This article is timely, even 19 years after I wrote it. As the years pass since September 11, 2000, many questions remain. So many loved ones were lost that day, for no reason, and as survivors we still must grapple with the deep grief and pain this memory will forever bring to us. This piece honors the brave men and women who lost their lives that day, facing death as they rushed into the staggering buildings filled with trapped victims.
But it's also an homage to the survivors, not just in New York City on September 11 but also everywhere, everyday - who try to make the world a safer and better place in the face of such horrific evil.
As you Remember the Dead will you honor the Living?
Twenty years after that horrific day, first responders still struggle - with budget cuts, flashbacks, physical problems, and a nation that seems to have a short memory about a rescue operation that saved more than 20,000 people.
If you’ve ever been stuck in a home ravaged by fire, or upside down in a car that slid on some ice, or have ever picked up the phone in an emergency to dial 911, you may want to take a moment to consider how our local first responders, the very same people we honored and applauded so passionately after 9/11, are now suffering as well. Did you know that most of our local fire departments are not. even paid - and are volunteer units?
In the World Trade Center towers alone, about 18,000 people showed up for work that day.
Honoring the victims of 9/11 - not only the murder victims but also their surviving loved ones - is important. Memorials are offered in towns and cities across the country, and for all Americans remembering and honoring the dead is an important message to send: We will never forget.
I know I won't.
But the collective memory and appreciation of many Americans seems to have stuttered. The 9/11 attacks killed almost 3,000 people. At the time of the terrorist attacks, there were about 18,000 people working in the World Trade Center towers and thousands more working in neighboring buildings. This means that about 25,000 people escaped and lived to see another day.
Instead of looking at 9/11 as purely a day of death, it may be time to realize that it was also the greatest rescue mission in the history of the United States. First responders - some who lived and some who died - lead the way for panicked civilians to survive in great numbers when the unthinkable carnage happened on that bright sunny morning.
On that deadly day, heroes faced the raging fires and collapse of the World Trade Centers and rescued thousands of people of all races and ages and creeds. Everyone was as one that fateful day - no matter their birth place, everyone was American.
Actor, writer, and fire fighter champion Denis Leary, who stars in ‘Rescue Me’, said he believes September 11th was not only the largest U.S. tragedy, but also something much more important.
"It wasn't just the worst attack ever on American soil, it was the single greatest rescue in the history of the fire service,” said Leary. “343 members of the FDNY gave their lives that day so that easily another 10 or 15 or 20 thousand people didn't have to die. It was and will always be one of the greatest displays of bravery in the timeline of all mankind. That's what I remember most from that day. Those men racing down in their rigs, running in, running up. Astonishing souls each and every one of them."
Denis and I went to school together, at Emerson (yes, we majored in Poetry). I find it fitting that many years later, we still see eye to eye.
Here in Essex County, when word got out that terrorists had attacked the nation, every paid and volunteer fire fighter rushed in to their fire houses to offer their services. Every police officer and emergency medical technician leaped up and rushed to work. Doctors, nurses, health care professionals and many others wanted to help.
Orange, New Jersey retired policeman and North Caldwell volunteer fireman William Heinzelman said he was on duty as a police officer when the call came in.
“At the time of 9/11 I was a ‘cleo’, which is a captain when the department doesn’t have a chief,” he said. “I went into New York City to assess the situation, and I was there by about 1:00 on 9/11.”
Once Heinzelman got to the World Trade Center area, he immediately realized that his police officers back home, eager to get into the city to help, would have to wait until there was a game plan.
“When I got out of the tunnel I just couldn’t believe what I saw,” said Heinzelman. “The dust was 7 or 8 stories high. The dust dirt mark looked like the water marks you see from floods. The New York fire fighers, police, EMS, Port Authority Police and every civilian who decided to chip in that day to save lives are without a doubt the biggest heroes.”
Back at home in New Jersey, every firefighter and police officer was chomping at the bit to help - but there was nothing they could do in those first chaotic hours.
Former Montclair Deputy Fire Chief Tom Diveny said, “We got a call that day from the New Jersey State Police. They needed resources, and we had an air truck, which is a special unit we fill the air bottles with for fire fighters. We sent engine 2 and the special service unit into Giant’s Stadium, where the staging area had been set up. They waited for hours and they went to fill the air bottles, with Port Authority police, down at ground zero.”
Former Caldwell fire chief Anthony Grenci said his volunteers all wanted to help out too, and that they followed the standard operating procedures after the attacks, whether it was dispatching personnel to fire houses or helping out in any way required.
“Afterwards, we purchased from a manufacturer an NY fire department ambulance converted into a cascade unit,” said Grenci. “Instead of putting our logo on, we kept the New York striping on it - in member of the guys from 9/11.”
For those who first arrived on the scene, digging in the rubble - without really knowing if the attacks were over - was one of the most daunting jobs done by our local fire fighters.
“We went on 9/12,” said Diveny. “We looked through piles, dug through rubble looking for victims or bodies. We had to go to Jersey City and take a boat, and we went there in all of our gear. We stayed 8 hours at night, and it was exhausting. Most of us had to go into work in Montclair too. It was just very very surreal - the way those lights were so bright. And we had a thunderstorm and had to evacuate at one point.”
At the time of the attacks, Montclair had 87 fire fighters on duty, all of whom helped out - but not always at Ground Zero.
“Some of our staff went to the firehouses,” added Diveny. “They had to cover for all the men who never came back.”
Former Essex County Fire Coordinator and North Caldwell volunteer fireman John D’Ascensio said since the entire site was a crime scene, much work had to be done.
“We waited for an official game plan,” he said. “We sent some of the guys to the landfill, to help with the crime scene, later. But we got a call on September 12 to cover a fire house. We formed a task force on 9/11 , and called asking what the New York fire houses needed. We called our local fire houses and sent into New York 4 ladders; 17 engine companies; and an engine pumper. In total we went in about 20 pieces of equipment. We took the Goethels Bridge and went to Staten Island to rescue station 5.”
Pausing for a moment, he added “The chief there came out and said “How long are you staying?”. Eventually, his Engine 160 rescue company truck came back, battered like nothing I’d ever seen. The truck came back but none of the guys. People kept coming to the firehouse asking what was going on, but the mechanic showed up, alone.”
Since there were no rescue companies available in New York, the North Caldwell volunteers pitched in and a Livingston Fire fighter, Deputy Martin, painstakingly rebuilt the entire rescue company, with the help of the New York Rescue Station 5 mechanic, pounding and reshaping the twisted metal and emptying the debris inside with the help of the other officers.
“It was probably a foot deep in dust and debris,” said D’Ascensio. “They worked on it and stayed up 25-28 hours rebuilding that engine truck.”
D’Ascensio also believes there are thousands and thousands of survivors alive today due to the rescue mission on 9/11.
“Everyone dwells on the fact that so many died,” he said. “But how many people in the buildings at 8:30 in the morning - how many are alive today because of the service of on- duty police, fire and EMS and the common Joe who happened to be a good guy that day.”
Today, the North Caldwell fire department proudly displays words taken from the Staten Island fire house that lost so many brave men (see photo, top of page).
“This engine will always say “North Caldwell Engine 5 acting as Engine 160”, as a tribute to 9/11. That engine had gone to the World Trade Center, and we honor it.”
As per public opinion, D’Ascensio said he has experienced a mix of reactions.
“To some people we are a necessary evil,” he said. “To some people we are angels, because we save lives. We are there to help a person who has a flooded basement, or help the senior citizen who needs her basement pumped. For every one of us, this is not just a job. The year after 9/11 lots of kids and adults cheered for us. Now, it seems like some people think we are just blocking traffic. But we would gladly do it again.”
Firefighter John Thomas, from Station 2 in Montclair, said the work in New York was grueling but well worth it.
“I was involved in the initial response team,” said Thomas. “We went to Journal Square and then by ferry to Ground Zero, working all night, until about 6 in the morning. We also covered for other houses. Coming off the ferry one night, a little girl came up to me and the battalion chief,” said Thomas. “She said, “Can you find our mom?” and she gave us a note and picture. A lot of our guys got down on one knee to talk to her. It was very sad.”
Former West Caldwell Fire Chief Charles Holden remembered how his volunteer fire fighters did their part after the terrorist attacks.
“Day one we were originally dispatched to Jersey City, and then diverted to the Meadowlands with our rescue 707,” noted Holden. “There was a major triage area being set up. Sometime towards midnight it became obvious there weren’t going to be a lot of casualties coming through the tunnel. We were dismissed back to West Caldwell with the provision that we’d respond with a piece of apparatus, and we took truck 711 to Seton Hall early September 12. We went over the Verazanno Bridge and were stationed initially in Red Hook, Brooklyn and from there moved into a neighborhood on Pacific Avenue in Brooklyn. We were covering in case of fires or emergencies.”
When asked what the atmosphere was like, Holden said there were no fires and that “It was uncharacteristically quiet. People and apparatus did not come back. At the second stop they showed the FDNY piece that had been stationed there in Brooklyn before the attack. It had been demolished on 9/11. Seeing that on television was very disconcerting.”
Fellow fire fighter Heinzelman added, “I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all again. We did what are trained to do. We all stepped up.”
As per that tragic time in 2001, Heinzelmann said “This is something that will never, ever leave you. Never.”
How You can Help Firefighters
Fire Houses are always in need of help. You can donate money or support their fundraisers.
In Montclair, which is a paid fire department, supporting the fire house may include supporting the new shared-service agreement with Glen Ridge, since Montclair has covered Glen Ridge for fires for years and this contract is up for re-signing.
Here is a list of volunteer fire houses that you can support by making a donation. Even a small donation is greatly appreciated.
In Caldwell, you can make a donation to: Caldwell Fire Department, 30 Roseland Avenue, Caldwell, NJ 07006
In North Caldwell, you can made a donation to: North Caldwell Fire Department, 151 Gould Ave., North Caldwell, NJ 07006
In West Caldwell, you can make a donation to: West Caldwell Fire Department, 6 Fairfield Avenue, West Caldwell, NJ 07006