The New York Times, SEP 14, 2001

A Firefighter's Story


The south tower of the World Trade Center has just collapsed. I am helping my friends at Ladder Company 16, and the firefighters have commandeered a crowded 67th Street crosstown bus. We go without stopping from Lexington Avenue to the staging center on Amsterdam. We don't talk much. Not one of the passengers complains.

At Amsterdam we board another bus. The quiet is broken by a lieutenant: "We'll see things today we shouldn't have to see, but listen up, we'll do it together. We'll be together, and we'll all come back together." He opens a box of dust masks and gives two to each of us.

We walk down West Street and report to the chief in command. He stands ankle-deep in mud. His predecessor chief earlier in the day is already missing, along with the command center itself, which is somewhere beneath mountains of cracked concrete and bent steel caused by the second collapse, of the north tower.

Now several hundred firefighters are milling about. There is not much for us to do except pull hose from one place to another as a pumper and ladder truck are repositioned. It is quiet: no sirens, no helicopters. Just the sound of two hoses watering a hotel on West Street the six stories that remain. The low crackle of department radios fades into air. The danger now is the burning 47-story building before us. The command chief has taken the firefighters out.

I leave the hoses and trucks and walk through the World Financial Center. There has been a complete evacuation; I move through the hallways alone. It seems the building has been abandoned for decades, as there are inches of dust on the floors. The large and beautiful atrium with its palm trees is in ruins.

Outside, because of the pervasive gray dusting, I cannot read the street signs as I make my way back. There is a lone fire company down a narrow street wetting down a smoldering pile. The mountains of debris in every direction are 50 and 60 feet high, and it is only now that I realize the silence I notice is the silence of thousands of people buried around me.

On the West Street side the chiefs begin to push us back toward the Hudson. Entire companies are unaccounted for. The department's elite rescue squads are not heard from. Just last week I talked with a group of Rescue 1 firefighters about the difficult requirements for joining these companies. I remember thinking then that these were truly unusual men, smart and thoughtful.

I know the captain of Rescue 1, Terry Hatten. He is universally loved and respected on the job. I think about Terry, and about Brian Hickey, the captain of Rescue 4, who just last month survived the blast of the Astoria fire that killed three firefighters, including two of his men. He was working today.

I am pulling a heavy six-inch hose through the muck when I see Mike Carter, the vice-president of the firefighters union, on the hose just before me. He's a good friend, and we barely say hello to each other. I see Kevin Gallagher, the union president, who is looking for his missing firefighter son. Someone calls to me. It is Jimmy Boyle, the retired president of the union. "I can't find Michael," he says. Michael Boyle was with Engine 33, and the whole company is missing. I can't say anything to Jimmy, but just throw my arms around him. The last thing I see is Kevin Gallagher kissing a firefighter his son.

Dennis Smith is a former firefighter and author of "A Song for Mary."

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