WORST NIGHTMARE - The World Trade Center 9/11/01
by DENNIS SMITH - NYTimes September 14, 2001

The second tower has just collapsed. I am at Ladder 16, and the firefighters have commandeered a crowded 67th Street cross-town bus. We go without stopping from Lexington Avenue to the staging center on Amsterdam. We don’t talk much on the bus, and not a single passenger complains about missing his or her stop. At Amsterdam we board another bus, and here the quiet is broken by a Lieutenant who says, “We’ll see things today we shouldn’t have to see, and there will be things we might think we should attend to, but listen up, we’ll do it together. We’ll be together, and we’ll all come back together boys.” He opens a box of dust masks and gives two to each of us.

It is like approaching a beach as we walk down West Street, passing hundreds of waiting emergency vehicles. First there is a little concrete dust, like powdered soft sand, and then suddenly every step kicks up a cloud. There is paper debris everywhere, strewn between window casings, air conditioner grates, and large chunks of what had once been the tallest structures in the world.

We report to the command chief who is standing ankle deep in mud between the World Trade Center and the World Financial Center.

The original command chief, Peter Ganci, along with the physical command center are missing, now somewhere beneath these mountains of cracked concrete and bent steel of the second collapse.

Just before that collapse, a falling woman killed a firefighter, and Father Judge was giving him the last rites. Bill Feehan, the First Deputy Commissioner was standing next to them. And then the building came down.

Now, several hundred firefighters are milling about. There is not much for us to do except pull hose from one location to another as a pumper and a ladder truck are repositioned. It is like the eye of a storm, eerily quiet, and so unlike the multiple alarm emergencies I am used to. No sirens. No helicopters. Just the sound of two hose lines, watering the six stories of the hotel on West Street that are still standing. The low cackle of the department radios fade into solemn air. The danger is now presented by the burning 47-story building before us, just to the north of the World Trade Center. The command chief has ordered the firefighters from that building, and we are now waiting for it to collapse.

I want to see the destruction from the Liberty Street side of the buildings, and I travel through the World Financial Center, the headquarters of American Express and Merrill Lynch. There has been a complete evacuation, and I am the only person in the building. It seems the building has been abandoned for fifty years, for there are several inches of dust on the floors. The large and beautiful atrium of the building is in ruins, the east side wall completely demolished, and the glass canopy above broken through and hanging in large and threatening pieces.

Because of the pervasive gray dusting, I cannot read the street signs as I make my way to the other side. Many cars and trucks are overturned. From here I can see the gaping holes in the side of the Verizon Building. There is a lone fire company down a narrow street wetting down a smoldering pile. The mountains of debris in every direction are fifty and sixty feet high. I am still stunned by the wreckage, and it is only now that I begin to think of the human toll, of the silent thousands that are unseen before me in this utter ruin.

I am again on the West Street side, and the chiefs begin to push us back towards the Hudson. Number 7 is about to fall, and when it does, we all think to run for cover, into stores, behind ambulances, around a corner. But, it is an incredible thing to watch a 47 story building fall. The regality of a high building is transformed in a few seconds to mere rubble. And, now I think that this building has fallen on those we seek.

No one wants to say a number. We know that entire companies are unaccounted for. The department’s elite squads, Rescue 1, Rescue 2, Rescue 3, and Rescue 4 are not heard from. Just last week I talked with a group of Rescue 1 firefighters about the difficult and rigid prerequisites to get into the rescue companies - the endorsements from other company commanders and the tests of mechanical and engineering skills. I remember thinking then that these were truly unusual men, smart and thoughtful, the kind of men into whose arms I would put the lives of my children. I know the captain of Rescue 1, Terry Hatton. He is married to the Mayor’s assistant, Beth Patrone, and one of those universally loved and respected men in the job. I think about Terry, and about Paddy Brown. Paddy is one of a small cadre of most decorated firefighters in the history of the department, and in the nineties he was on the front page of all the newspapers when he lowered one of his men on a rope to pick up a victim in a Times Square fire.

And I think of Brian Hickey, the Captain of Rescue 4, who just last month survived the blast of the Astoria fire that killed three firefighters, including two of his own men. I remember the sadness in his eyes at the funerals. And, now…. He was working with Rescue 3 today. And then there is Ray Downey, the Battalion Chief who led the FDNY collapse specialists to Okalahoma City, a solid and giving man.

I am pulling a heavy six-inch hose through the muck when I see Mike Carter, the Vice-president of the firefighters union, on the hose just before me. He’s a good friend, and we barely say hello to each other. I see Kevin Gallagher, the union president, who is looking for his son who is unaccounted for. Someone calls to me. It is Jimmy Boyle, the retired president of the union, the man who gave us such great leadership in my time in the job. “I can’t find Michael,” he says. Michael Boyle, his son, was with Engine 33, and the whole company is missing. I can’t say anything to Jimmy, but just throw my arms around him.

The immediate danger over, the army of construction workers, police officers, EMTs and firefighters begins to work. People who have never met begin working side by side as if they have practiced for months. Cars are lifted, hoses and fire trucks moved, and the heavy equipment is brought in. As I watch the steelworkers they progress in my mind from admirable to heroic.

I don’t have boots and I am wet to the knees. I will ‘take up” as we say, and go home. At the end of this horrific day I think of Shakespeare’s line about evil living forever, and I realize how most of the good of everything I know about this world is interred beneath the rubble before me. It will be days before there is a final accounting, and I can only hope against hope for the people I have mentioned. They have been friends of mine for many years. It was from their lives that New York’s firefighters learned how to keep their chins up in danger, and how to get down on their knees when help is needed. It is because of them, and this terrible number of lost firefighters, whatever number that might be, that inspiration will be found to go on with our lives.

The last thing I see is Kevin Gallagher kissing another firefighter. It is his son.

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