My uncle Mark joined the New York City Fire Department when he was 28 years old. My grandfather, ‘Pop,’ had worked as a fireman in the city too, and Mark wanted to continue his legacy. But after only four years on the job, Mark would find himself in the middle of a tragedy: He would witness the events of September 11, 2001, firsthand. That day and the ensuing weeks were mostly a blur, he says now, but he remembers the “big picture” vividly.
On the morning of September 11, Mark was off duty. He said goodbye to my aunt Marie and went down to the towers anyway. She wouldn’t hear from him again for what seemed like an eternity.
When he arrived at the World Trade Center, “there was no way to begin,” Mark recalls. The towers had collapsed already. “There was nothing to do. We had only our hands, and we’re just looking at twisted metal and concrete. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that image in my head. It was like out of a Mad Max movie. It was a movie set. It wasn’t real.”
Hundreds of first responders — firefighters, police officers, EMTs, Port Authority cops — tried to make sense of the chaos. It was nearly impossible. Some hatched out a plan while others were more realistic about the situation.
“There was a guy, he had a search dog, one of those rescue dogs. He was really straight. He’s like, ‘All right, we’re going to start a grid and we’re going to do this, that, we’re going to coordinate,’” Mark says, imitating the man with the dog in a nasally voice. “A Battalion Chief turns to the guy and goes, ‘You know what you’re going to do? You’re going to shut the f*** up. Look around. What the f*** are you talking about?’”
Mark bumped into firefighters with whom he had worked before 9/11. He wanted to know if his longtime friends and partners, Mike and Gary, were alive. Mike had missed the collapse by minutes. His truck had been rerouted by dispatchers moments before it crossed the Williamsburg Bridge into the city. Gary wasn’t so lucky: “I approached a guy, Jimmy, who worked with my buddy, Gary. And I said, ‘What’s up with Gary?’ He goes, ‘No, man. Gary didn’t make it.’”
After Gary’s truck got stuck in traffic, he’d rushed on foot through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, eventually hitching a ride on the running board of a Suburban SUV. “They drove him through the tunnel with the rest of his guys,” Mark says, “and they went up [in the towers]. They never made it.”
Another colleague had been at the base of the towers when they collapsed, and somehow survived. “There was a guy I worked with, Eddie. He was going into the building when it came down. He ran and dipped into an underground parking garage,” Mark says. “He was trapped in there for a little while, but he survived. When he was walking up to the building, he was dodging bodies dropping from the upper floors. He said they were like watermelon — watermelons exploding on the concrete.”
For days after 9/11, firemen and volunteers worked overtime at Ground Zero, digging through the wreckage. At first, the effort was straightforward, if a bit back-breaking.
“We all took turns reporting to Shea Stadium,” Mark remembers. “You went down to Shea [Stadium], they gave you coveralls, you got on a bus, and they took groups down to the towers. It was just lines of guys with compound buckets. That’s all. That’s how we did it in the beginning.”
Heavy machinery was brought in later to clean up the steel and concrete, as firemen continued the search for survivors. The work was bleak:
My buddy Vinnie and I had had an assignment one night. We had binoculars, and you were supposed to sit there and just keep scanning the pile to see if there was any movement. He kept saying, “I think I see a hand, I think I see people.” I said, “Vinnie, you sure?” He goes, “Yeah, yeah.” But he was losing his mind. I kept saying, “There’s nobody out there. There’s nobody in the pile. There’s nobody there.”
Veterans also struggled to digest what had happened to their friends. Mark recalled one 40-year fireman named Tony, whom he described as “nice as pie” and “old school. . . . He always had a rag in his pocket, smoked a cigar, like a typical Italian fireman, you know?”
One day, Tony and Mark were cleaning out the firehouse:
There were rows and rows of shoes, because firemen came running in on 9/11 to take bunker gear. But they left their shoes and bicycles. So Tony says, “Maybe they’ll come back for their shoes and their bikes.” And I’m just standing there. “Tony, they’re never coming back for their shoes. They’re dead.” He was trying to stay positive in his mind, “Oh, well, you know, we’ll put the bicycles to the side. They’ll come back for their bikes, and we’ll line up everybody’s shoes.”
That — coming to terms with the memories — just might be the hardest part of the experiences. Although Mark went to as many funerals as possible for the fallen to pay his respects, the circle would never be squared. “You know what it is? There’s no closure,” he says. “To me, it was always like . . . what was Gary thinking? He’s in the stairwell, he’s standing there while the building’s coming down. What was running through his head?”
“There were no bodies left. There was nothing recovered,” he adds. “Think about that: Nothing. You exploded into dust. That’s all it was: a helmet here, a tool there, every once in a while, some bones. That’s what bothers me: There’s no closure.”
The stories of brave firemen, the images of ruin, pain, and loss, the haunting details Mark describes from 9/11, speak for themselves. They, as much as anything else from that horrible day, are what we must never forget. I couldn’t be more proud of my uncle. Our nation owes he and all the firemen who were at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon when the planes hit 19 years ago a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. Their spirit and legacy will live on forever.