This week, September 11th falls on a Wednesday. However, to most of us who were alive and are old enough to remember the horror and tragedy of that day, the date of “September 11, 2001” will always be etched in our minds as a Tuesday. A Tuesday that we will never, ever forget. For those of us who are/were firefighters, the date carries a powerful sting, such that hearing someone say the date, often gives us pause.
This national tragedy affects the families of nearly three-thousand innocent victims, from many nationalities and from all walks of life. I know a couple from South Florida and normalcy has never fully returned to their lives.
That morning, I was working in an office for Dalmatian Productions that I was sharing from a friend. I always had a police/fire scanner on my desk, and I heard members of Ft. Lauderdale Fire talking about an accident in NYC – a small plane was believed to have hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I ran into the editing area and rolled out a big, (for then) 27” TV and, after adjusting the antenna, picked up a local station that was rebroadcasting the feed from CNN. One look and I knew this was no small plane.
Within a relatively short time, the first video of the first jet striking the tower was played on TV screens around the country and probably, around the world. As soon as I saw that video, I knew our lives were about to change. Back then, I had been out of the active fire service for nearly sixteen years, due to an injury. However, everything I had learned about flammable liquid fires and multi-story commercial buildings came flooding back to me.
My late friend, who was from Long Island, asked me how I thought the FDNY would fight the fire. I told him, “I don’t think they can,” and my stomach tightened as I told him that. For I knew, that our brothers would go into that building, not to quench the fire, but to rescue as many people as possible. And just as that thought was uttered to him, the second plane hit the second tower. Now, there was no doubt, no unknown. This was an attack on the United State of America, as was Pearl Harbor.
As I sit here writing this entry, tears already fall from my eyes. Over the years of our friendship, I had shared many of my experiences as a firefighter with my friend and how we accomplished many of the tasks we had had to do on this call or that call. One of those stories dealt with reading smoke, specifically, the changing colors of smoke and what it often meant. I returned to the editing room to check something I had been working on, when my friend called out, “Come here, Steve. I think they ARE getting water on the fire; I can see white steam!”
I rushed back over to the TV and to my horror, I saw and explained what was really happening. “That’s not steam! That’s concrete dust! The building is collapsing!!”
“No!” he screamed out, but it was true. In a trembling voice he asked, “Do you think they made it?”
“No. They couldn’t escape. They may not even knew what was happening until it was too late,” I explained.
“You mean…” his voice trailed off.
“Yes,” I replied. “I would say that we just lost hundreds of firefighters and civilians, maybe even into the thousands.” We both began to weep.
I pulled my chair around and sat there, watching. What could I do? I had to do something. These were my brothers…men that I ridden with once, who welcomed me like family. I had to be able to do something to help. And it was during this though process that we watched the second tower fall. Being a firefighter, I realized something even worse had happened, because shortly before this occurred, the network had shown a shot of the FDNY’s command center, outside the two towers. The Chief of Department and a multitude of other officers were instantly killed in the first collapse.
“My God,” I said. “We just lost at least five hundred FDNY firefighters!” Thankfully, though that estimate was too high, when we add in our brothers and sisters from the NYPD and Port-Authority, plus the volunteers who had poured in from outside the city, volunteers from fire departments on Long Island and Westchester County, my “guesstimate” was so far off.
My friend turned to me, his eyes red, “What are YOU going to do?”
“I’m going to try and get to New York!” I replied.
“What? Why? You can’t fight fire anymore!”
I thought a second and said, “You’re right. I can’t. But I can help the survivors and others. They’re going to need administrative help. People are going to look for their relatives and friends. That means lots of computers and data work. I may not wear bunker gear anymore, but I can create databases and help that way. Anything with computers I can help with.” As it happened, my wife and daughters forbade me to head north. Though disappointed in their response, I certainly understood it. So, I thought of something else.
“I’m outta here,” I told him as I was heading out the door.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’m heading over to the blood bank in town. I’ll bet they’ll be jammed. I’ll donate a pint first, then help them get ready. Come by when you can.”
When I arrived at the Blood Center, there was only one other person there and two technicians. They hadn’t heard much, and I filled them in. I asked them to get me started quickly, because we had a lot of prep to do. They looked at me cross-eyed. I said, “In just a little while, you’re going to have tens, if not hundreds of people here to donate blood, whether you’re ready for them or not. I can’t do any venipunctures anymore, but I’ll do the registration and vitals. You’d better make that call right now.”
One of young women took me over to a lounge and got me started while the other called the main office and explained what I said. While she was still on the phone and I was still trying to fill my bag, people began to show up.
“What are we gonna do,” the one with me asked of her co-worker. Her co-worker, still on the phone, held her finger up to advise the young lady to wait as she finished the call. When she hung up, she turned and said, “He’s right! We have to get ready and they’re sending a couple of more techs over.”
I was soon finished and gulped down my can of juice and ate my peanut-butter crackers. And then I grabbed clipboard, a couple of legal pads and grabbed by stethoscope and BP cuff from my BLS rescue bag in my vehicle. That was around 1:00 PM.
We finally closed the door to the blood bank at 10:00 PM. We had started to close at 9:00 PM, but people in line still wanted to donate, so we accepted them, but closed for anyone else that evening. I believe we collected over sixty pints that day and I promised them I’d be back first thing in the morning.
Wednesday morning, I arrived a bit early and found a semi from one of the warehouse stores in the community, who came to drop off bottles of water, cans and pouches of juices and boxes and boxes of snacks. Oh…and no bill.
That day, we opened at 9:00 AM and worked until 10:00 PM. Though the early and later parts of the day were busy, the mid-afternoon was slow in comparison, but people did keep coming.
Thursday morning, another semi was waiting in the parking lot. This time from one of the grocery stores. Same type of delivery.
It was around 2 o’clock, I think, that word was received that few survivors had been found to that point and they did not expect the blood that had been collected around the country, would be needed in NYC. That news stung, hard! We (and so many others) had worked so hard to be able to help. And truth be told, we did. All the blood that we had collected was able to be kept in the community to serve the needs here. And the same held true for most of the country.
Nevertheless, those days brought the American people together like they had not been since World War II. We were truly, “One nation, under God, indivisible…” It didn’t matter if one was a Republican or Democrat, African American, Caucasian, Italian or Polish; we were ONE country, UNITED together by this tragedy, at least for a little while.
I pray for all those we lost on that day. I pray for those who worked the pile for days, weeks and months and paid the ultimate price for their dedication. And I pray that it will not take another tragedy like 9/11 to do again.
Steve Greene is the president of 5-Alarm Task Force Corp., a 501 (c) (3), non-profit company and the Creator/Host of the "5-Alarm Task Force" podcast.