DJ Sue

DJ Sue
Welcome to my blog. I’m a DJ in Second Life and I find myself discussing the music I’m playing with many of those in attendance at my shows. Unfortunately, when I am busy DJing, I can’t participate and discuss the music as fully as I would like. I’m hoping this blog can help change that. Look here before my set to see if I might be playing something interesting today or maybe after to see if discussion on a topic might continue. You are invited to join in the conversation and leave comments.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

'39




One of my favorite songs by Queen is ’39.  I find the music amazing but it is the lyrics that have astounded me the most.  Most people fail to realize what is really happening in the song but once I explain it, they seem profoundly affected by the revelation of what is really happening.  These conversations and explanations usually happen as the song is playing and we can’t go back to look at lyrics already past but here I can.

The song was written by Brian May, guitarist for Queen, and appears on their 1975 album, A Night at the Opera.  What I want to do today is fully explain ’39.  I will go through the lyrics and explain them in detail.  I will go back and compare and finally, I will print them one last time at the end, in their entirety, so you can see how it all fits together.

The first verse starts out with:

“In the year of '39 assembled here the Volunteers
In the days when lands were few.
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn;
Sweetest sight ever seen.”

It seems simple.  The year is ’39 and due to crowding, there doesn’t seem to be enough land.  A group of volunteers are setting sail to colonize new lands, maybe in the new world.  The verse continues:

“And the night followed day
And the storytellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day sailed across the milky seas
Never looked back, never feared, never cried.”

This seems to continue on and fits well with what we already put together of the story.  We further learn that there were 20 (a score) and they were brave.  The way the storytellers are referred to gives us the impressions that this happened in the past and was probably a historical event of note.  This verse also tells us that it took “many a lonely day,” or a long time.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, crossing the ocean did take many days.

People follow the first verse easy enough; it is when they hear the chorus that things stop making sense.  Here is the chorus:

“Don't you hear my call though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.”

The first line could fit in here because these voyages were often a few years in length; however it is stated a little strangely.  It’s the last line of the chorus that really tells the listener that they have missed something.  It says, “In the land that our grandchildren knew.”  Knew?  Past tense?  What is going on here?  The rest of the song is equally puzzling and the listener usually gives up trying to figure it out.

The problem is that we made certain assumptions when we listened to the first verse.  We assumed that this was a few hundred years ago and they were crossing the ocean to look for lands in America.  That is not what is happening.  This song takes place in the future.  The crowding and need for new land is a planetary problem and the volunteers were astronauts looking for a planet to colonize.  Brian May most obviously worded his first verse to intentionally mislead the listener.  In essence, he made something of a puzzle to figure out.  The clues are in the remainder of the song but before we look at it, let’s take another look at that first verse.  By the way, I had a little fun misleading you with the picture up top too.

“In the year of '39 assembled here the Volunteers
In the days when lands were few.
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn;
Sweetest sight ever seen.”

He just says the “year of ’39,” and never states a century.  We at first assumed a few hundred years in the past, but nothing says it couldn’t be a few hundred years ahead in time.   The ship, he doesn’t say what type, sails into the blue and sunny morn.  Nothing in here that precludes the future.

“And the night followed day
And the storytellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day sailed across the milky seas
Never looked back, never feared, never cried.”

Again, nothing here keeps us from believing that it could be a future trip into space, instead of a past voyage sailing across the sea.  There is even one phrase used, “sailed across the milky sea,” that may even be more appropriate for a space voyage.  In antiquity, man looked up to the night sky, observed and named the Milky Way.  All of the stars of our own galaxy in the sky give the impression of a wide strip of milk, the “milky seas.”  Also, interstellar travel would take a long time, many years.

Before I explain the rest of the song, I need to discuss some geeky stuff, but I promise to keep simple.  It is important to understanding this song.

One consequence of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is time dilation.  In simple terms, if an astronaut leaves the earth and travels at a very high rate of speed through space, when he returns he might only have experienced a few months or a year but for everyone that remained here on earth, 50 or 100 years might have passed.  The faster the speed, the greater the time differences will be.

We have proven this with atomic clocks on the space shuttle and on earth.  A clock on the shuttle will be a bit slower after a return to earth than one that remained here, because the one on the shuttle was moving at a faster speed.  These speeds, the fastest we can achieve for now, are only creating time differences of a fraction of a second.  Our most traveled astronauts have gain less than a second to their lives compared to ours.  But if we were to travel to the stars looking for a planet to colonize, great speeds would be required that could cause a time dilation of 100 years of earth time for every 1 (one) year of time on that space ship.

One other thing that I think is safe to assume is that our traveler who is singing the song, was married and left behind a wife and kids.  This is implied when he contemplates the “lands that our grandchildren knew.”

Now, let’s look at the chorus one more time:

“Don't you hear my call though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.”

Now, “Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away,” makes a lot more sense.  Here I must address something that does bother me and it becomes even more apparent as the song progresses, though it is hinted here.  It seems that our traveler was blindsided by this fact and he never considered the time dilation issue.  I find that puzzling.  He goes on assuming that she writes him letters “in the sand,” which might be the sands of time or maybe just a little something that was their thing.  Now those sands are their homeland that their grandchildren knew.  The past tense implies that so much time passed on earth that his grandchildren are already dead.  Yet, he seemed to be looking forward to holding her hand again upon his return.

Second verse:

“In the year of '39 came a ship in from the blue;
The volunteers came home that day
And they bring good news of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh.
For the Earth is old and grey, little darling we'll away
But my love this cannot be.
Oh so many years are gone though I'm older but a year;
Your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me.”

Again, the year is ’39 so it is 100 years later or maybe 200 years later, but they have returned and have news of a world to colonize.  Now they have the realization that everyone they knew and loved is now dead.  We know he is just now coming to terms with this and is making the realization because he says, “But my love this cannot be.”  Now here is the big clue to tell anyone that had not caught on that he is talking about time dilation. “Oh so many years are gone though I'm older but a year.”

Now that you know what is going on, try to read the outro without crying:

“Don't you hear my call though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand.
For my life
Still ahead
Pity me.”

Those have to be the most profound and emotional lyrics I have ever heard.  He has been gone for what seems like a year to him and he has missed his wife.  He can’t wait to hold her hand and heal him from the profound misery of their separation.  He now realizes that she is long dead as are his kids and grandkids.  He must now live his life knowing that he will never hold her hand again.  “For my life still ahead, pity me.”  What profound sadness.

On a side note, before Brian May joined Queen, he had earned a degree in Physics and was working on a PhD in Astrophysics.  He definitely found a way to bring his two passions together by writing and recording a song involving space travel and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  On another side note, it is not Freddie Mercury who sings this song on the album; it is Brian May.

Here are the lyrics one more time.  Read through them with your new knowledge of their meaning or stop by a Woman’s Touch this week.  I will play this great song at least once during each set this week.

“In the year of '39 assembled here the Volunteers
In the days when lands were few.
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn;
Sweetest sight ever seen.
And the night followed day
And the storytellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day sailed across the milky seas
Never looked back, never feared, never cried.”

[chorus]
“Don't you hear my call though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.”

“In the year of '39 came a ship in from the blue;
The volunteers came home that day
And they bring good news of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh.
For the Earth is old and grey, little darling we'll away
But my love this cannot be.
Oh so many years are gone though I'm older but a year;
Your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me.”

[Outro]
“Don't you hear my call though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand.
For my life
Still ahead
Pity me.”

Perhaps I should have led with this picture

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

17 Years Ago Today...


[This post has nothing to do with music but I had no other place to express this.  Please know that this is an exception and will not be the rule.  Special thanks to Second Life resident Easy Miyaki for cleaning up and enhancing the audio files.  I thank you from the bottom of my heart.]

Note: I recommend you stop and listen to each sound clip before reading on. 

I think most people in Second Life who know me well, know that I was a responder to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  I’ve rarely spoken about it here in SL and when I did, it was never more than a few sentences about just one aspect of the experience.  This will be the first time that I will recount that day through my own eyes to anyone in Second Life or Real Life for that matter.  You will live that day with me and see it through my eyes and feel what I felt.

Before I do, I need to cover a few things so you completely understand my situation.

I had become an EMT in 1984 and a MICU Paramedic in 1986.  I did what you would expect a typical EMS worker to do during the course of their work day, like car accidents, heart attacks, falls from ladders, allergic reactions and much more.  My Emergency Medical Service (EMS) career was quite the ride prior to September 11, earning me a number of citations.  Among these was a Citation of Valor that my partner and I were awarded, along with a firefighter, for a failed rescue attempt that put all three of our lives in jeopardy.  I held children as they died, I’ve been subpoenaed to testify in court (including a murder trial) and I’ve been hospitalized three times myself.  I mention this to show that I already had plenty of demons that I struggled with regularly before September 11, 2001.

That being said, it was 9/11 that was the traumatic event that precipitated my PTSD, though the demons already within further fueled the fire that was destroying me.  I will go into details on my slip into depression and the whole thing in the proper place in the narrative to follow.  For now I just want to describe how I am today,   I’m basically a hermit.  If I start to get too close to someone, I wind up pushing them out of my life.  If you were to meet me, you’d describe me as quiet and somber.  I didn’t used to be like this.

In Second Life, the anonymity allows me to be my old self.  I can get close to people because I know I can just stop logging in and escape from everyone.  It is safe for me to get close to people here.  It’s like the old Sue died on September 11, 2001 when the towers collapsed.  What has replaced her is a badly hurt shell of her old self but somewhere deep inside, the old Sue lives on.  She exists in Second Life and the old “me” is the “me” you all have gotten to know.  Recently, I have had a few situations where I was asked some blunt questions about 9/11.  I learned that the anonymity would allow me to speak of it.  Why?  It is the old, unhurt Sue that is talking.

I’m warning everyone that reading beyond this point may be tough.  I’m going to be graphic in details.  I’m not pulling any punches or sugar coating any of it.  You won’t insult me if you don’t read on.  I do not want to trigger anything bad in any of you.  If you want to know what really happened to me that day, read on.  You have been warned.

17 Years Ago Today…

At 8:46 AM on the morning of September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 from Boston, struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  A few blocks up the street, units of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) were on the corner of Church St. and Lispenard St. investigating an odor of gas in the street.  A Battalion Chief and a responding unit (Engine 6) called to the dispatcher to report what they had witnessed.

The following sound clip is taken from the master tape recorded that morning in Manhattan.  In it, you will hear those shocked units and Battalion Chief call-in what they are seeing as they drop what they are doing and begin responding.  You will also hear Engine 10 (Engine One-O), whose station house is just across the street from 2 World Trade Center, transmit a “10-60.”  This is a rarely used code telling dispatch to send an extremely large number of units to an incident right from the get go.  It is used for incidents like a commercial airline crash or something else of incredible magnitude.  When Manhattan Dispatch said, “10-60 has been transmitted for the World Trade Center, 10-60 for the World Trade Center,” everyone listening knew that their worst nightmare had come true.  Towards the end of the clip, you hear Engine 10 say, “Roll every available ambulance you got to this location!”

To put this sound clip in perspective before you hear it, Engine 10’s burnt wreckage would eventually be found buried under 40 feet of rubble.  Their station house, affectionately referred to as “Ten House,” would be destroyed when the South Tower collapsed.  Listen as these people head into the jaws of the beast, not knowing what the next few horrid hours would bring.

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During that sound clip, at 8:47, Manhattan fire alarm box 8087, at the intersection of Vesey & Church Streets, was activated for 1 World Trade Center.  This would begin the largest activation of the Emergency Services Incident Command System in history.  Of course, I wasn’t aware of any of this and I wouldn’t be listening to that radio frequency for another 30-40 minutes.

It was a warm, sunny Tuesday morning and it was my day off.  As those events transpired less than twenty miles away, I was at home in New Jersey, in my nightie, getting breakfast.  It was just before 9:00 when my mother called to inform me that a plane had struck one of the towers at the World Trade Center.  As I went to turn on the TV as I continued talking to her, I pictured a small plane, like a Cessna, crashing into one of the buildings. I quickly found myself looking at the North Tower and a plume of black smoke on my television set.  This was something bigger than a Cessna.  Then, as we were watching, another plane struck the South Tower.

At first we didn’t know what we were looking at but after it sank in, we realized that this was an intentional attack.  My mom began to weep because I think she realized something before I did.  I would be heading there this morning.  Amid her tears she said she would be praying for me and that Jesus would protect me.  Soon I hung up the phone to get dressed and ready for the call I knew would be coming shortly.

Before I continue my story, let us go back to Manhattan.  At 9:03 in the morning United Airlines flight 175, another 767 from Boston, struck the South Tower.  The impact rained glass, debris, wreckage, and jet fuel on the responders on the street below who had answered the alarm for the first crash.  This next sound clip picks up the Manhattan radio channel in the moments after the second plane crash, while I was on the phone with my mother.

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Note that Marine 6 described the plane as a “large bomber style green aircraft.”  It was a commercial jetliner but because of the paint scheme, lighting, perspective, etc., Marine 6 was erroneously interpreting what it saw.  Many responders were now looking at this incident as a military attack.  This would soon be corrected but this is one of many examples of misinformation among the responders.  I had to deal with many of these myself as you will see.

I’m now going to share a piece of information about Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower that is not generally known among the public but before I do, I need to explain the layout of the World Trade Center back then.  Most people think of the World Trade as the two “twin Towers,” but it really was seven different buildings.  The two towers were 1 & 2 World Trade Center, with Tower 1 being the North Tower and Tower 2 being the South Tower. The Marriot Hotel was 3 World Trade and there were seven total buildings.

I was not sure where I would share this in my narrative but since it deals with the impact of Flight 175 with the South Tower, now seems as good a time as any, though I would not become aware of this until the afternoon.

When Flight 11 hit the North Tower, it created a gaping hole in the side of the building and the entire plane entered the tower and the wreckage remained there, inside.  That was not the case with Flight 175.  It passed through the South Tower and came out the other side.  When watching all of the video clips of that crash, the large fireball that erupted hides that fact from view.  The remains of Flight 175 were on the ground north of the tower, the opposite side from the impact.  Much of the fuselage was on the roof of 5 WTC and debris could be found on the surrounding streets.  One of her engines was on the sidewalk several blocks away at the intersection of Vessy and Murray.  Flight 175 crashed into the south face of Tower 2, passed through it, came out the other side and then plummeted to the ground below.

While I’m on the subject of things the general public never knew, I want to address the jumpers.  Most every American is haunted by the images caught on camera that day of people that chose to jump to their deaths.  These pictures show individual people falling in various positions to the ground below.  The situation didn’t start that way.  Most people are not aware that in the minutes after the crashes, people began jumping 20-30 at a time.  Couples could be seen plummeting, holding hands all the way down.  I guess 20,000 gallons of burning jet fuel along with the fire and smoke is enough to make anyone choose a few moments of peace as they fall to the ground.  In many of the audio recordings from the command center set up in the lobby, many rapid fire bangs and crashes can be heard as jumpers landed outside.  At least one firefighter was killed by a falling jumper.

All of this was going on as I got dressed.  Almost on cue, my pager went off and I was told to report to the station and to expedite.  Our station was being mobilized to the World Trade Center on mutual aid and I was on recall.  I drove to the station and already things were getting creepy.  There was practically no one on the road.  I guess most people were glued to TV’s someplace.  I passed one cop by the side of the road while doing about 75-80 miles an hour.  I was expecting him to pull me over and I’d have to show him my badge, explaining my “expedited” response.  I guess he had already figured out I was on a mission as he never pursued me.

Up to now I have been telling two stories, one about what I was doing and the other about what was happening in downtown Manhattan.  From this point forward, unless I specify otherwise, the story will be my own.  You will experience 9/11 through my eyes and ears (and sometimes my other senses too) and I will share my thoughts at the time.  You will hear what I did as things unfolded and I will explain my functions.  The reason I’m able to share this is my anonymity in Second Life as Susan Mowadeng.  I still can’t bring myself to talk about these things outside of that context.  For this to work, I need to maintain anonymity so I will be using first names only and those I will usually change in the narrative.  I will alter other details that really don’t change my story like maybe what street corner I was on or if a patient was a man or a woman.  Finally my unit, Rescue 133, is fictitious but similar to the actual unit I responded with.

When I got to the station, I was greeted by our Captain, Steve, who brought me up to speed and gave me my orders.  We were heading to a staging area across the water from Lower Manhattan on the New Jersey side.  The three ambulances had already left.  He also told me that there were many unaccounted for aircraft still in the air and we should be prepared for many more attacks, including more to the New York Metropolitan area.  We needed to get manpower there and be ready for an extended stay and operation.  That is why we were bringing Rescue 133.  It wasn’t really a “rescue” in the traditional sense, though it started out that way.  On board there was a breathing air cascade so we could fill air tanks if needed.  There were a lot of supplies including oxygen bottles, medical supplies and blankets.  This might come in handy so we were bringing it along.

In New Jersey, in many cities and municipalities, EMS also provided the rescue function.  Our Ambulances had already left and the Captain was about to leave with the Heavy Rescue and a full crew.  There were three firefighters at the fire station up the road that had missed all of the apparatus there and were coming here to hitch a ride.  As soon as they arrived I was to head to the staging area in Rescue 133.  Our Captain got into the Rescue Truck and called in service.  I was all alone at the station house with my thoughts.

Many of us had full bunker gear because of the nature of some of our rescues, motor vehicle accidents in particular.  Bunker gear is the thick, protective, fire proof gear that firefighters wear including pants, coat, helmet, boots, gloves and of course, red suspenders.  I quickly kicked off my shoes and climbed into my gear.  I would regret not bringing my regular shoes along with me that day.  I pulled the unit onto the ramp, secured the bay door and right on cue a car pulled in and three firefighters with their bunker gear got out.  They joined me in the cab as I turned on all of our flashing lights and pulled out.

I picked up the radio mic…

Me: “Rescue One Three Three is 10-8 World Trade Center Staging.”

Dispatch: “10-4 One Three Three, Go to County Tactical 3.”

Me: “10-4, One Three Three switching to County Tact 3.”

Again I noted how empty the roads were.  I was acquainted with the three firefighters and we knew each other’s names.  One guy, David, was young and fresh out of the Academy.  He enthusiastically asked, “Do you think we will see any action today?”  That comment hit me like a punch in the stomach.  I think the dirty looks from his fellow firefighters was enough to intimidate him into submission and silence.

One of them, Jim, sat in the passenger seat next to me as I drove.  Due to the nature of this unit, we had a Bearcat scanner and could use it to tune in any frequency we wanted and listen in on it.  I had him find a few of the Manhattan fire-ground frequencies so we could hear what was happening.  He soon found one and we could hear what was going on.  We all sat in silence as the full gravity of what was transpiring became apparent.

I was then told to switch our frequency (the channel we were on, not the one we were monitoring on the scanner) one more time and go to SPEN 4 (State Police Emergency Network channel 4).  When I broadcasted my unit number to let others know I was on the channel, I was greeted by someone sounding official.  After I told him my destination, he told me to instead head for a staging area on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.  Jim had found the Brooklyn channel on the scanner and we had been listening to it and knew of that staging area.

I don’t know which channel we heard it on but I recall listening to a chief on the radio.  He said something like, “Has the military scrambled jets to intercept the third inbound plane?”  There was another inbound plane to the World Trade Center?  We sat in silence with just the radio and the occasional wail of our siren to break it.  I was scared.

We could see the plume of smoke rising into the sky the moment we pulled out of the station.  It was getting bigger in the windshield and we could now plainly see the buildings.  If a third inbound plane were to strike them, we would most certainly get to see it.  I soon had a decision to make.  Would I follow the orders of my Captain, Steve, or would I do as directed by the unknown voice on the radio and stage by the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel?  In the end, I went past the turn for the Goethals Bridge and did as the Captain had ordered.

None of us at this point believed that the towers would fall.  In fact, I imagined my task in the coming days as being part of the search and recovery effort.  I saw myself going through burnt out floors looking for bodies.

As we were pulling up to staging, we could see the towers very well.  The picture below was taken from the New Jersey side and is about what we saw.



Then the unthinkable happened.  The South Tower collapsed.  Did the third inbound plane finally hit?  I stopped 133 as I watched it collapse.  I stayed stopped in the road, not moving as we watched the dust flow out from between the buildings along the Hudson River.  This picture taken from the New Jersey side shows what we saw through our windshield.



I’m not sure how long I sat there stopped in the road but I just couldn’t process the sights I was seeing or what I was hearing on the Bearcat.  Here is a sound clip of the Manhattan channel immediately after the collapse as I sat there.  In it, you will hear Manhattan Dispatch repeatedly try to call Field Com.  Field Com is the command center located at the World Trade Center.  He calls over and over again, “Manhattan to Field Com.” …NO ONE ANSWERS!

]

At some point, I came back from where I had gone to hide in my head and I began to drive again.  It was early and not many units had arrived.  I still found an out of the way place to park as we were not an ambulance and wanted to stay out of the way.  I shut the unit down completely and as we got out, several firefighters came up to us and they seemed to know my three passengers.  It seemed that even though they weren’t authorized, they were going to head in to Manhattan and see if they could help.  After all it seemed like things had come apart in the city.  They looked to me hoping that I would release them.  I told them to go ahead.  The firefighters ran off leaving me alone to contemplate the sight over the river.

 I had seen where our other units were parked and began heading over.  My hand held radio was tuned into SPEN-4 but I could hear the Manhattan frequency coming out of the PA speakers of some of the trucks.  This was typical on a fire-ground scene.  Manhattan was still trying to raise Field Com and it was all so surreal.  Then I heard a civilian scream into the radio, in a panic and I was shocked back into reality.  My blood ran cold when I heard the terror in their voice. 

The sound clip below starts with Manhattan still trying to raise Field Com.  You then hear the woman, trapped in the fire truck buried beneath the collapsed tower.  It continues with Manhattan’s continuing saga of trying to raise Field Com.  Finally he tries to call any chief, then any unit.  He finally settles for an EMS officer who took shelter from the dust cloud in the cab of Ladder 15.  He orders him to go out into the scene and locate any chief (anyone with a white hat) and bring him to the radio.

Wreckage of Ladder 15

A side note on Ladder 15 where the EMS officer was hiding from the dust but answered the working radio.  The entire crew of Ladder 15 had just been killed in that collapse.  They were the only fire company known to have made it up to the 78th floor and the impact zone.  They were credited with saving many lives that morning.


I thought I had just heard the final death throes of someone trapped below the building rubble and that they would probably die.  The reality and the horrors were beginning to really sink in.  I was now certain that when I watched the tower collapse that I was watching people I knew and cared about die.  I just wasn’t sure exactly who at that point.

I walked up to the Captain and I called him by his first name now, “Steve.”  I asked him about the third inbound plane and he seemed puzzled.  He knew nothing of a third plane.  (We would later learn that the report of a third plane was an error.)  He did tell me that the Pentagon was hit by a plane.  I was so in shock that it didn’t even register.  A few days later I would hear something about the Pentagon and say to myself, “Yes, I did hear about that.  Funny I haven’t thought of it again until now.”  I learned that U.S. Airspace was now completely shut down and every plane has been forced to land, however there were still 33 unaccounted for aircraft so there would probably be more attacks.

The radio, and I must assume the fire scene, were complete pandemonium. With the loss of Field Com, we were essentially decapitated.  I can’t think of any more dangerous a situation that can be imagined in this field than an emergency scene of this magnitude and no one in charge.  Everybody was on the radio, stepping on each other so most transmissions were not getting through.  Maydays were not heard.  I learned that we had started the day with two strikes against us in the communications realm before any of this.  When Flight 11 hit the North Tower, it severed the electrical power to the roof.  On the roof of the North Tower were what were called “repeaters.”  They would pick up the weak signals from let’s say a handheld and then rebroadcast it with a powerful signal.  This way, a hand radio in a steel and concrete skyscraper could be heard by a chief miles away.  That was gone.  As a matter of fact, the radios of many of the responding units were still trying to find those repeaters but unable to.  They were not heard either.  The FDNY was forced to “old-school” it that morning in regards to communications.

The second strike was that the Emergency Command Center on the 23rd floor of 7 WTC was never activated the morning of September 11, 2001.  This room was designed for just the large scale emergency response like we had that day.  The room was not normally manned but would be activated in the event of a large, city-wide, emergency response.  It was designed to fix much of the problems we were experiencing.  It was obvious that it had not been activated due to the vicinity of the attacks and for all we knew, the situation room may no longer have been operational, much like the radio repeaters.  In the following weeks I’d learn that it was not activated because of the threat of the third inbound aircraft that never was.  It turned out that it was a good thing anyway.  I was at the World Trade Center later that day when 7 WTC collapsed (47 stories), the fourth World Trade Center building to fall that day. (It was preceded by 2 WTC, 1 WTC and 3 WTC.)

When I reported to the manpower pool, I not only had to give my name and other info, they wanted all of my certifications and specialty trainings.  I had never been asked for this in the couple of mass incidents I had been to in the past.  I had my MICU (Paramedic) and the three certifications all emergency responders in NJ were required to have, Hazardous Materials Level I, Confined Space Level I and ICS (Incident Command System) 100.  In addition to this, as a Lieutenant, I also had ICS 200.  I then went through my litany of other specialties and certifications including Pre-Hospital Trauma Life Support, Confined Space Level II (Technical Rescue), Trench Rescue, Building Collapse, etc.  I was not yet assigned to the Heavy Rescue but I had been hanging out with the guys and taking courses whenever I could.  However, it wasn’t any of those that caught the attention of the staging officer.  It was one last one that I threw in as an afterthought when I remembered it.  “Oh yeah, I’m also a certified Air Unit operator.”

I know what you are thinking, “I didn’t know you were a pilot.”  I’m not!  In this usage of the term we mean that I could fill air pack bottles on fire ground scenes.  The Staging Officer raised an eyebrow at me with a look that said, “You could be useful later on.”  It was one of those things.  A few years previous, a few of the guys were taking the class and they talked me into joining them.  Now I feared it was not my training in confined space, building collapse evolutions or even as a medic that would be used at the World Trade Center.  It would be my ability to fill air tanks.

The biggest problem with being assigned to the man power pool is that there is nothing to do, nothing to occupy your time.  All you can do is contemplate what is happening as you watch the situation unfold around you but separate from you.  I watched the plume of smoke and dust rise into the air over our heads.  Some of the dust that had blown out across the water to our location from the tower collapse was making it hard to breathe.

The collapse of the South Tower brought us to the reality that the North Tower could go too.  I think many of us held out hope that it would not, as we began to imagine a world where we would tell children about how there used to be two of them.

I took out my phone to call people and let them know that I was OK, at least for now.  I was unable to get a signal.  I guessed that with the World Trade Center dead, a portion of the cell service in the area was gone.  Also, the system was over loaded as people repeatedly tried to contact loved ones over and over again, loved ones that would never again answer.

I watched the plume across the river and thought about whom I knew in Tower 2.  Who did I know and care about that was already dead.  Then the ugly truth suddenly dawned on me.  This just wasn’t some tragic accident.  This was murder!  I was witness to the murder of hundreds of people, a few of whom I knew and cared about.

I was there maybe 20 minutes when I was given another news update.  One of the 33 unaccounted for aircraft could be crossed off the list.  United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 from Newark had been shot down by our fighter jets over Pennsylvania when she broke off communications, turned around and set course for Washington D.C.  Our own fighter planes were forced to shoot down our own people on a domestic flight.  Where was all of this headed?  There were now 32 unaccounted for aircraft.  I expected to relive that horror 32 more times or worse.  Could some of those planes still hit their targets?  Could any of those targets be around here?  Would I see more people murdered today?  Responders already died in the South Tower collapse.  I faced the reality that my own death may be imminent before this was all over.

In the coming days, I would learn the truth about Flight 93 and the heroic efforts of the passengers but for now I had to live with the reality that our own fighter planes were shooting down our own passenger airliners.  I doubt there was anything on the safety card in the seat pocket covering that one.  Years later I would learn a further truth about that incident. Fighters were scrambled to intercept Flight 93 that morning but there was just one problem.  They were not armed and had no way to shoot it down.  They had just been given the order to do what was necessary to stop the plane from reaching its target. The pilots knew what that meant. They would need to crash their own plane(s) into the jet to bring it down.  As they were readying to take action, Flight 93 nosedived into the ground.  This saved these pilots the horror of their last moments on earth, bearing the guilt of killing so many Americans.  It was the fact that jets were scrambled, coupled with a report of the airliner being down that lead to the erroneous report.

Here is a sad truth of that day.  We had so much wrong, twisted and partially true information but none of us saw the big picture or what was going on.  We didn’t have all of the information the general public had by watching the reports on television.  The truth was that a school child in Tulsa, who was home sick watching TV, had a better picture and knew more about what was happening than we did.

There was more news.  Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had put the military on Force Protection Condition Delta, the highest alert level.  At NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain facility, they began the process of closing the 25 ton steel blast doors, capable of withstanding a direct hit by a nuclear weapon.  The doors had closed during trainings and drills but this was the first time in their 43 year history that they were closed in anticipation of an attack.  The country was at war and many more would die.

The unthinkable was no longer unthinkable.  In a way, it had to happen.  I heard a woman scream and I turned around, looking back over the water to Lower Manhattan.  I saw the North Tower start to fall.  It was eerie but at first it was silent as it took the sound a moment to reach us.  The sound cannot be described.  Then I felt the ground begin to shake.  I guess sitting in the vehicle for the first one, I was largely isolated from those sensations but this time I got to witness it without the truck to block out any of it.  Then we heard from a radio at the scene of the World Trade Center….  “Major collapse!  Major collapse!”

 Here is a sound clip of the Manhattan radio channel after the second tower came down.


There were many recurring themes that morning but one that would strike at me through time was “Tragic Irony.”  The first of these was that the Emergency Command Center in 7 WTC was rendered useless and never used for the one event it was specifically designed for.  I now was faced with the next one.  I had already mentioned that even though I was not yet assigned to the Heavy Rescue, I had begun taking classes and training with them.  This included several programs on building collapse and rescue.  These were administered by Chief Ray Downey of the FDNY.  He was considered the world’s leading expert on the subject and I’ve considered myself blessed to have learned from him.  After the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Chief Downey was immediately flown to the site to direct the search, rescue and recovery operation.  He literally wrote the book on heavy rescue, his book, The Recue Company.  I didn’t know him well but he was an acquaintance.  He signed my copy of his book.

“To Susan, Best wishes and continued success in your career in the Rescue Services. Ray Downey”

Now for the irony.  He was in the lobby of the North Tower that had just fallen.  I had just witnessed the man who taught me everything I knew about building collapse crushed to death in the world’s largest building collapse.  I was never much of a fan of irony.  Chief Downey was murdered with the rest.

The one thing that was hardest for me was being helpless.  I was sitting there with nothing to do.  People needed help, people were dying, there was chaos everywhere and my job was to sit there and do nothing, just be part of the manpower pool.  It was unbearable.  I was so helpless to do anything.  Soon my helplessness had no place to go so it festered and became hopelessness.  Nearby, a State Trooper sat in the grass and wept openly.  I walked over and put my hand on his shoulder.  Comforting him was the only thing I could do to make anything better.

People began to appear on the opposite side of the river, looking like refugees.  Most people who worked in the city had gotten there using public transportation, which was no longer running.  Some may have had cars but they might have been damaged or the roads impassable.  People were stranded on Manhattan and had no way to get off.  Many of them were in bad need of attention.  Boats began to swarm into the area and started heading for Manhattan.  There were all sorts of boats from large ferries, to tourist cruise lines, to tug boats and plenty of privately owned craft.

The Coast Guard, realizing what was happening swung into action and led what has become known as “The Manhattan Boat Lift.”  As the boats loaded up, they started heading over this way.  They were bringing them here to New Jersey.  All these people seeking safety on our side of the river and many would need medical care.  I will soon have plenty to keep me occupied and I would no longer sit there helpless.  The mountain was coming to Mahomet.

Medical personnel were being assigned jobs and ambulances were put on standby.  People were assigned to triage and various other tasks, yet I remained there without a job, without purpose.  Of course, EMS personnel were numerous but I bet no one else here was an Air Unit Operator.  I remained in reserve.  All I could do was sit there, looking across the water at the plume.  Now, if that didn’t make me feel helpless, I could turn around and watch the “refugees” processed and triaged.  As they stood in line, I could see the pain and anguish on their faces, yet I couldn’t help them.  I turned around to look back at the plume.

I so badly wanted to be given a task so I wasn’t helpless.  Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.  A new piece of news was shared with us.  Both planes had been loaded with biological weapons, probably Anthrax.  We needed to decontaminate all passengers arriving from Manhattan.  We would need to set up a decon station with warm, hot and cool zones.  We were told these orders were directly from the President of the United States.  There was just one problem.  Well, there were many problems but there was one that was going to affect me.  You needed at least one HAZMAT Level III to oversee it and several HAZMAT Level II’s to run it.  We didn’t have that.  When push came to shove, the officer in charge of the decon unit looked over the credentials of the people in the man power pool and picked me and one other.  The Staging Officer just lost his Air Unit Operator.  It was thought that with my Confined Space Level II that I was a good candidate to be sealed into a Type I Level A Biohazard suit without being worried that I’d lose my shit due to claustrophobia.  It was a hot, sunny day.  I was not looking forward to this.

There was a lot to set up and I wasn’t slated to take the first shift, so I decided to go over to the triage area and see if I couldn’t help with the processing of Anthrax infected refugees.  Those assigned the job of triage were doing a spectacular job.  There was one problem that I soon noticed.  They would sometimes get a patient off one of the boats that needed immediate help.  I began to make that my mission.  I treated maybe a dozen patients like that but I will tell you of three that have stuck out in my memory over the last seventeen years, Jack, Tom and Mary.

When I first saw Jack, I could tell he was in severe pain as he walked towards us.  I then noticed that he had made a makeshift sling for his arm from his suitcoat.  He was covered from head to toe in grey dust and almost made him look like a black and white picture.  I walked up to him and I could see his lower arm was angulated and bleeding.  I helped him off to the side and sat him down.  He was fairly coherent and he told me his story as I exposed his injured arm with my scissors.  He has been running as the South Tower collapsed, trying to get away from the oncoming cloud of dust.  He was looking back at the cloud as he was running down the street. He tripped at full run over a curb and snapped both bones in his lower arm.  He knew that getting an ambulance for his broken arm was not happening in Downtown Manhattan so he did what he could and he headed in the direction of the exodus.

I didn’t have much to work with so I used a bottle of plain water (not sterile) and rinsed the arm.  I gave him the rest to drink, which he did voraciously.  It seemed that the bones had ripped the skin but poked back in.  I ran to get some supplies, including a case of water, and returned.  I dressed the wound and splinted the arm using a magazine.  I finished off with a proper sling using a triangular bandage.

 I next needed to triage him, sort him into a category for transport to a medical facility.  The tag shown to the left is a typical triage tag, like the type we were using.  Another thing Recue 133 had in large supply were these tags.  You can see the color bars at the bottom (green, yellow, red and black).  Those were torn off to show how critical a patient was for transport.  If left intact, green was the lowest priority either being walking wounded or possibly not needing any care beyond transport from the area.  Next up, you could tear the green off to make the patient yellow.  These patients needed transport to the hospital but could wait and be delayed.  A broken leg might be tagged a yellow.  The green and yellow could be removed and the red would indicate this patient needed immediate transport.  Finally, black was used for deceased patients or those that were so gravely injured that we would not be utilizing resources on them.  I know that sounds cruel but it was a hard reality.

I had to tag Jack.  Normally, he would have been a “yellow” but considering the scope of situation, should I really do so?  Green was often used to classify the walking wounded.  This man had just walked himself from Lower Manhattan in New York City.  Was he a yellow or a green today?  I opted with my first impression, pulled off the green portion and made him “yellow.”  I entered some of his info, made a few notes, like he had a good pulse in that arm below the break and then attached it with the supplied string to one of the button holes of his shirt.

Before I tell Tom’s story, I want to share what was one of the high points of the morning.   One thing that was noticed by most people was how weird it was to have no aircraft in the air.  There were 4 major airports, several smaller airports and all sorts of sightseeing aircraft making for one of the busiest airspaces in the world.  Yet there was nothing up there on this calm sunny day… empty…. quiet.  Then there was a roar followed by the cheers of the crowd gathered there that morning as two F-15 fighter planes flew up the Hudson River at low altitude.  I can think of no other reason for them doing this than to tell all of us on the ground that they were there and protecting us.

I saw Tom standing in line, waiting to be processed, but there was something about his posture and the way he carried himself that told me he was having problems and possibly having trouble breathing.  I went over to him and helped him to a nearby spot in the shade.  He was most definitely having trouble breathing so I started assessing him.  He was a tall, well-built black man but I couldn’t tell from his skin.  Every millimeter of the man was caked with that dust that made him look light grey, almost white.  He looked more like an animated stone statue than a human being.  His suit appeared expensive and I could sense that he was generally a well-dressed man and proud of that fact.  If I had to guess, he was probably around 60 years old and despite the heat and what he’d been through, his suitcoat remained buttoned and his tie was high and tight on his neck.  The entire image appeared to be made of stone except for his eyes.

I reverently took off his coat and tie, folded them and put them aside.  I started to see bits of his naturally brown skin at his neck and other exposed areas.  He had been engulfed in the dust cloud and choked on it but somehow managed to survive.  He was overcome by the heat and I gave him water.  First he used it to rinse dust from his dry mouth, spitting it out.  Only after he had done that did he actually drink.  Finally, he poured the remainder over his head and used it to wash his face.  He was coherent but he also had this blank stare, a stare most of the survivors from Manhattan had, and was slow to answer me.  To properly care for him, I needed more than I had available.  I had no Lifepak (heart monitor), no IV or drugs, oxygen; I didn’t even have a blood pressure cuff or stethoscope.  Let me present his condition to you as if I were reporting it to an Emergency Department triage nurse or doctor. Mind you I never made a report on this patient.

Patient is male, approximately 60 years of age.  He initially presented as being covered with a fine dust and showed signs of difficulty breathing.  The patient has inhaled large quantities of dust from a building collapse.  He reports he is having chest pains and he is a diabetic and is way overdue for his insulin.  Patient is alert and oriented as to person, place and time.  Be advised, I have no access to heart monitor, IV’s, oxygen or a blood pressure cuff. Vital signs are as follows: pulse 124, respirations 48 and labored, BP unavailable.

I wrote a few details on his tag, and classified him “red.” I then helped him over the red area to await transport.

The boat lift was progressing impressively.  Being a student of history, I was reminded of an event during the American Revolution when there was a reverse of this boat lift.  It was at the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776 when Washington and his army found themselves surrounded on Brooklyn Heights with their backs to the East River.  As the sun set on August 29th, it was obvious that they would face capture or be killed by the outnumbering British force in the morning, the War seemed to be over. Using rowboats, John Glover, commanding the 14th Continental Regiment, was able to secretly evacuate Washington’s army and when the sun came up, the British found no Americans on the island.  They had miraculously disappeared.  Using rowboats, the 14th had evacuated 9,000 soldiers from Long Island to Manhattan in the dark without a single loss of life.  Washington and his army would survive to fight, and eventually win, the War.

I didn’t need to go back that far in history to find an even better example.  It was 61 years earlier, during World War II that something similar happened.  At the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940, allied forces were pushed back to the beach.  The British launched a massive effort to evacuate those forces from that beach, from the Nazis, and bring them to safety in England.  Their “boat lift” consisted of thousands of military, merchant and private vessels.  In the end, 338,226 allied forces were evacuated from the beach and saved from the Nazis.  It was one of the greatest feats of modern warfare.  More than 500,000 survivors were rescued from Manhattan during the boat lift on 9/11, a number far greater than were rescued at Dunkirk.

I only treated ten or twelve patients that day and these are the three that stick in my mind.  I know, I’ve only told you about two.  I guess I should stop procrastinating and tell you about Mary.  I wasn’t sure I would do this or even could do this.  I’m still not sure but I get to procrastinate a moment longer as I need to tell you about someone else there that morning first as he plays a part in the Mary story too.

A Catholic priest had showed up and was offering whatever help he could.  Some people upon finding safety on the Jersey side took comfort by bowing their heads for a quick prayer with the Father.  Others, who had witnessed unimaginable horrors, were also comforted by the priest, regardless if they were Catholic or not.  He served a function and stayed out of the way.  We had passed a few friendly words that morning, introduced ourselves and he even said a prayer that God give me the strength to face my duties that day.

I guess I can’t put it off any longer.  Here is the story of Mary.  Her memory is one of the biggest demons I deal with from that day.  I don’t mean to demonize poor Mary, she was an innocent victim but my memories of my interactions with her are now a powerful demon within me.  I never knew her real name and I’ve come to call her “Mary” because sometimes I talk to her and I needed some sort of name, so I’ll call her “Mary” here too.  Mary still haunts my nightmares to this day.

More boats were being off loaded with survivors and walking wounded.  I soon heard the Father calling my name.

“Sue, come here quickly, please!”

He was helping a young women and I saw as she collapsed into his arms.  The Father was a big strong man and had no problem scooping her up and carrying her to the shade of a nearby tree.  I quickly ran over.  The first thing I noticed was the blank stare on her face.  And those eyes, they didn’t look at you, they stared through and beyond you.  She was caked in that same dust, though not quite as bad, as Tom had been.

I was finally able to figure out what was wrong but it was nothing that I saw or heard the tipped me off.  It was my nose.  There was a strong odor coming from her and at first I couldn’t figure out what it was.  It took a moment but I finally broke it down.  There were two strong odors and I finally separated them in my brain.  There was a strong smell of jet fuel and then there was a smell that I knew all too well… burnt flesh.  Burnt and burning flesh is an odor one doesn’t soon forget.  It’s acrid and permeates all that it touches.  It is a haunting odor.

As I looked her over, I noticed that her blouse and much of her clothing seemed to be gone.  Holy shit!  These burns were bad and extensive.  Keeping my composure, I asked the priest, “Father, I need a sheet, a couple of blankets and lots of water, STAT!”  I’m not even sure that the Father knew what “STAT” meant but he flashed into action.  He was rather spry for a man his age.  I turned my attention to the woman with the blank stare.

“Hi, I’m Sue. What is your name?”

No answer, just the stare and the occasional blink of the eyes, though I soon learned that she would follow simple commands like, “Move your fingers.”  Though she was breathing rapidly, there was no evidence that I could see of inhalation injuries.  I quickly radioed for an ambulance but was informed there were none available at the staging area, however there were a couple in route back from local hospitals.  I told them that I needed one at my location and it needed to be an MICU.  (MICU stood for Mobil Intensive Care Unit, which means it was manned by at least one paramedic.)

I felt Mary’s pulse and it was weak and thready, barely discernible.  Her body was in shock.  She needed high flow oxygen by non-rebreather mask but it was unavailable.  She needed an IV with Lactated Ringers on a macro-drip but that was unavailable.  I needed to listen to her lungs but I had no stethoscope.  I needed to monitor her blood pressure because she was in shock but I didn’t have a BP cuff either.  I was helpless to give her the things she most needed.

Father came back amazingly fast with everything I wanted and then some.  An EMT saw my plight and came over to help.  She was no more than 22 and you could tell the day had taken its toll on her.  We rinsed Mary’s body down with bottled drinking water.  The EMT, we will call her “Julie,” reminded me that we should be using sterile water but I think she understood that there was none and this had to be done.  Much of the dust had clung to Mary’s burns and would not rinse away but we could now see her blouse and where it was burned away and in places still stuck (melted?) to her flesh.  I cut the blouse off, careful to leave the stuck portions, and removed her bra.  She had burns to her upper torso and both arms.  We covered her with a sheet and poured more water on it so it wouldn’t stick to the oozing burned skin.

I sat her up and gave her some water to drink and Julie quickly chastised me.

“We can’t give a patient anything orally!”

I continued to give Mary water and she was drinking it down fine.

“This is against protocol!” Julie said as she stood up.

I gave her a glaring look to the snot-nosed little bitch.  I guess I was just a little stressed as the tone of my voice was not kind.  I think I also resented her questioning my higher medical authority.  I tried to explain to her in my now terse voice.

“Protocols are written assuming that we get to a patient within a few minutes and we are going transport them within minutes to a medical facility.”

Father then stepped over and told Julie that he needed her help “over there.”  She didn’t want to go, but Father was a strong man and even though he didn’t pick her up, she had no choice than to walk with him.  Mary was in shock so I folded up one blanket under her legs to help with the shock and I used the other one to keep her warm.  It was all I could do for her.

The truth was that burns like those drew fluid from the body to the injury site causing hypovolemic shock.  Furthermore, her exertion in the hot sun that day, getting herself here probably added the that low volume.  In short, that shock was the thing that most immediately threatened her life and giving her water was the only way I had at my disposal to combat it.  Sometimes, protocols need to be thrown out.

Looking back and to be fair to Julie, I had nothing on my person at that moment that said I was a paramedic so she didn’t know I was a higher medical authority.  The poor thing had her world shattered that morning like the rest of us.  Her trying to get me to stick to protocol was just her way of trying to gain some control over things from her perspective.  I hold no ill feelings to her and hope she has found a modicum of peace.

It was while I was with Mary, waiting for her ambulance that I first noticed the soldiers.  Certainly they were there to protect this scene and possibly maintain civil order.  I had to assume that their weapons were loaded.  Maybe they were there to be sure we did our duty and prevent us from mutiny.  Maybe they were there to be sure I didn’t break any protocols by giving patients water.  One soldier, standing nearby, looked like he could be no more than 22 or 25 years old.  He had tears running down his cheeks as he carried that assault rifle.  Did he want his mother?  Or maybe his mother worked in one of the towers that lay in the heaping pile in Lower Manhattan.  Maybe he was just overwhelmed.

Soon, the rig arrived to take Mary.  I gave the medic a patient report and they took it from there.  I knew she would be in good hands in the Burn Unit at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.  I will see Mary when I close my eyes to sleep at night.  Mary will come to me in my nightmares.  She still does and I look at her as she looks through me to the horrors beyond.  She is ever present and never far away from surfacing into my conscious thoughts.  And people wonder why I drink.

Thank you for making it this far.  I’d like to reward you for sitting through my story about Mary.  Maybe I deserve a break too so I’m treating both of us to a really uplifting story from 9/11.  I wouldn’t learn about it until later on but it is a story worth telling so here goes.  I’m going to tell you about the fireboat, the John J. Harvey.

The John J. Harvey was launched back in 1931 as a fireboat with the New York City Fire Department.  It had a long and very illustrious career but in 1994, the decision was made to retire the Harvey.  At that time, she still held the world record for the largest pumping capacity of any fireboat ever built.  When it was decommissioned, its radio call sign, “Marine 2,” was not only deactivated but it was retired due to its outstanding service record.  It was scheduled for the scrapyard but a group of private citizens, through donations, was able to buy the Harvey and set her up at one of the piers as a museum.

She was kept in working order and sometimes she would take groups out for tours around the city.  When the Coast Guard began the boat lift on September 11, the Harvey swung into action, picking up survivors from Manhattan to ferry them to safety.

Another fact not normally known by the general public is that when the towers collapsed they shattered the water mains below the street.  With no water pressure in Lower Manhattan, there was no water to fight the fires at the World Trade Center.  One of the Chiefs caught wind that the Harvey was participating in the boat lift and radioed the old fireboat, asking if her pumps were in were in working order.  He was told that they were and the Harvey was fully functional.  The Chief told the crew of the Harvey to drop off her passengers and head to the seawall on the Hudson River by the Financial District.

After dropping off her passengers in New Jersey, the Captain of the Harvey switched to the Manhattan Fire frequency.

“Marine 2 is in service to Lower Manhattan.”

It was the first time in 7 years that that radio designation had been used.  The 70 year old girl was back in service and responding to Box 8087.  When she got to the seawall, there was no place to moor her so ropes were tied to nearby trees.  Soon hose was hooked up and the Harvey started pumping water from the Hudson River to the fire grounds several blocks away.  Although two other fireboats were pumping, the task was just too great but with the Harvey’s tremendous capacity added to the effort, there was now plenty of water to fight the fires at the World Trade Center.  The Harvey’s 70 year old pumps worked for 80 hours straight (almost 3 ½ days), until water service was restored.

The story of the Harvey doesn’t end there.  A few years later she became the subject of a children’s book.  Now kids walking down the pier to visit her can be heard yelling, “It’s Harvey the fireboat!  It’s Harvey the fireboat!”

The John J. Harvey pumps water at the seawall in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

So back to my story…

Those were three of maybe the dozen patients I treated that morning.  There was a lull in the boat traffic and there still was no word on the decon unit.  It was a hot sunny day and my bunker pants were becoming quite uncomfortable.  I undid the bunker pants, slipped out of the suspenders and let them fall around my ankles as I took a seat.  (I had jeans on underneath.)  The boots were my only shoes with me and I could feel that I was starting to get blisters.

I listened to the Manhattan radio channel and tried to picture what was going on.  The utter chaos was astounding as various chiefs tried to reestablish some form of command.  Please understand that I thought everyone was doing an amazing job.  The dispatchers were amazing and many received commendations for their actions that day and rightfully so.  The equipment was just not up to it and most people could only hear a fraction of what was being transmitted.  People were stepping on each other’s radio transmissions.  A chief would try to reestablish command and then lose it.  A couple of times I think there was more than one Incident Commander and their orders may have been contradictory.

It was a bit after 11:00 AM when the Captain came up to me, told me to gather my bunker gear and come with him.  I was handpicked for a special assignment and I was going to the World Trade Center.  This was it, my date with destiny.  I knew that I was probably on my way to go fill up air tanks for the rest of the day.  I looked across the water at the dust cloud hovering and the large plume of smoke rising into the air.  I then realized that air unit operator was an impossible task on that scene.  I would need to guarantee that the air I put in those tanks was clean.  There was no air over there fit to breathe and, despite the filter on the unit, I couldn’t begin to get air of the quality I would need to fill the tanks.  Even operating an air unit would be the greatest nightmare I could imagine.

He took me over to a large diesel ambulance.  There were three EMT’s that I did not know and one paramedic from my station, Chris.  All of them had their bunker gear like I did.  The ambulance appeared to belong to the same agency as the EMT’s.  There was also what appeared to be a nurse in scrubs and a guy in a polo shirt who was a doctor.  I was now part of a medical strike team, which sounds all bad ass but really is not.  “Strike teams” and “task forces” were part of the Incident Command System and referred to assembled groups of assets assigned a specific job.

The thought was that as the day progressed, the firefighters on scene would uncover pockets of survivors that would need medical care.  This could easily overtax the hospitals in Midtown and Lower Manhattan.  The plan was for us to go over there and take some of the injured off of their hands.  I would go to the scene, stabilize the patients and prepare them for transport.  The EMT’s would load them into the ambulance and take them a few blocks away to where the doctor and nurse were set up.  Meanwhile, Chris and I would be free to go after another and be ready to transport when the EMT’s returned with the ambulance.  As we collected patients, the doctor and nurse with one of the EMT’s would try and secure us some room on a ferry back to New Jersey.  After we had accrued several patients, the doctor and nurse would accompany them back to the New Jersey side and to waiting ambulances, ready to take them to New Jersey hospitals.  Chris and I could then take one or two more in the ambulance and back through the Holland Tunnel and straight to a New Jersey Hospital.

No one knew what we would find and we were told we can do as we felt best.  Maybe we would come out with 12 patients or maybe just one or two in the ambulance.  For the first time that day, I felt okay.  I was now doing something.  I was no longer helpless.  I had a purpose.

I sat in the back with the doctor, nurse, one of the EMT’s and Chris.  The doctor looked down at my helmet in my lap and I guess he saw my Lieutenant rocker.  It was more a statement by than a question.  “I guess you are in charge.”

I looked at him and calmly, without emotion, said, “I’m not in charge of anything.”  I had barely spoken at our briefing and nothing was said about anyone being in charge, especially me.  Then the truth sunk in and he was right.  The three EMT’s were not officers; Chris was not an officer and the doctor and nurse were civilians.  I was the only Line Officer present.  I had unknowingly been made OIC (Officer in Charge) of this mission into the gaping jaws of Hell.  Shit!!!!

As we entered the Holland Tunnel, you could tell that the doctor was very uneasy.  When he spoke, he asked a disturbing question. “Do you think I might have to amputate a limb to free a victim from the collapse?”

I looked at his polo shirt, slacks and loafers and then to my well-worn protective gear. “Nah, I wouldn’t worry, Doc.  They’d give you a radio and have you talk me through it.”

I could tell from his expression that I shocked the doctor with that comment.  That was never my intent.  If anything I was hoping to reassure him that he would not be crawling amid the debris.   Also, a little humor can often break tension but now I felt bad for making that comment.  In my head I knew what we were discussing was great for fiction or a movie but not something that happened in real life.  Anyway, if something like that really were to happen, I’d just tie off the limb with a tourniquet, bang a high dose of morphine into the patients IV and then find a tool to cut the leg quickly.  A K-12 saw or Hurst O-Cutter comes to mind.  My rescue buddies would be proud as I was starting to think like one of them.

We came out on the Manhattan side and soon arrived at our first destination, Chelsea Piers.  We knew that EMS command in the city were trying to set up an EMS Division at Chelsea Piers and also thought that would be a good place to leave the doctor to find a boat.

When we arrived, the doctor and nurse took off with a radio set to one of the EMS tactical frequencies from New Jersey.  The three EMT’s had at least one radio among them plus the one in their rig set to that frequency.  Finally, I had one too.  One EMT stayed with the ambulance while the other two attempted to see if they could connect with EMS Command.  Chris and I wandered about on our own.

This was the first point during the day that I encountered something that would become far too frequent as the hours progressed.  People were coming to Lower Manhattan and going around, “Please, I need help.  I’m looking for my husband and he is not answering his cell phone.  He is about five feet, ten inches tall with brown hair and balding.  Have you seen anyone like that?”

At first I’d try to explain that I had not seen him and only just got there but there were so many of these frantic people.  Soon, I just learned to ignore the desperate pleadings and become cold and uncaring.  As the day progressed, so did the pleadings and they eventually all started to have pictures of the person they were looking for.  Later in the afternoon, one guy had a picture of his brother.  He walked up to me showing me the picture and asking if I had seen him.  He was on the 97th floor of the North Tower.  I knew that no one that high up survived but I didn’t say that.  I simply said “nope” as I slid past him.

As I wandered around Chelsea Piers, I was approached by three men who were not looking for some poor victim and looked rather official.  They wanted to know if I was in charge of, or with, the Mortuary Branch.  Apparently, EMS command was setting up a makeshift morgue there at the ice rink at the piers.  It was a good idea and using an ice rink as your morgue had obvious advantage.  Then it dawned on me.  They might be lacking in the living bodies needed to tag and store all of the dead bodies.  It seemed wise to get out of area before we were pressed into service on morgue detail.  We headed back to the ambulance quickly after that encounter.

While I’m on the subject of mortuary and recovery of the dead, I might as well share a few other bits that I would learn later on, though I was never involved with this portion of the operation.  While the main 9/11 morgue was on Chelsea Piers at the ice rink, I know of two other temporary morgues closer to the World Trade Center where bodies were stored until they could be moved to the ice rink.  One was the lobby of the American Express building on Vessy Street.  The other was the Brooks Brothers clothing store at Church & Liberty Plaza.  As a matter of fact, many partial remains or body parts arrived at the rink not in a body bag but in a Brooks Brothers garment bag, like a new suit.

We met up with the EMT’s and learned that EMS command was in as much chaos as was the Fire Department operations.  We got in the ambulance and drove it to within a few blocks of the World Trade Center.  We left one guy with the rig and the remaining four of us walked the rest of the way to get to the scene.  I could now feel that I had a good set of blisters going on both feet.  These boots were never designed to be worn this long or do this much walking.  For some reason a Nancy Sinatra song was going through my head.

I’m going to take this opportunity to address two things that we had been dealing with all day, but they were exponentially intensifying as we approached the World Trade Center.  The first was the dust and it was everywhere.  It hung in the air and covered every surface.  As we got closer to the actual scene of the collapse, everything around us took on and almost uniformed light grey color.  At first, our footprints exposed the pavement below the dust but as we got closer, they didn’t penetrate all the way through the layer.  They began to resemble the footprints left on the moon by the astronauts.  At times it was difficult to breathe.  The dust coated everything giving it shades of grey and the feeling you were in a black and white movie.

The other thing went hand in hand with the dust and it was the smell.  Since much of the smell was the powdered concrete, plaster, asbestos and other building materials, the dust and the smell were one and the same.  But there were other components to the smell including smoke, burning jet fuel and many other components.  The odor got stronger as we got closer.  Soon we were able to see the collapsed towers.

You might have noticed that I have not referred to the collapse zone as “Ground Zero.”  I’m not sure when that term came to be used by everyone in the media but we never used that term on September 11.  We simply referred to it as the “World Trade Center” as I have done here.  At the scene I learned a new term for it and I began to use it, “the pile.”

We soon got to a place where we could truly take in the entirety of the scene.  The pile was an awesome beast, stories tall in places.  It belched smoke and fire and dwarfed anything in its vicinity.  Firefighters standing near it seemed so small.  No pictures I have seen have done justice to the amazing sight.

The odor also changed or I should say that a second odor caught my nose.  It is one known to all seasoned responders; it was the smell death.  Yes, death has a smell.  You usually don’t notice when you cut yourself but blood has a particular odor.  In great quantiles like trauma scenes, the odor can be quite strong.  All emergency responders know that smell.  Add to it other smells like urine, bowels, brains, bile and other stuff, then you have the smell of death.  It is a unique smell that is often present on scenes where there are lots of dead.  It is unique, haunting and never forgotten.  As we approached the pile, the smell of death got stronger, the smell of thousands of dead in the pile.

I continued to walk towards the pile.  I am still not sure what I intended to do but I was drawn as a moth to a flame.  At some point I became aware of a sound.  It was a chirping like crickets but crickets don’t generally chirp in large numbers during the day.  I think I knew what it is was when I first started hearing it but it was an easier reality to convince myself they were crickets, far easier than accepting the reality.  I finally realized what I was hearing.

“HOLY SHIT…  OH MY GOD!!!!   NO!!!   NOOO!!!!”

The chirping was coming from the pile.  It was the sound of the PASS alarms from the firefighters in the pile.  “PASS” stands for “Personal Alert Safety System” and every firefighter that gears up to enter a fire scene wears one on the strap of their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).  The alarm is a high volume chirp designed to alert other firefighters that one of their fellow firefighters is in distress.  They can be activated in a few ways but one way is to remain motionless for 30 seconds.  If it doesn’t detect motion for 30 seconds, it goes off unless the firefighter moves again to silence it.  They were all going off in the pile, each one representing a dead brother or sister.  I burst into tears as the reality of that sunk in and bawled like a baby.  For the first time in my 16 year career, I lost my shit on a scene.

Chris put his arms around me and I could tell from the grim expression on his face that he also understood what it was we were hearing.  He found a place to sit me down and I proceeded to try to pull myself together.   After all, soon the rescuers on the pile would be getting to the trapped survivors and my services would be needed.

There still seemed to be some issues on who was in charge and communications had not improved but it really didn’t seem to matter.  There was an army of firefighters working on the pile, working to free those trapped inside.  It didn’t seem that anyone had to tell them what to do or how to do it.  They had begun to think and act as one unit and like a swarm of bees, “hive mind” had taken control over the command structure.  I was certain that soon survivors would be found and the first ones would be taken to the waiting FDNY ambulances but hopefully, soon after, there would be more patients than could be handled by Manhattan resources.  That is when we would be able to help out, collecting survivors to bring over to New Jersey.

For now, I could just sit there, once again helpless, and do nothing but watch.  My helplessness seeped into every molecule of my being.  It turned seconds into minutes, minutes into hours and the hours into endless days that would drag on.  That and I was sure when I finally took my boots off my fee would emerge as two bloody stumps.

We would move around and then find another place to sit and watch the work progress on the pile.  I recall at one point just standing there and watching the flames lick from the windows of 7 World Trade Center.  While the bees were busy working on the pile, it didn’t seem like they were fighting the fire in that 47 story sky scraper.  I assumed that it had been evacuated and the manpower and limited water were best served on the rescue effort on the pile.

7 WTC on fire, afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001

As we made our way around, we began to learn other terminology that was created on the scene.  There was a portion of the outer fa├žade of one of the Twin Towers that stuck up from the pile and remained standing.  We called it the “potato chip.”  It was not unusual to hear two responders talking and hear one say, “There, look just to the right of the potato chip, you can see …”  I guessed it reminded someone of a Ruffles potato chip, complete with ridges, sticking up in the dip.

The potato chip

I was never fully made aware of how official our visit was to Manhattan.  Did the FDNY request our help and presence or were we there freelancing on our own?  How far up my own chain of command had the decision to send us into Lower Manhattan been made?  In the following days, I would learn of other strike teams or task forces like ours put together in New Jersey and officially requested by the FDNY, but they wouldn’t be requested until much later in the day.  Were we part of this larger network or plan and decided to jump the gun early, or were the later teams based upon our idea.  I would never learn those answers.  All I knew at that moment, standing there watching the building burn, was that doing nothing and being helpless at the pile was worse than being helpless over on the Jersey side.

I don’t actually recall seeing flames within the pile but the ever rising smoke told us they were there.  The center of the pile was smoldering and the firefighters I spoke with told me that it will burn for months, which it in fact did.  Another hard fact settled in with everyone at the pile.  There were people, trapped alive, within a few hundred yards of hundreds of the best trained rescue personnel in the world, yet they would die in there in the coming hours and days because we would not be able to get to them in time.  Profound helplessness, so close yet so far.

I shook those thoughts from my head so I’d be ready and on my game for when we would finally find survivors.  We took triangular bandages and tied them over our faces, covering our nose and mouth.  We hoped this would give us a modicum of protection from the dust.

It was sometime mid to late afternoon that we were told that we would have to move down the street and away from the immediate area of 7 World Trade Center.  She was in danger of collapse and the chief ordered the evacuation of the area.  We took up our new position with other responders and we learned a bit of news.  A man had been rescued from a stairwell within the pile, proving to us there were people still alive in there.  The survivor had a broken foot but little else in the way of injury.

We passed the time just watching but now a bit hopeful that we would find some purpose to our visit to Manhattan today.  It was a couple hours after the victim was found alive in the stairwell that I experienced what was probably the most terrifying moment in my life.  I was just a few blocks away when 7 World Trade Center completely collapsed to the ground, along with the the unused Emergency Command Center on the 23rd floor.  It was just under half the height of 1 & 2 World Trade Center but it gave me an insight into the terror experienced by those near the two 110 story giants when they went down.  Words can’t describe what it was like and let’s just say that it assaulted all five of my senses with a baseball bat.

Hearing: The roar was deafening and beyond description.  It was probably amplified as it was channeled down the street between the buildings.

Feeling: The ground shook as it came down.  I’m not sure whether it was sound or ground shake, but a force passed through me that I thought was about to tear me apart from the inside out.

Sight: I saw the building drop down and out of sight behind buildings in my foreground.  Then I saw the dust cloud coming down the street towards us.  Some people ran but many didn’t bother to resist it.  Maybe they realized the futility from trying to outrun earlier ones.  The cloud was coming at us at maybe 40 miles per hour.  There was no outrunning it.  I thought of my patient Jack earlier and his broken arm from trying to outrun it.

Smell: We could most definitely smell it as we were enveloped by the dust cloud.  7 WTC was adding its odor to the odor of 9/11.

Taste: That dust cloud found its way into everything, including our mouths.  To this day, I can close my eyes and recall how 7 WTC tasted.

Below is a video of the collapse of 7 WTC.  The second view of it is closest to what I saw and experienced.  I was a little closer than this and my viewpoint was maybe 90 degrees to the right of this one.



We did duck around the corner of a building but we were soon overcome by the cloud and the darkness was profound.  You held your breath as long as you could but you eventually needed to breathe.  It hurt and every breath you took you feared might be your last.  The light started to come back and soon you were able to make out shapes.

Chris and I noticed that we were both covered in the dust and had become like other grey figures around us.  We were now part of the grey surroundings.  We had survived a collapse and were officially veterans of the pile.  All we needed to do was find survivors and get out of Manhattan.

The collapsed 7 WTC two days later.

It was about dinner time that a hotdog vendor came around.  He had cooked his entire inventory, loaded it into a truck and brought it down to the area to feed us.  There were those poor souls wandering around, looking for lost loved ones but there were also New Yorkers that just wanted to help in some way, even if it was just make sure a few of the responders were fed.  I hadn’t eaten in over nine hours and to be honest, I really didn’t feel much like eating then.  However, the lukewarm hotdog hit my tongue and my body’s instinct took over and I consumed it.  A boy, I think it was the hotdog vendor’s teenage son, gave me a bag of Lays’ potato chips, which I saved in the pocket of my bunker coat, not knowing when my next meal would be.

As the sun set on the pile, lighting was set up so work on the pile could continue through the night.  I was still waiting for all of those survivors to appear but beginning to wonder if anyone would emerge from that burning hell on earth alive.  This left me alone with my thoughts about who I knew that laid dead in that pile.  I think we all knew people buried in there, it was just none of us knew who.  You would think of someone and wonder if he was dead or alive.  Was he in the pile or someplace else on the scene or maybe over the river?  You had no way of knowing. 

One I knew that was dead somewhere in there was my friend John.  He was a volunteer fireman back in New Jersey but he worked as a civilian for the Port Authority and worked in Tower 2.  I knew he wouldn’t have left that building as long as there were people who still needed help.  I knew he was entombed in the debris.  I had watched his murder that morning.  I needed something to do or my thoughts would consume me.

It took me several days to learn who was alive and who was dead.   It turned out that I knew eleven people buried in that pile, three of whom I was very close to.  All eleven death certificates classified their deaths as a homicide… murder.  Work place murders are a recent phenomenon and when they happen, places of work are shut down, people are given time to grieve and counselors are brought in.  For all of us responders there that day, this was a work place murder scene of mass proportions.  We were given no time off; there were no counselors.  We were given a pile of debris.

At this point in the night, I still didn’t know who had died or who had survived.  I would later learn that people were equally worried when they couldn’t get a hold of me that I was dead in the pile.  As I wondered what the pile held, a piece of news began to circulate.  There were many victims trapped in the pile that were still alive and have been on their cell phones to loved ones.  Everyone’s spirit brightened with a new sense of purpose.

The night dragged on and we soon learned that the reports were false.  The likelihood of any more survivors being found were slim and if they were, there would only be a couple that Manhattan EMS could handle and the Manhattan hospitals would not be over run as we had thought.  It was getting late and my radio crackled to life.  We were being called back to the New Jersey side.  We walked back to the ambulance and headed to Chelsea Piers to pick up the doctor and the nurse.

I called the doctor on the way over, he answered his radio and I told him to meet us where we left him off.  When we got there, he opened the door and he and the nurse got in.  You could see the horror on their faces as they looked at us, caked in dust and dirt as we were.  We were no longer recognizable as the people who had parted their company a few hours earlier.  We were not the same people after all we had been through.  Those people they rode into Manhattan with earlier died on the pile and were replaced by us, the unrecognizable.

When we got to the staging area on the New Jersey side, Captain Steve greeted us but he lost any ability to talk when he saw us.  When he finally regain his composure, he simply said, “Let’s get you washed off.”  We were brought over to an engine and a boost line was pulled and charge.  They were careful with the pressure but they washed us down.  After some clean up duties, Chris and I were released.  Chris drove and I sat in the passenger seat.  We arrived back at our building around 2:30 AM, September 12, 2001.  I keyed the mic, “Rescue One Three Three is out of service at quarters.”  I went to 133’s white board in the bay and erased the ”WTC Staging.”

There is a rule that all firefighters and EMS personnel follow.  You must put your unit back into its original, ready to respond, condition before you leave.  It took Chris and me almost 90 minutes to go through it all, checking and restocking.  We also learned that we were required to be back at the station at noon for debriefing and possible further assignment to Manhattan.  That was about eight hours away.  I went out and got into my car, exhausted.  I had been on duty 19 ½ hours straight.  I had 8 hours to pull my life together, get some sleep and return to duty.  There’d be no grief counselors in my near future.

When I arrived home, there was a car in my driveway.  Sarah was there and I wasn’t surprised, since she had a key.  I scared her when I came in but she was happy to see me.  She ran up to hug me and I yelled at her, “DON’T TOUCH ME!”

I wasn’t sure why I reacted so violently.  I apologized to Sarah and explained that I might be contaminated.  Since no one knew if I was even alive, Sarah came to my house to stay with my animals.  I thanked her profusely for doing that and she offered to stay for a while.  I took her up on the offer since I didn’t know how much I’d be home in the coming days.

I went to the bathroom to begin the process of becoming human again.  I understood the historical significance of what I had just been through so I took off my tee shirt and I double bagged it in Ziploc bags with papers on both side saying, “Worn by Sue at the WTC, Sept. 11, 2001.”  I preserved it complete with my sweat and the grime of the pile embedded in it.  You could barely read the municipality and EMS system on the breast in white against the navy blue material.  Reading the “EMS RESCUE” in big letters on the back was a bit easier.  All of my other clothes went into a garbage bag.  I didn’t want them anymore.

I got in the shower and began shampooing and washing myself to get all of the dirt off.  I did this several times and I couldn’t stop.  I still smelled of 9/11; I reeked of it and I just couldn’t get it off me.  I just couldn’t get clean and I thought that I’d never be clean again.  I knew how crazy that thought was standing there in the shower but I still couldn’t help it.  I thought back to my reaction to Sarah trying to hug me.  I didn’t want to tarnish her with the smell of 9/11 that she could never wash off.  I had this horrible thing inside of me and I had to keep people safe from it.  If I infected them with 9/11 they would be ruined forever.

I got out of the shower and ready to grab a few hours’ sleep.  I blew my nose and noticed that my snots were muddy with the dirt of the pile all mixed in with them.  Part of that pile was inside of me and would remain a part of me forever.

I climbed into bed exhausted, yet I knew I would not sleep much, if at all.  I closed my eyes in my dark room and all I could hear was, “Manhattan to Field Com…  Manhattan Field Com K.”  There was no answer there in bed like there wasn’t the previous morning.  I closed my eyes and all I could see was Mary, staring back at me, or should I say through me.

Aftermath


I would work long hours for the next two days but I have not set foot on the Island of Manhattan since September 11, 2001.  When I left work Thursday night, I was ordered to take a one week vacation.

I would learn soon enough who lived and who perished.  There were surprises both ways, including my volunteer firefighter friend who worked in Tower 2 and I was sure had died.  He had family business that day and was home safe in New Jersey while I sat there and mourned him.  In the end, I lost 11 people I knew; three of them were close and dear to me.  I witnessed their murder.

The hardest one was Eric.  Ten years earlier in 1991, Eric was my partner and we both received Citations of Valor, which I had mentioned in my opening.  Ten years after receiving our medals, I was at his funeral, holding his weeping widow as his kids stared on.

In the weeks and months following 9/11, I attended many funerals, some without bodies.  If you have never witnessed a funeral for a fallen firefighter, it is something to see.  I can think of no more moving a ritual.  Right now, I’m going to take a fictitious firefighter, Frank Davis, and a fictitious unit, Engine 79 of the Mapletown Fire Department, and I'm going to walk you through what happens.  There are many variations but this one I’ll do here could be considered typical.

The flag draped casket is brought out of the funeral home and placed up on a hose-bed of a fire truck.  The road is completely closed as all sorts of fire and EMS apparatus from all over line up for the procession.  Some trucks and ambulances have their light-bars wrapped or draped in black cloth.  One truck that is NOT there is Engine 79.

The procession takes the fallen firefighter to his station house.  When we get there, we see funeral bunting draped over the bay doors of the building.  Engine 79 is pulled out onto the apron and Frank’s bunker gear, his boots, his helmet and his coat, are lovingly placed on the bumper of the truck.  The truck carrying the casket stops in the road, in front of the station house.  Engine 79 will have the dispatch frequency patched through its PA system and a few of the units in line will too.  Most every radio is tuned into Mapletown Dispatch.

Every station house has their own set of tones that are broadcast before they are dispatched.  When the dispatcher is informed the procession is in place, he plays those tones like he is dispatching Engine 79.  Here is how the dispatcher continues.

“Mapletown Dispatch to Firefighter Davis.”

[A few moments of silence.]

“Mapletown Dispatch to Firefighter Davis.”

[A few more moments of silence.]

“Mapletown Dispatch to Firefighter Davis.”

[A few more moments of silence.]

“Mapletown Dispatch to all units.  Firefighter Davis has been called but does not answer.  This is the final call for Firefighter Frank Davis.  Brother, you have answered your last call; your mission is over; your duty has ended; your work has been completed.  God has you in his keeping and may you rest in peace.  Firefighter Frank Davis, your dutiship is 10-7.  We got it from here, brother.

“Mapletown Dispatch to all units.   Be advised that Firefighter Frank Davis has now become a guardian to watch out for all emergency responders.

“Mapletown Dispatch, NT7-366, 13:02 hours”

The funeral procession then starts to move again, taking Firefighter Davis to the cemetery and his final resting place.  There is almost always a bagpiper at the cemetery.

The nightmares started right after 9/11 and continue to this day.  Most nights I see Mary looking through me before I finally fall asleep.  I often hear “Manhattan to Field Com.” endlessly with no answer.  In one variation of my nightmare, I’m at Field Com and I hear the dispatcher calling.  I’m on the radio screaming back, “This is Field Com, go ahead Manhattan.”  He continues to call and I realize he can’t hear me.  Then I realize why.  I’m dead and I’m a ghost.  All I can do is listen on helplessly.  Not all of my nightmares deal with 9/11 but mostly all seem to be a variation on the theme of being helpless.

I don’t recall the exact date but it was late November or early December and Toys R Us was doing a publicity event for a new line of toys called “Rescue Heroes.”  It was a thinly veiled attempt to capitalize on the publicity blitz that emergency service responders were receiving in the aftermath of 9/11.  Invitations were sent out to many of the local Fire Departments, EMS, etc. for this event.  While the invitation didn’t require service on 9/11 or at the World Trade Center, it was sort of implied that that was what they were looking for so they could be honored for their service.  I was assigned the task to represent the department at the local Toys R Us.

The Saturday of the event arrived and I was one of about 20 first responders that showed up.  There were maybe 50 kids along with their parents participating.  Some would go home with Rescue Heroes prizes but what the kids were supposed to do was make a thank you card and give it to one of the responders, thanking them for their service.  The kids and parents were not definitively told that we were all 9/11 responders, however the implication was that we were and to be thanked as such.  Of the 20 or so responders present I was the only EMS person.  The rest were all firefighters.

The kids made their cards and then were told to go up to one of the responders.  They were to present them with the card they made and thank them for keeping us all safe.  The kids all ran to one of the responders and most of the firefighters had two or even three kids vying for their attention.  Only one kid came up to me and thanked me for being a “fireman.”  I corrected the kid and told him I was a paramedic.  When he learned I wasn’t a firefighter, he snatched his card back and ran over to a real fireman and gave it to him.

I know what I’m about to say makes no sense and I know that I can’t be offended by what a seven year old does but it struck something in me that set off my blossoming PTSD.  A part of me couldn’t help but interpret that action by the child as, “You were helpless and didn’t do anything.  Why should I thank you for that?”  None of the kids gave me a card so I got up and quietly walked out, carrying the plaque that Toys R Us had awarded me for being a real life “Rescue Hero.”

My plaque presented to me by Toys R Us.  It reads: We salute the daily service you provide our community. We applaud your courage, dedication and commitment. We thank you for being one of our Community Rescue Heroes."

I told you earlier that I was not a fan of irony.  Well, here is another dose.  Before the event started, the manager called us all together and she seemed so proud of all the true 9/11 heroes she had from the World Trade Center.  She asked for a show of hands of how many of us were there that day or had been to Ground Zero since.  Mine was the only hand to go up and the manager was astonished.  Of their 9/11 “Rescue Heroes” I was the only one that had actually participated in the events of 9/11.  And the irony…  The kids thanked all the others a couple of times for their service on 9/11 and gave them a thank you cards.  I, the only to participate in that response, didn’t get a single card.

It was sometime around Christmas that I was told that 21 of us from our station would be receiving a special citation for our actions and efforts during 9/11 and the recovery effort that followed.  There must have been some mistake.  I didn’t do anything deserving of a medal.  I inquired with the Captain if maybe there was an error made.  There wasn’t and the medal ceremony would be in February.

I don’t really recall the ceremony at all.  I think I had begun the process of disassociation that comes with PTSD.  I was on some sort of autopilot and my mind was someplace else, hiding from all of this.  The citation stated something like “For exemplary service above and beyond the call of duty.”  I did no such thing.  I did my job.

My citation bar for my 9/11 Citation. Note, it is placed on a pencil to hold it up on the pins for the photo.

I had been wrestling internally with the helplessness I felt that day and sitting there doing nothing while all of those people died under the pile, a few of whom I knew.  Giving me a medal for being helpless was the beginning of the end for me.  I became despondent. 

One day, while still on duty at the station house, I got a visit from an old retired Chief I was fond of.  We were on a first name bases and he became something of a father figure to me after my own dad had passed away.

“What brings you here, George?”

“You do, Sue.”  I looked at him rather puzzled and he continued.  “I was at your medal ceremony the other day and I could tell you weren’t yourself.”   

He pulled me into an office and produced a flask of booze from his pocket.  He offered it to me and when I refused, he reminded me that his chief trumped my lieutenant and he outranked me.  After I took a couple of swigs, he took one too and got to the point.  He wanted to know what was wrong.  I started telling him about being helpless and not deserving a medal and he stopped me short.

“Oh, I get that, Sue, but you do not understand what is happening.”

“Huh?”

“You talk like that medal was for you, like it is your medal.  It is not!  It belongs to the people of this community and it is for them.”

He took another sip from the flask before handing it back to me.  His demeanor softened as he continued.  “I get it Sue, honestly I do but you need to understand that your medal is not an honor but a duty you carry and I thank you for that.”

Here was a man who was one of the most decorated firefighters I have ever known.  Furthermore, he had earned a Purple Heart and a Navy Cross during World War II.  He might just know what he was talking about.

He continued, “The people of this community need you to wear that medal.  They need to have faith that there are people willing to go to the line for them.  They need heroes to believe in and not just national ones.  They need local ones so they can feel safe and go on with their lives.  These people have been terrorized; many lost loved ones.  They need a hero to believe in, Sue.  Whether you think you deserve it is immaterial.  They need a hero so they can feel safe and go about their lives.  It is another sacrifice you make for them.”

At least I could stomach wearing the medal after that but it didn’t stop my spiral out of control.  By the spring I was no longer stable and had become suicidal.  My Captain intervened and activated Genesis for me.  He pulled strings to make sure I got the time off I needed and I was in the hands of not only professionals but those that specialized in first responders.  I was very lucky to have had people like him looking out for me.  So many responders like me were not so lucky and have taken their own lives since 9/11.  I was one of the few that got that low yet made it back to the job.  I was back at work by the fall of 2002 and I retired with an exemplary record in 2005 having put in a full 20 years.

I should probably say a word about the Survivors’ Guilt.  This was part of my initial diagnosis with the PTSD.  Of those of us who initially responded that morning to Box 8087, they say one in twelve of us didn’t come home.  It is hard to describe if you have never been through it.  I’ll just say this about it.  It’s not easy facing Eric’s widow and kids when I came home and he didn’t.  It adds a whole new dimension to it that I don’t even know how to begin to talk about.

I know what everyone tells me.  They say that it is not my fault and I should be happy I was spared.  I understand that logically but what my logical brain tells me and what I feel in my heart are two different things.  Now, I’m not too sure I can say that I was spared.  Quite a few illnesses and cancers are now related to those of us who worked the pile.  They say by the end of this year that the number of victims to die of 9/11 related illnesses will exceed the number of people who died that day at the scene.  Every time I cough or feel a pain, I get scared and wonder if this is it, the beginning of my own demise.  There are some that feel we should add these deaths to the final death toll for 9/11.  I may be dead in five years and my death may be tallied as a victim of the 9/11 attacks.  Maybe I was killed when those towers fell; I just haven’t succumbed yet.


Epilogue


Wrap up some loose ends...

I'm not 100% sure what happened to the woman trapped in the fire truck screaming on the radio.  A few years later I was told of a man that had been trapped in an engine under the rubble and frantically radioed for help.  He was eventually rescued and this was probably him.  One other unit on the radio referred to the trapped victim as "her" but listening to the tapes recently, I think it could have been a man.  I'll assume they are the same person and they didn't not die as I had believed for years.

There was never a third inbound plane to the World Trade Center.  This was an error in communication.

There was no Anthrax or other biological agents on the planes and the source of that rumor remains unclear to me.

Likewise there were not 32 unaccounted for aircraft.  All aircraft would eventually be accounted for but I don't recall any official notification of this.

I found the Lay's potato chips I put in my bunker coat pocket about two weeks later, coming back from the hospital after a bad motor vehicle accident scene.  They made a welcome snack on the way home.

Ask Me Questions


I don’t want the comments of this blog to become a discussion or a question and answer session but please, if you have questions about anything related to 9/11 or I've written about here, feel free to ask me in person, in world.  I feel that after 17 years of silence that I can finally talk about it.  I welcome it.

Please don’t call me a “hero,” though.  I can’t see myself as one and there is still that part of me that wrestles with the helplessness of that day.  Much like getting the citation sent me spiraling into my deep depression, calling me a “hero” triggers things within me that are not good.  I was just doing my job that day.

In wrapping this up, I’m going to quote Chief Ray Downey.  You remember him, the guy that taught me about building collapse who ironically died when the North Tower fell.  It was something that he used to remind us about.

“Sometimes in this job, goodbye is really goodbye.”
Chief Ray Downey, FDNY (1937-2001)

Sidewalk graffiti at a nearby park in the days following 9/11. It reads:
Living Angels
Transit Police
NYPD
Fire Dept.
EMS