Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

    September 11, 2001
    World Trade Center
    New York, New York

Los Angeles Firefighter
Official Publication of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112, IAFF, AFL-CIO-CLC

  Page 6  

July/August 2001  


Heroes ALL
(September 17, 2001)

Editor's note:
    FDNY Firefighter Mark Bennett is assigned to Engine 55 in New York City.  We have been sharing correspondence for a couple months now and he has kept a daily journal of the activities at the World Trade Center "Ground Zero" site.  The following is taken form Chapter 13 in his journal and is titled: Heroes ALL (September 17, 2001) I believe you will join me in acknowledging the incredible writing of Brother Bennett.  He can turn a word as well as any professional journalist....Jim Perry

by Mark Bennett
Squad 55, FDNY

FDNY Firefighter Mark Bennett, left backs up his brother firefighters on "The Pile".

    The two towers were home to a hundred or more international businesses, and served as pillars of the business world.  The buildings were modern marvels, wired with the latest electronic technology, allowing tenants to conduct business instantly, with clients around the world.  Now, working through the rubble, it seems odd to find no computers, no fax machines, no office furniture, few indications that this was the workplace for tens of thousands of business professionals.

    Where Building #4 once stood, steel beams have pancaked one atop the other, compressing what had once been 10 foot tall room spaces into voids barely large enough through which to pass my hand.  The lower we inspect the damage, the tighter these voids become.

    Tonight the combination of smoke and lights creates strange patterns in the sky as heavily backlit remnants of steel facade cast bizarre shadows on surrounding high rises.  The steady hum of diesels is accented by the moaning of shifting steel.  It seems as if the debris actually speaks.

    The pile itself is unsystematic.  At Church and Liberty the mountain of debris stands some five stories.  Then, as it moves east toward the Hudson, it becomes a valley several stores deep.  Even through contractors have already carted away a week's worth of debris, the bulk of the devastation remains.  Progress is slow, but the search and recovery effort continues in earnest.

    There are no strangers on the site. Everyone immediately talks to each other as if they've known one another all of their lives.  No one complains -- except about the waiting -- and the New York locals are extremely thankful.

    "It's hard to believe, isn't it?" one firefighter remarks, as he joins us at the edge of the pile.  Using phrases like "hard to believe" is the common greeting here at Ground Zero, like saying hello.  "heard any new scoop?" he adds.

San Francisco Fire Dept.
    I pull up my goggles and quickly notice that he's new to the pile - his work shirt crisp and clean.  Over his left breast the Maltese cross, the classic firefighter's badge, frames a red number 4.  His worn, black leather helmet is familiar but it's accented in odd red and white hand painted triangles.  As he turns to address me, the frontpiece revels that he's from Ladder-4, SAN FRANCISCO.  He anticipates my question.

    "We're not here officially" the seasoned truckie is quick to report.  "We're here to help out in any way that we're needed!"  He adds that a dozen other SFFD members are working here at Ground Zero, even more are helping to staff Manhattan fire stations.

    3,000 miles from their first alarm district, 25 San Francisco firefighters have joined thousands of other career and volunteer firefighters, who are working this country's largest mutual aid assignment.  Even though San Franciscans have underwritten this mission of mercy with cash donations, the volunteers from the SFFD have opted to shoulder their own travel expenses, turning over all contribution to New York's Uniformed Firefighters Association.

    "It's peer support," says John Darmanin, who serves as Director of San Francisco's Firefighter's Union, IAFF Local 798.  "It is nearly impossible for FDNY members to seek emotional support from their coworkers for fear of placing a further burden on one another."

    San Francisco isn't the only distant fire department to answer the call here in downtown Manhattan.  There are responders here from every major emergency agency.

Los Angeles Fire Dept.
Not long after the attacks, a team of twenty six Los Angeles City firefighters arrived here in New York in a mission organized by Paul Sebourn, a veteran LA City fire captain who lives in San Juan Capistrano.

    "We're here to pay back a debt to the FDNY members", Sebourn tells press, referring to the cross country response of so many New York firefighters during the King riots and Northridge Earthquake.  Leading that FDNY team was Ray Downey, the head of FDNY's Special Operations Unit, who is still mission in this hell.

   Last night, chaplains gather uptown at 54 Engine and 4 Truck, and we were surprised to see yellow bunker gear hanging from the door of an FDNY Seagrave.  Even more unusual was the magnetic Los Angeles CITY Fire Department logo, which was positioned neatly just below the FDNY crest.  Who could ever have imagined that six firefighters from West Hollywood would become the first-in crew for New York's famed Broadway district.

    I'm told that some 100 Los Angeles firefighters have taken vacation and personal time, paying their own way to make the trip here to Manhattan.  Their actions are indicative of a brotherly calling in a profession always on the run.

Chicago Fire Dept.
Within 72 hours of the collapse, about 50 Chicago area firefighters drove here to New York to help in the recovery and cleanup.  Like LA and San Francisco, the mutual aid request is unofficial, but still welcomed by New York's bravest.

    "We've offered to sit in their firehouse, do anything for them." says Roy Hervas, 42, a volunteer firefighter with the Schaumburg (IL) Fire Department.  "We came here to bring them water and towels, whatever they need us to do."

Code3 -- Off Duty
    On their way to New York, the group from ChiTown was stopped doing 108 mph along the Indiana Turnpike.  To the trooper's surprise, ten vehicles pulled to the side of the road, as the lead driver showed ID and explained the importance of their mission.  "Keep it at 90" the patrolman instructed the driver, then he provided the convoy a speedy escort to the Ohio state line.  The Windy City contingent didn't know it at the time, but when they'd finally arrived, they too would be called onto the frontlines, pulling 12-hour shifts sifting through the debris atop the pile.

"Little America"
    The unofficial Chicago Fire Department camp is set up on Chambers Street, a few blocks from Ground Zero.  This ragtag team has dubbed their home away form home "Little America", an out of the way place where they can nap on cots of plastic tarpaulins, and in sleeping bags on the sidewalk.  Still the noise is deafening, as firefighters test power saws and cranes creak in the rubble.

    "We came here to help find our brothers."  Hervas adds.  "And we're missing quite a few."

Collier County Fire Dept.
Kelly West is a 30-year-old career paramedic, who has traveled to Ground Zero from her hone in Collier County, Florida.  She's working on a bucket brigade with her firefighter husband Jonathan, along with other friends from the Sunshine State.  She made the 22 hour trip to New York because she considers FDNY a part of her family.

   Even though they're newcomers to the pile, Kelly and her colleagues know that they are welcomed here.  "The (New York) fire fighters can't say hi or anything with their masks on," she says.  "They just give you this look and you know they appreciate the help."

A Special Breed
    Firefighters boast a tie that is stronger than any church group or fraternal organization that I've ever encountered.  They live and die by this bond, and their mutual respect for one another seems to have rubbed off on other workers here at Ground Zero.  ADD to my revised hero list the ironworkers and other union trades, sanitation employees, mass transit personnel and the reverend clergy.

The Clergy
"I feel much more useful when I'm working out on the pile." comes a new voice to our group of visiting firefighters.  The gentleman's black shirt and white collar are oddly highlighted by worn blue jeans, goggles, respirator and an NYPD hard hat.  Not normal attire for a Roman Catholic priest.

    "Hi, I'm Father Ed Malloy."  he says as his gloved palm reaches out to greet each of us.  "Sure hard to believe, isn't it?"  Hello to you too, father.  Father Ed tells us that he's been mixing with the crowds of emergency workers here on the ramp of 10&10, meeting and greeting as many workers as he can.

    "What parish you from, padre?"  I inquire, like I'm familiar with every Diocese in the United States.

    :"Notre Dame" he answers.  "Ahh...I'm president of Notre Dane University."  The Indiana Jesuit is here making the rounds, tending to the flock, just like hundreds of other chaplains form dozens of faiths.  I notice the small, bookmarked Missal poking form Ed's back pocket.

    "It takes fantastic moral strength to work here," he says as he takes a long swig from the Gatorade bottle.  Father Ed believes that the determination of the rescue workers is their most admirable strength.

    The banter is interrupted by a squawk form the two way, and an FDNY Battalion Chief motions for Father Ed to come onto the pile.  I tag along with the college president turned rescue worker, staying close to his side like some self-appointed alter boy.  Engine 55's crew has just discovered the remains of a woman, and have asked for a member of the clergy before she's moved away to the morgue.

    I stand quietly a few yards away, as Father Ed pulls the dusty missal from his pocket to read a short prayer.  Then turning to 55's crew he prays, "May the blessing of God Almighty rest and abide upon you and may this sign of the cross be your peace and safety.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

    I join him in the sign of the cross, clasp my hands to the front and bow my head.  Normally, we would have already removed our helmets in respect for the deceased, but the Battalion reminds us, "Keep your lids gents, OSHA may be watching!"

The Red Cart
From the corner of my eye, I watch as second crew uncovers the remains of another victim.  From where I'm standing it appears that they've discovered a large part - perhaps a torso.  Ever so gently, the firefighters situate it in the black body bag and lift it to a waiting stokes basket.  Led by the Battalion Chief, six helmeted FDNY members slowly carry the stretcher to the hard surfaced roadway.  Like so many others who have been found, this person passed will make the final trip aboard a red 4x4 cart and transported to one of the temporary morgues.  God, do we hate seeing that red cart.

    Even though the FDNY has suffered such an incredible loss, their strength as a cohesive, working team remains rock solid.  there is no question as to who's running this show.  It is undoubtedly the FDNY.

    Discipline pays off in this strange world.  There is no time for individuals to bicker about who is in charge;  no time to complain or criticize.  Fire-rescue's para-military command structure functions best during crisis like these.  Things get done, even if it isn't always the most efficient way.

    I leave Father Ed to his spiritual duties and come off the pile to rejoin the group  I pause by the command post in front of Ten House, hoping that some of FDNY's experience will rub off on me.  The scene is directly form "Saving Private Ryan".  Battalion commanders calmly give instructions to company level officers, who then move out into the swarm of firefighters to pass along orders to their own crews.  Aides are busy on cell phones and two way radios coordinating with other sector commanders.  Everyone seems to consult the huge map table, with its layers of acetate overlays.

A Family Tradition
Here in New York, firefighting is often regarded as a family tradition - a calling that is handed down from one generation to the next.  Many firefighting families can trace their roots to the beginning of the "paid" department in the late 1800's.

    I listen as one father and son team trade jibes - the discussion being who's in and who's out.  The younger firefighters jokes with the old man, "You're already retired Dad, you work on a Truck Company."  Everyone who hears the answer laughs openly.  It's the first laughter I've heard in days.

    I ask a lone firefighter if anyone in his company is lost.  "We've lucked out', he responds, "but my brother, a cop, is still missing."  His eyes water as he answers, and all I can manage to do is touch his shoulder like I understand.

    Many New York firefighters that I've spoken to feel that they're alive because of fate.  Some say that they were late for work on the 11th, or their truck got caught in traffic.  Others were on vacation, or it was their day off.  So even after they've worked their shift in the "pit", they refuse to leave.

    Instead of taking a well-deserved rest, most simply stay behind, standing here at the edge of Hell, waiting for their buddies to be brought home.  Even though their bodies and souls are tired, that's what they do -- watch and wait.   

Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved.