by Robert Rainey
Fire Department City of New York (FDNY)
My name is Robert Rainey and I’m a firefighter. For almost 40 years, I have been a firefighter and fire officer, of which over 30 years were with the F.D.N.Y. I retired in July of 2000 as the Captain/Company Commander of Engine 26 located near Times Square in Midtown Manhattan. In addition to being an active Fire Officer, I was, and continue to be, a trained Peer Counselor for the Counseling Service Unit of the F.D.N.Y.
What follows is my own experiences and story of the events of September 11, 2001. I speak only for myself and not the F.D.N.Y.
On 9/11/01, I was at my home about 50 miles north of New York City. My wife’s best friend called to tell us to turn on the television; a plane had hit the World Trade Center (WTC). I knew by my experience and what I saw on the television that there was more fire on many floors and high up in this huge building; more than we could put out.
While I was watching the second plane hit, I knew that what we feared would happen, happened. I knew that with that much fire, at some point the buildings would collapse. I just hoped that we could save as many civilians as possible and get out before the collapse.
By the time I responded to my old unit which was over 50 miles away from home and through endless traffic, both buildings had collapsed. I went down to the WTC site with other firefighters by hitching a ride in a Red Cross van we flagged down.
My first real view of the size of the disaster was through the window of a damaged, but still passable as a building located on the Hudson River. I had been to quite a few building collapses in my firefighting years, but when I saw the level of damage and the size of the debris pile I knew few, if any, of those trapped were going to be alive.
As we worked on search and recovery on the pile, we would hear of this firefighter or that firefighter was missing. As I feared, the number grew and grew. The first definite loss I heard of was Fire Department Chaplain Father Mike Judge. In the hours and days that past, we learned of more and more names of the missing members. I was numb between the grief for so many friends and the shock of handling the dead. I was on autopilot, using my training and little else.
Upon hearing the news that the World Trade Center had been hit, Father Mychal Judge rushed to the site. Judge administered the Last Rites to some lying on the streets, then entered the lobby of the World Trade Center North Tower, where an emergency command post was organized. There he continued offering aid and prayers for the rescuers, the injured and dead. When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 am, debris went flying through the North Tower lobby, killing many inside, including Judge. Shortly after his death, a NYPD lieutenant, who had also been buried in the collapse, found Judge’s body and assisted by two firemen and two civilian bystanders carried it out of the North Tower lobby to nearby St Peter’s Church.
On September 12th, I returned to the temporary firehouse for Engine 26 and called my wife to tell her that I was safe at the firehouse. She told me the Counseling Service Unit had called and wanted me to return their call. They wanted me to help by being a Peer Counselor to the F.D.N.Y. members and their families.
The plan was to set up counseling sites in the counties surrounding New York City because of the difficulty people had getting to the Counseling Service Unit headquarters not very far from the World Trade Center site. At first, most of the support work was with the widows and the families of the 343 members we lost. We used whatever location we could for these counseling sites. In my case, my church, St. James Episcopal in Goshen, New York northwest of New York City, was made available until we could make other arrangements.
I learned more about grief, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anger than I ever wanted to know. I was supporting the few clinical social workers that we had available and acting as a go between for those who were struggling with what had happened. It took a toll on all of us. When I’m stressed all I want to do is sleep. I did a lot of sleeping. We were so busy helping others we, at times, failed to take care of ourselves and our families. What helped me was my faith and being willing to talk about what my feelings and problems were with others. By talking, it destroyed the myth that I was not the only one dealing with this worst of the worst in the same way. I talked with my wife. I talked with my rector. I talked with the clinicians I worked with. I talked with my brother and sister F.D.N.Y. members both active and retired. I talked with a psychologist friend from a nearby county. Eventually, I spoke to Dr. Judith Cukor from the Center for Traumatic Studies, New York’s Cornell Medical Center. With her help, I realized that although I was still functioning, I had PTSD and what is called Compassion Fatigue. With treatment and some medication for a while, I was able to continue my work as a Peer. I was able to leave my work behind me when I was not in that peer role.
I still work for the F.D.N.Y. Counseling Service Unit a few days a week. Most of the work now is with retired firefighters. As the years go by, there are less and less of the active F.D.N.Y. firefighters and EMS members who were on the job on 9/11/01. Sadly, we are still losing firefighters, EMS workers, Police Officers, and others who served during the worst of times on and after 9/11/01. We are losing many of them to World Trade Center related cancer and, in few cases, suicide. I wish I could help with the cancer, but I can’t do much but be there for them and their families.
As for suicide, thanks to the wisdom of F.D.N.Y. Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, we have a very active and ongoing program to educate F.D.N.Y. members about the dangers of suicide. We are teaching them to recognize the signs and symptoms in themselves and others. Lately, Commissioner Cassano, a trained Peer Counselor, has instituted a program to have every firehouse and EMS station in the F.D.N.Y. visited by Peers to train the members in Suicide Prevention, recognition of the dangers, what to look for terms of signs and behaviors, and who to call to get help. It is a well designed program lead by firefighters and EMS people to assist their brothers and sisters. We are just over a month into this very large task.
How do you evaluate the suicide danger potential in yourself or others? What to do and where to go for help? For some, the danger has been, and is, related to 9/11/01. For many, this is not the contributing factor. We’ve lost so much. We all need to work to stop future losses. We need to operate safely as the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation says so Everyone Goes Home. We need to educate other brothers and sisters that when bad things happen reach out, help is there. If help is not in place now we need to ensure that trained help is there before it’s needed. We also need to remember that together we can get through even the worst of the worst.
About the Author: Bob Rainey retired from active firefighting with the F.D.N.Y. as a Captain on July 17, 2000 after almost 31 years of service. He responded to the World Trade Center attack, as did many retired firefighters, and worked on search and recovery. When he returned to the firehouse of his former unit, Engine Co. 26, he found out that his retirement replacement, Captain Tom Farrino, and every one of the men on duty that day, except for the Engine Company chauffeur, were missing. They were never found.
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