We all saw what happened 10 years ago, one way or another.
For me, I remember very vividly how as I was walking to Mr. Howell’s math class, Mr. Foltz, the assistant principal, came over the intercom and said something to the line of “there’s been an accident in New York City this morning,” and then suggested that the teachers turn on their TV’s. Except for my science teacher Ms. Isley, all my teachers that day had their TV on. It was like watching a bad movie. None of it made any sense. I also remember how much trouble my friend Roberto and I were having at lunch while trying to figure out the proper way to say Osama Bin Laden. I think I ended up going with “Asama Been Layden.” By the next day, it was a household name and I don’t think anyone was having trouble pronouncing it.
Back in July 2010, I went on a trip that among other destinations took me to New York City. Though I was hesitant about it at first, I decided that I would go to Ground Zero just so I could see it in person. As I crossed over West Street in a pedestrian walkway, I just stood there, looking at Ground Zero, taking it all in and remembering everything from that day. As surreal as it was to be this close, I wanted to get closer. And that’s how I made it to 10 House.
10 House is the name of the New York Fire Department station that houses Engine 10 and Ladder 10. Now, 10 House is a very important part of the 9/11 story, as it is the closest fire department to Ground Zero. So, 10 House’s firefighters were the first on the scene that day. The following is an excerpt from the story “Amazing Grace,” featured on the 10 House website.
It was shift change when the north tower was hit between the 94th and 98th floors by hijacked American Airlines Flight 11. There were extra firefighters at hand. In the station, John Morabito said, it sounded no worse than a truck hitting a manhole cover.
But firefighter Serge Pilupczuk ran back to the kitchen table where the covering officer, Lt. Stephen Harrell, and other firefighters were talking. He said a plane just hit the trade center. The color had drained from his face.
“To see a fireman scared scares the shit out of you,” Morabito said, “because we go into dangerous situations all the time and don’t ever see any fear in anybody’s face.”
Outside was pandemonium, thousands of people running, some burned, some bleeding. Out the rear door, the sky was blue. Out the front, it was black. They pulled some of the injured into the station. Morabito turned and yelled to the newest Ladder 10 firefighter, Sean Tallon.
“Sean, you gotta be careful,” Morabito said. “This is a bad situation.”
They boarded the rig. Morabito was the chauffeur, a job for experienced firefighters with additional training. His officer, Lt. Harrell, sat next to him. Four on-duty and three off-duty firefighters climbed on.
Morabito drove only a few yards. Bodies on Liberty Street blocked his path.
“I stop the rig, and I look at my officer and say, ‘It’s a body,’ and he says, ‘You gotta go. They’re dead, you gotta go.’ So we rolled over them, pulled down the street.”
Turning left on Liberty, they were blocked again by a Lincoln Town Car, a taxi. The woman inside couldn’t get it moving. The siren was on, lights flashing, firefighters yelling from the rear of the truck. A police officer jumped in the Lincoln but couldn’t engage the shifter.
“So I had to ram the car,” Morabito said. “I push the car, it goes up on the sidewalk.”
They turned right onto West Street, nearing the entrance to the north tower. A man — in shock, his clothes on fire — crossed in front of them.
“He’s completely engulfed in flames, and he’s looking at me because now he thinks I’m going to run him over,” Morabito says.
Morabito skidded the truck sideways to stop the man from running and got out as another man came charging off the sidewalk and tackled the burning man, damping out the flames with a jacket. They were 100 feet from the tower entrance.
As Morabito and off-duty firefighter Terry Rivera doused the burn victim, wrapped him in a burn blanket and got him into an ambulance, Lt. Harrell led his inside team, firefighters Tallon and Jeffrey Olsen, into Tower One.
“What we didn’t know, and found out later, was that when the plane hit, the jet fuel came down the center elevator shaft, and it lit up in a big fireball in the lobby so that people in the lobby were incinerated,” Morabito said. “This man must have been close by and he was burned.”
Later, they would learn the burn victim survived.
Lt. Harrell’s team was followed up the stairs by on-duty firefighters Pilupczuk and Mike Cancel and by off-duty firefighters John Moore and George Bachman, who did not have air tanks. Morabito told Rivera, who had no equipment, to help in the street outside.
A ladder truck’s crew of six is divided into a three-member inside team, or forceful-entry team, and a three-member outside team. The inside team is the officer, the “irons man” and the “can.” The irons man carries a Halligan — a combination chisel, spike and forked pry bar named after the New York firefighter who invented it — and a flathead ax. The “can” carries a tank of pressurized water and a six-foot hook.
Their job is search and rescue, and to locate the fire. With the tools they carry, or with torches or hydraulic equipment from the truck, they can break into any building, force any door, crack open any elevator.
The outside team includes the chauffeur, who on a rear-mount aerial like Ladder 10, can operate the ladder, extending it 100 feet from ground level in less than a minute, using it to punch through windows if necessary. “OV” (outside vent) is the firefighter responsible for venting the building. “Roof” is the firefighter who goes up top, sometimes alone, opening a vent above and looking around the perimeter for people hanging out of windows. They can lower other firefighters to rescue trapped occupants or rappel down the face of a building themselves.
Skyscrapers are different, these firefighters said. Built with generally fireproof materials, they are designed to contain fires. Fire crews don’t vent them, so the OV and Roof can join the forceful entry team inside. Firefighters locate the fire (which can be tricky) and get off the elevator two stories below, where hoses can be hooked to stand pipes. The stand pipes are pressurized by the fire engines, the pumpers, down on the street. The attack is made from stairwells.
To maximize office space, the north tower of the World Trade Center, like its twin, was built around a central skeletal shaft of elevators and stairwells, firefighters said. The commercial jet severed this shaft, the stairwells and the standpipe. There was no escape, no hope for the 1,344 people above the 91st floor. Many shattered windows for air, 1,200 feet above West Street. Many jumped, choosing this death rather than incineration, crashing onto a veranda above the pavement.
“Every body that hit sounded like an explosion,” Morabito said.
Just inside the front entrance, Morabito found two victims of the fireball. A man, already dead, was pushed against a wall, his clothes gone, his eyeglasses blackened, his tongue lying on the floor next to him. The other was a woman, with no clothes, her hair burned off, her eyes sealed.
“The woman, she sat up. I’m yelling to her, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to help you,’” Morabito said. “She sat up and was trying to talk, but her throat had closed up. She died right there.”
They covered the bodies so people coming down the stairs wouldn’t see them and panic. Harrell called Morabito on his radio and told him to check the perimeter. Morabito went out into the plaza between the buildings, looked up, made his report — fire all around Tower One, all upper floors burning.
Then he looked at the plaza. At this point, they still didn’t know it was a commercial airplane. They figured something smaller; maybe a pilot had a heart attack. But then he saw suitcases, purses and wallets everywhere on the ground and as he looked, he saw pieces of flesh, pieces of scalp, arms, hands, all around him.
“Then I realized this was a lot bigger than I thought,” Morabito said.
Back inside, Morabito joined other firefighters who were evacuating the building. They heard on their radios that a plane had hit 2 World Trade Center, the south tower. It had only been 17 minutes since the first plane struck. By now, more than 200 firefighters were on the scene, with more on the way.
Now they knew it was a terrorist attack. Then they heard a plane hit the Pentagon. They heard early, erroneous reports that a plane crashing in Pennsylvania hit a shopping mall, that another plane was shot down over the Hudson River.
“In my head, I’m picturing that this is an all-out assault on New York City,” Morabito said.
The elevators in Tower One were out of service, some blown out of their shafts, the people inside them killed. People were coming down the stairs by the thousands.
Rather than put the building’s surviving occupants out onto West Street — where debris was falling, where bodies were striking the veranda — firefighters and police directed them through the lobby and down escalators into the subway. There they could walk for three or four blocks and come up a safe distance away.
Many of the people coming out of Tower One were burned, others badly cut, flesh hanging from open wounds. The firefighters yelled at them to walk slowly, not to run. The marble floor of the lobby was soaked by the sprinkler system and covered with broken plate glass, with blood.
“If they’d run, they’d slip and cut themselves wide open,” Morabito said. “But they were listening to everything we were saying. They were helping one another. They were carrying one another. They were helping older women, they were helping older men, they were helping handicapped people. With all this …. going on, they were helping one another.
“I was proud of them.”
He knew the last person down, the wife of a firefighter. He told her that her husband was alive. She went into the subway. The lobby was being emptied. Harrell, Tallon and Olsen were still climbing stairs. Pilipczuk, in his 50s, suffered chest pains on the stairwell — a mild heart attack — and was ordered to stop. He was evacuated by Cancel, who was later stopped from re-entering.
Morabito entered another lobby area and found people up on a veranda, milling around, some taking pictures. He told them to leave the area, that they were in danger.
He turned, walked through a doorway, and the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed behind him. The 110-story building came down in eight seconds, creating a hurricane force blast of crushed masonry and hot black smoke that blew through the lobby of Tower One like a wind from hell.
The wall behind Morabito collapsed.
“I got picked up. I got tossed around the room, and I was screaming, ‘God please. Don’t let me die, God,’ and I heard beams crashing, and then it stopped, and I was alive.”
Alive, but beginning to panic. The smoke was so thick he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see. He turned his air cylinder on, took a couple hits of air, collected himself. He searched for a way out, found a window. Before crawling through, he clicked on a small flashlight clipped to his jacket, turned and yelled: “If anyone can see my light, if anyone can hear my voice, I got a window. This is a way out.”
Another fireman, Lt. Girard Owens of Engine Company 5, came out of the darkness with five people. Thrown against the ceiling in the north tower basement, Owens had a broken rib and an injured hand.
“Myself, and Lt. Owens and these five people were the last to exit that building before it collapsed,” Morabito said. “We were the last ones to get away.”
Owens would later tell Morabito that if he hadn’t called out, hadn’t shown them the window, the six of them would have died.
Outside, they saw the upper floors of Tower One collapsing.
“I thought I was going to get killed in the street,” Morabito said. “I was not far enough away. I was just running, trying to find water. I wanted to jump in the water to get away from it. I got about a block, and it just went in on itself and I realized I was going to be all right.”
He searched for his company, found the survivors sitting near the Hudson River.
“It was very quiet after everything fell. It was like the nuclear winter with the smoke and the dust everywhere.”
(The whole story is worth the read, so I highly recommend visiting 10 House’s website.)
Outside the station building is a memorial to the firefighters who lost their lives in the wake of the towers being struck by the hijacked planes and the subsequent collapses shortly after . Though I’d seriously doubt that I ever met one of the 343 firefighters that perished that day, much less ever crossed paths with them, I felt a huge appreciation for them. They put theirselves out there, losing their brothers and sisters, but saving the lifes of thousands more. Though some 3,000 lives were lost that day, a special acknowledgement is due for the men and women of the New York Fire Department, as well as the New York Police Department.
When I posted this as a note on my Facebook last September, I received the following comment from one of my friends: “I remember going to class with u that day…..I was ripped out of bed by my mom to watch the early morning news and I remember feeling….the first touches of youthful ignorance slowly seeping away from me. I realized that my life could end and I hated that feeling… It made me feel lost…”