. Even the cadaver dogs - no bodies. They've been incinerated." As I write this, days later, after metabolizing a lot of what has happened, I realized these guys were right. According to Deputy Chief Goldfarb (my professor), "there is no concrete. There is no broken glass. There is no office furniture. There are no file cabinets or desks, nothing!" He said this when he returned to class a week or so after the initial incident.

My stomach turns again as images of the soot and debris-covered society flash through my head. I wonder if they know that they're wearing the ashes of the thousands of deceased. These two brothers (the Twin Towers) once hailed as landmarks, symbols of capitalism, economic strength and prosperity have basically been turned into incinerators - and lower Manhattan - into a large urn.

On The Job

Throughout the night, we answered eight alarms. Mostly smells and bells, a car fire, an odor of gas in the building and an alarm at LICH (Long Island College Hospital). Nothing to write home about other than some of the scenery. Throughout the night, we traveled through Brooklyn unfettered. There was a funny moment when we had stopped at a traffic light returning from an alarm and one of the guys from the ladder company ran up to our window. "Hey, you guys are killing us! These things don't stop on a dime. Go through the lights!" We were puzzled because we're only supposed to use lights and sirens to go to an alarm. We asked; "Are you sure?" "Yes, go through the lights!!" And so we did. For the rest of the night, sirens to and sirens from. It was kind of exciting.

Every street corner seemed to have police personnel and now from everywhere and not just NYPD. There were a handful of pedestrians every here and there. Our initial fears of riots and looting never came to fruition. Quite the contrary. Everything was uncharacteristically -- sedate. The only vehicle that came by, around four or so, was the newspaper delivery van. They delivered bundles of bad news right to our doorstep. A confirmation to me, that this was not a dream. Tommy and I sat on the apron in front of the firehouse as the papers arrived. We could still see the smoke. "Come on Tom, let's go inside."

Later in the morning, there was an alarm for a report of a smell of gas in a taxpayer (store on the first floor with residences above). This trip would take us through tree-lined streets with beautiful brownstones on either side. After the call, we were traveling south on Adelphi St. where I realized just how beautiful this area of Brooklyn was. While we took in the beautiful sites, temporarily suspending the horror of why we were really there, the view at every intersection rudely interrupted the beauty - it was a crystal clear direct view of the ongoing incident - and a reminder of our 300+ brothers and the thousands of civilians that were lost in that smoke and rubble.

Back In Quarters

Shift change arrives. The exhausted head home. The incoming shift brews coffee and fixes their blood-shot eyes on the news channels. Some walk around appearing like pressurized containers - ready to burst - spilling gallons of pain and anguish throughout the 110 year old firehouse. Each of them serving as ambassadors of good will - they thank us for being there, they offer us food, coffee, cold drinks etc... Finally, a flash of good news! Six firefighters have been found alive under the rubble. Everyone smiles for a moment - then returns back to their original state of shock and disbelief. The talking heads and media pundits flood the airwaves with redundant information. I guess it's hard to fill 24 hours of TV with all new data.

Some personnel stayed over last night to assist with today's search effort. As the sun rose, they were whisked away in a transit bus, headed for Ground Zero. One of them was a young Irish man from Brooklyn who coincidentally married a girl from Sayreville and even more shockingly, purchased her engagement ring directly across from our firehouse in South Amboy at the Irish store. It truly is - a small world.

As I write this, I'm sitting on the driver side step of my 26 year-old Seagrave pumper. Directly in front of me is another Seagrave. Though many years a junior and much much larger, I can see the reflections of "the boys" laughing and joking in front of the firehouse on the passenger door of Tower Ladder 172. I smile for a moment and am again reminded that the reason 172 is in this house is because 105’s crew have not been heard from in 24 hours and are presumed dead.

Firefighter Chapman emerges from the crowd. Talk about a night & day difference? He was so covered with dirt & soot last night you couldn't recognize him. He was one of the people recounting their experiences at the table. After a shower and some rest, he looks ready to go to work - or should I say war.

A little while later, after being canceled from a car fire, we were standing on the apron and watching the smoke travel south in the sky. The sounds of sirens once again filled the air. The trumpets of air horns blasted nearby and echoed off the multi-story buildings. We were curious because we didn't hear anyone else get dispatched. “Do we have a job?” We asked. Suddenly, what appeared like a modern-day U.S. Cavalry turned the corner. Flag clad engines, trucks and rescues led by the Chief of the Bloomfield Fire Department (Bloomfield NJ is in Essex County, NJ). Our relief is here. It's time to go home -- forever changed.

Engine 219

Ladder 105

Memorial sign that stood before the firehouse after 9-11-01

A thank you card from one of the firefighters from Ladder 105

Makeshift memorials littered the fronts of all the firehouses

Nicolette gets to meet and play with Brutus, the firehouse dog

Nikki (age 5) is visibly in tune with the sentiment around Ground Zero

Nikki places her hand to match the hundreds of painted hands of students from around the country