More Stories From Engine 16

234 e 29 st, new york, NY 10016

Neighborhood: Murray Hill

Paul Lee

I came in about 8:30 that morning, changed into my uniform, and then a few minutes later they announced plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I was thinking to myself, is this real or is it just a fake or is it an accident, whatever it was. Just a few minutes later it was on the news already, and it came in on our tone alarm as the second alarm, of a plane into the WTC. A few minutes later they announced the third alarm and that’s when we got assigned to go. So I jumped on a rig, grabbed my gear, took on the rig, and we headed down. Initially I thought maybe it was, I mean I think it was real, even though it came over a voice alarm I knew it was real. I thought maybe it was a small plane, maybe the guy had a heart attack or something like that and just fell unconscious and just was in an accident. I had no idea that it was the scope of what it turned out to be. I think I heard a 1060, which is a major response.

On the FDR I was heading south, I could see that one of the towers was pushing black smoke and there was fire coming out on the upper floors. I said to myself, this is real, this is something real now, it’s not fake, but it didn’t look real to me, it was like surreal, it looked like something in a movie. It took maybe five or ten minutes for us to get down there. I was just trying to mentally prepare myself for what was there. So as soon as we got down there, I remember looking out the of window with my head out, up at the tower, and that’s when I saw a second plane coming into the second tower. We were directly underneath when the plane actually came in and hit it. There was a huge explosion and then a roll of flames and the debris sort of falling on us. Just matter, metal, concrete, things. It was just a different feeling, you know. I’ve been in plenty of fires but never a building under attack. So I had a really bad feeling from the beginning, but never did we actually think that these buildings were actually gonna collapse. So we kept on going, we went around the whole complex, made it around the buildings, got out and into the north tower. We reported to the command post and we paired up with Engine 1, another company.

So we went up. Every time we passed a person we would kind of make contact, going up, and they were looking at us, and obviously they know we’re going into a building they’re leaving, you know. You could see the terror in their eyes. They were scared, they were panicking, hurt, problems, had the look of disbelief, of the need for help, you know definitely. Most of them, men as well as women, they all had the look of fear and of just helplessness. It took a good 40, 45 minutes for us to make it to the 22nd floor, which is the highest we went. There we stopped for maybe ten minutes to catch our breaths you know and to get a little rest while the officer was trying to find the chief get our next orders, to see what we were to do next. So our initial job, probably our mission was to get up there and put out whatever fire we can. Our job is to save life and property, so life always comes first, so if there’s an imminent life danger we save life first, and then fight the fire second.

But at that point I personally, and probably the rest of the company, felt that we had to climb up to maybe like 80 floors, and then from there if you’re not exhausted already you have to start going to work, cause we knew we had multiple floors of fire, and that’s not something you can easily deal with. [Fighting a fire] is kind of like a high you get, you’re adrenaline’s going, you’re pumping, you know, and you just wanna race up there. When you actually see the fire it’s like a daredevil type of feeling, you know you can beat it ‘cause you got water. I know I can beat it because I got an engine, I got water in front of me. I got 220 gallons a minute in front of me, I know I can put it out. And it’s a good feeling, and once you hit the water, it immediately just drowns it out, most fires we knock down within five minutes of our arrival. There’s no question whether you’re gonna go in or not. Whether you want to or not is really irrelevant ‘cause you gotta do what you gotta do. If everybody thought that, oh they don’t wanna go in that building, and none of us would’ve went in that building and the story would’ve been different, you know what I’m saying. We wouldn’t have any casualties. But the reason that we do what we do is why things turn out the way they did.

In the time, about five ten minutes while we were up there, the lights went out, we heard reports coming over on our radios of a third inbound plane, the Pentagon had got hit, the State Department, and it’s now it was all mayhem in there. The lights are out and the building’s sort of shaking, and I heard rumbling, a low but high decibel rumble. I mean I know when a building that size shakes there’s something big’s going on, you know, it’s not a good feeling. I’ve been in fires but never a building that’s under attack you know. So I had a real bad feeling. I said this is not a place where you should be now, you know, we really should get out of here. Lieutenant Kross told us to stand fast until we got orders to evacuate, that took another five minutes, I would say about five minutes before we actually got the order to evacuate. I had left my helmet, my jacket and my air pack down the hallway, so I made my way back down the hallway, picked up my gear in the dark, and then we started heading right back down the stairs.

Again there were still civilians evacuating, so we took our time and kinda like just all just coordinate slowly down the stairs. We passed people who were bleeding, people who were burnt, people with asthma, a blind person, so we were assisting people coming down as we were making our way. It took I think about 30 minutes to make our way back down. So as soon as we hit the landing, I noticed the command post was gone already, and there were multiple deceased people strewn about the lobby. le strolling about the lobby, and then outside there was plenty of ‘em. And now I noticed the debris on the floor, I was like what’s this, there was like three, four, five inches of debris, I just didn’t know what it was, and papers all over the place, just like you know there was no street no more, you can’t even see the street.

So somebody said that the side had collapsed on the building so said oh my God. I turned around and looked and I didn’t even see the first tower anymore, so I walked about fifty feet away from the building, then I started to hear a big rumble. So I turned around, looked up and then I saw the building start to collapse. I saw the antenna shift and come down first, and then you could see it pancake. Each floor just billowed out with cloud dust, one floor at a time. So everybody just looked up, screamed and we all just turned around and started running. We ran up West St. At that point I was separated from my company, I didn’t know if they were behind me or in front of me. I saw a police vehicle coming to my left, I jumped onto that vehicle, we hung onto the side, me and another fireman. It took us up about three, four blocks, and the whole time I turned around, I was looking back and I see the dust cloud chasing us. It just got to us, we just barely made it out of the cloud dust. And at that point I got debris in my eye, it gave me a lacerated cornea. At that point everybody was walking around like zombies, didn’t know what was going on.

I was sent down to the hospital, I was there for a couple of hours, and then I came back here. Both companies were out, and I saw wives here and you know something’s wrong. I found out that the ladder company is still missing. I found out that my company, Engine 16, we were all accounted for. So from there it was just … all the members of the ladder were missing. I think there were 400 men that arrived initially, and the total missing and dead is 343, so you could figure if you do the math maybe 60 some odd people, firemen made it out I guess, on the initial assignment you know. And then all the other companies that came in afterwards, they were you know assigned to the buildings as well. And unfortunately whoever was in the south tower when it collapsed, ‘cause there was no warning. The only reason that my company made it out alive and anybody else that was with us, at the point that we were at, was because that first tower collapsed and then they told us to evacuate.

I’ve been to the counseling unit. They spoke to me, and they’ve followed up. I think I’m doing pretty well under the circumstances. I do meet some of the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, but I don’t think it’s out of hand. I can’t make all the memorials, obviously there’s so many every day, but I will make the ones for guys in this firehouse you know. It’s hard you know once you go home I can relax a little, when I come back to work it’s the same stress all over again of having to work and dealing with this thing on a constant basis. But it’s better now that we’re back on our group charts so we’re not hear constantly, like right after the incident we were ordered to be here 24 hours on, 24 off, 24 on, 24 off. That was pretty rough.

Now I’m a lot more uneasy and a lot more aware of what’s going on or why we’re they’re you know. But now I’m more hyper-vigilant of the fact that it could be a setup, a terrorist. But I don’t think most of us actually think of ourselves as heroes. We think of ourselves as a brotherhood doing a job that the city needs realistically, we don’t look for fame or you know. There’s a strong bond between firefighters. We spend a lot of time together here and we do things outside of the firehouse to keep ourselves bonded, ‘cause it is a brotherhood you know. At any given moment you could be in a situation where I might need you to save my life or vice versa. You know so all the joking that we do around here or whatever we do, all the horseplay, it just goes out the door when we go to a job you know it’s serious and we treat everybody with the same seriousness, regardless of whether you’re a john who just came in yesterday or you’ve been here 20 years, same thing.

Since Sept 11 New Yorkers have been phenomenal with their help, their support, the contributions, their donations, it’s like now you know kind of united New York as never before. I imagine that’s the way it is around the whole country now. But I do have anger towards those who are responsible ‘cause I lost a lot of close friends and coworkers. You don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future. I mean I think something might happen but you know we can’t live in fear of that. We have to go on with our lives, and if something’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen, all we can do is hope that the authorities can just do whatever they can do to avert something happening.

Well I was walking up and down West St. By then they had hundreds of vehicles out there and I was just trying to find my company. I know when we found out, when I found out that the first plane had hit the building, I called my wife and said wow keep an eye on the TV, a plane just crashed into the WTC, so we’ll probably go to this. I knew that she was watching, I knew that my mom was watching, my family was watching so they know I was going down to this thing, see these buildings collapse and I know that I have to get in touch with them. There was no phones around, nobody’s cell phones were working. So I finally found a pay phone seven blocks away that was actually working, so I tried and finally got through and said I’m alive, I’m alive. The whole day went by in a flash you know I guess because of your heightened awareness and the adrenaline.

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