by William Groneman III
Fire Department City of New York (FDNY)
The Fire Department of the City of New York was no stranger to grief by the summer of 2001. Since its inception as a paid, professional department in 1865 the FDNY had lost 796 of its own in the line of duty. The latest occurred as recently as August 28 when a young firefighter lost his life at an auto body repair shop fire. At the time the department was still reeling from an explosion and collapse of a hardware store fire on Father’s Day at which three seasoned firefighters died. Eight children were left fatherless on Father’s Day.
The first hijacked plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 am. Fire Department units operating at a gas leak a few block north actually witnessed the attack. The department responded immediately and went to work. During the next hour and forty-two minutes 343 members of the department died.
Survivors pulled themselves out of the wreckage, shook off the all pervasive dust, and immediately went back in to save as many people as possible including their brother firefighters. Personnel rushed in from home or from second jobs in a total recall of all off-duty members. Still others worked in their companies, away from the World Trade Center site, performing fire and emergency duty in their respective areas and covering those areas in which fire companies had been wiped out.
The FDNY faced its greatest challenge, and most protracted and debilitating operation within the larger national tragedy of 9/11. Its resources were tested as never before as were the physical, mental, and emotional limits of its firefighters during the all too short rescue phase and the longer, sadder recovery phase of the next weeks and months.
Firefighters continued to provide the expected level of fire protection throughout the city. When not on duty in their firehouses they worked at “Ground Zero,” searching for civilians as well as their fellow firefighters, police officers, and other first responders. In some cases firefighters searched for their own brothers. Fathers searched for sons, and sons for fathers. It has been estimated that 98% of the department knew someone who had been killed or was missing, 68% lost close friends on the job, 52% lost acquaintances on the FDNY, and 7% lost relatives. One firehouse, home to two companies of approximately twenty-five members each, lost sixteen men, three separate companies lost as many as eleven men.
I noticed a reaction to these grim facts in the faces of fellow fire officers. We stood at a command post one block east of the Trade Center about two hours after the second tower had collapsed. Rumors spread about the dead and missing as we waited impatiently for assignments. No one reacted with anything other than a dead-pan expression at the mention a name. The more emotional may have blinked their eyes, internalizing all grief.
Along with the numbing search for bodies – or body parts, firefighters also faced the prospect of 343 department funerals or memorial services. The FDNY announces the line-of-duty death of a member by broadcasting signal “5-5-5-5” over the department radio to all firehouses and units in the field. This dates back to the days when department communications were done by bell signals. The bells would ring five times in four sets announcing the death of a firefighter. Now, it is done verbally with the dispatcher saying, “Signal four-fives is transmitted to all units. It is with regret the department announces the death of…”
In bad years one may have heard this broadcast five or six times in New York City firehouses. Firefighters would stop whatever they were doing, hold their breaths and listen, hoping that they wouldn’t know the person announced. In the weeks and months following September 11, we heard it as many as five or six times per tour as firefighters’ bodies were recovered and identified. Now firefighters hoped it would be someone they knew among the missing to bring some closure.
It is not surprising that many firefighters manifested symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder in these circumstances. The department recognized this early on and rushed to all firehouses a short training film on PTSD. We sat in our kitchen at Engine Company 308 and watched the video. The guys chanted, “yes…yes…yes,” as each symptom appeared on the screen in power point fashion. Some of the more imaginative repeated, “got it… got it… need it,” as if trading baseball cards as children.
We made light of it in the way firefighters have in stressful situations, but we knew the problem was there and it was real. Suddenly emotions were on stilts among the normally affable guys of Engine 308. The slightest stimulus could bring on blubbering tears, madhouse laughter, or a fight.
I was fortunate on 9/11 in that I was off duty during the attack so did not suffer any major physical or mental trauma. I was not present when the buildings fell, did not see the jumpers, nor did I remove any victims from the rubble. However, I did see the first signs of PTSD in myself as early as the morning of September 12. I had rushed in from home on September 11 and then spent twelve hours at “Ground Zero” with a team of guys from my company. I returned home in the wee hours of Wednesday morning after being relieved from duty due to carbon monoxide poisoning. I reported back to the firehouse later that morning but was told I would not be put to work that day. I drove back home lost in thought about the tragedy of the day before. I must have been driving too slowly in the left lane because a driver in a van squeezed between my car and a car next to mine in the center lane. I instantly flew into a complete and uncharacteristic rage, screaming and cursing loudly. My windows were open and the driver obviously heard me since he accelerated. So did I and the chase was on. I reached speeds of 80 miles per hour on the twisting turns of Long Island’s Southern State Parkway. The van must have been doing close to 100 mph because it steadily pulled away from me. I finally got a grip on myself and terminated the dangerous and irresponsible chase, wondering what was happening to me. It is not difficult to imagine how much worse things were for those who survived the collapse of the towers.
I returned to “Ground Zero” with guys from my company a number of times over the next couple of weeks. At one point, two weeks later, we were assigned to a task force for ten-hour tours there beginning at varying times of the day or night. This disorientating process left one unsure of what day of the week it was or how long one had been there at any given time. Tensions rose among my small group as chief officers constantly held my company in reserve. We were given a variety of minor assignments but nothing was ever enough. We needed to know that we were contributing to the effort at large. We went about our tasks constantly reminded of the dead and missing. As one of my firefighters described it, “The stench of death was everywhere.”
Adding to the stress and in some cases guilt was the fact that the New York City firefighters were suddenly embraced, cheered, and lauded as heroes. It was unexpected attention to which we were not accustomed. Many felt uncomfortable by this, reasoning that we were receiving such accolades simply because we had not died.
In the midst of this another ugly personal scene played out while working a regular tour at Engine 308. We received an alarm for a building in Kennedy Airport. Of course, in the wake of September 11 everyone’s adrenaline began pumping as soon as the airport was mentioned. We responded with lights and sirens by our usual route, south on Lefferts Blvd. Cars were parked on both sides of the street, there was traffic on the opposite side, and a double-parked milk truck blocked our way. The driver of the truck was making a delivery at one of the local stores. I blew the air horn and waved at him to move the truck. He responded by stepping into the oncoming lane and waving us around his truck. Even without traffic in the other direction it would have been a tight squeeze.
We were losing response time now. I continued to blow the horn and began yelling to him to move the truck. He ignored me and continued to wave us around. I lost it. I struggled to extricate myself from the seatbelt, jumped out of the rig, and ran to the driver. I got right in his face and screamed at him as loud as I possibly could, using every foul word I could think of. I don’t know what I said. I may have threatened to have him arrested. I may have threatened to kill him. Luckily for me he did not respond in any way or I probably would have attacked him. The guys on the rig were so stunned that no one moved. After a few seconds of insanity I climbed back in the apparatus. The driver moved his truck and we squeezed by. I was still so crazed that I hurled an obscenity at him again as we passed.
We never did get to the airport. The alarm turned out to be nothing and we were turned back. We may have gotten as far as the Belt Parkway, which is the northern border of JFK. I rode back to the firehouse slumped over in my seat, weak from the lethargic shock that follows rage. We returned via Lefferts Blvd. I looked for the milk truck, fully intending to apologize to the driver but he was gone already.
The guys were all quiet when we returned to quarters. No one said anything to me or each other. They were like children who have just witnessed one of their parents go berserk. I think I managed an apology to them when we got back.
My actions were a disgrace to me, Engine 308, and the FDNY, and it was totally my fault. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me while working and I’m glad it never happened again.
Along with everything else came dreams. The impact of conditions at “Ground Zero” were such that every dream I had that first night, or for the next few nights had, as its back drop the wreckage of the World Trade Center, regardless of the content of the dreams. I was not troubled by constant bad dreams immediately after the attack. I did have trouble falling asleep. Every time I lay down at night, images of the events of September 11 played out in my mind. I had particular trouble imagining the absolute torture the people trapped on the four jets went through. Thoughts of the planes streaking toward the towers from the perspective of people in the towers, and the thoughts of people jumping or falling to their deaths from a quarter mile high also haunted me. I tried to think of other things while going to sleep, but these thoughts always crept back. The only way I managed to cope was by imagining that I was physically pushing these thoughts behind a door, forcing the door closed.
I could not control the dreams that came a bit later. There were only a couple but they were enough. In one I walked down a foreboding New York City street at night. I looked to my right at a dark recessed doorway and saw my friend Terry Hatton, the Captain of Rescue Company 1 who was still missing, step out in full firefighting gear. Stunned by his sudden appearance I said, “Terry, you’re alive?” He looked at me with a sad, sympathetic smile and said, “Billy, you know I’m not alive.” At that another firefighter in gear walked up from the left and spoke quietly to Terry. Their conversation excluded me. They were obviously in a place or a state that I was not. I woke up from the dream at that point, shaken.
Two nights later I dreamed that I was sitting with another firefighter friend. We were in a high, cavernous building. The interior was all green wood and there was some type of fire department drill going on involving apparatus operating inside the building. We sat in chairs talking when I saw another person walking from right to left along the wall behind us. He was turned halfway toward the wall as if he did not want to be recognized. I saw that it was Vernon Cherry, a firefighter I did not know but knew of, who was missing at the Trade Center. We stood up and I said, “Vernon, is that you?” He stopped walking and turned slowly toward us smiling enigmatically. As he faced us he remained smiling but his clothes and body faded into tattered black rags that blew in the wind.
I woke up with a sustained scream that had to have lasted a good twenty seconds. The following morning I made an appointment to speak to someone in the Fire Department’s Counseling Unit.
I visited the unit and spoke to one of the counselors there. He assured me that the dreams I had were typical of persons who have lost someone. Just speaking about this to someone helped because the dreams stopped as suddenly as they began. The only other professional help I received at this time was from a psychiatrist we happened to meet while we were leaving the site one day. She approached us, identified herself, and asked if any of us need to talk about anything. I availed myself of the opportunity and spoke to her briefly about some concerns I had about body removal. As in the case of speaking to the department counselor, this short conversation helped. The important thing is that I felt the need to speak to someone and did so when I had the chance.
Firefighter funerals began immediately after September 11. One of the first was that of Father Mychal Judge, one of the department’s Catholic chaplains. His death was an additional blow to the morale and spirit of firefighters.
A New York City firefighter makes every effort to attend the funeral of a fallen brother. Under these circumstances it would have been impossible to do so, and the effect on mind, body and spirit probably would have been permanent.
I attended a few of those people I knew. One was that of Terry Hatton. I was present at the site the night they found him. His dream persona proved true. I, a handful of guys from Engine 308, and a couple of volunteer firefighters formed an honor guard and rendered a salute as members of his own Rescue 1 carried him by. I attended his funeral at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral a few days later.
Another funeral was that of Terrance McShane, a member of our own Engine 308, and this was the most painful of all. A wake was held for him at Overlook Beach on the south shore of Long Island, where he had met his wife years before. I tried to speak to her there but it was as if a hand gripped my throat and I was unable to utter a sound. I knew that I would be unable to read a short eulogy that I had been asked to write at the funeral mass. One of my lieutenants read it for me. The most difficult task of all came after the mass on the front steps of the church when I presented McShane’s seven year old and four year old twin boys replicas of their father’s fire helmet. This symbolic act left me weak and shaken.
Ten years have passed since 9/11. Fire, police, military and other departments have benefited since then from “lessons learned” to prepare for, or hopefully ward off another such tragedy. First responders may also prepare themselves with lessons learned for any traumatic incident not necessarily on the scope of 9/11.
Departments need to educate their members on the effects of PTSD. First responders should be aware of the symptoms and know that they can come on immediately after an event. Recognizing the symptoms for what they are at their onset may help stave off some of the effects. First responders should not be afraid to turn to someone else for support. Speaking to a professional counselor, a family member, a loved one, or even a brother or sister first responder can help. The simple act of just talking to someone about what you are feeling can free some of the demons.
Departments must be aware of its members’ need to be part of what is happening following a major event such as 9/11. Holding individuals back and keeping them from contributing to the greater effort can have negative a negative effect on them. Also, individuals should not push themselves beyond their physical or mental limits in these traumatic situations but learn to rely on others in a team effort.
We now hear that September 11, 2001 is in the past and we should move on from it. For many this is easier said than done. There has not been a day in the last ten years that I have not thought back to some aspect of it. I do not wake up in the morning obsessing about it, but some reference, image, or memory always brings it back. I imagine it is considerably worse for those who were closer to the epicenter of the disaster as it was unfolding.
The New York City Fire Department recovered and rebuilt during the last decade. Much of the success of its recovery is due to the resiliency, strength, and élan of the men and women who serve in its ranks. The words of a sign that appeared immediately after 9/11 says it best, “FDNY – Still the greatest job on earth.”
About the Author: William Groneman III served twenty-five years on the FDNY. He was Captain of Engine Company 308 on September 11, 2001. His book recounting the event is: September 11: A Memoir. It is available through Goldminds Publishing, LLC, or as an Amazon Kindle, or Barnes & Noble Nook book.
 This number includes New York City firemen, fire officers, and civilian employees who died in combat, in accidents, or from illness while on active duty with the United States military in World Wars I and II —eight in World War I and thirty-six in World War II.
 Steve Ritea and Jenny Holland, editors, FDNY 2001-2011: A Decade of Remembrance and Resilience, (Evansville, IN: M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 2011), 54; Michael L. Boucher, Gary Urbanowicz, and Frederick B. Melahn, Jr., The Last Alarm – The History and Tradition of Supreme Sacrifice in the Fire Departments of New York City, (Evansville, IN: M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 2006), 286.