Stories From Fire Engine 16

234 e 29 st, new york, NY 10016

Neighborhood: Murray Hill

Interviews and introduction by EDWARD HELMORE

Fire Department of New York Firehouse 16-7.
234 East 29th Street, Manhattan.
September 11, 2001.

On the riding list of Engine 16 were Lieutenant Mickey Kross and firefighters Tim Marmion, Paul Lee, Pete Fallucca, and trainee firefighter Sean Brown.

On the riding list of Tower Ladder 7: Lt. Vernon Richard, firefighters George Cain, Vincent Princiotta, Robert Foti, Richard Muldowney, and Chuck Mendez.

The firefighters of Ladder 7 were lost in the desolation of twisted steel and dust of tower two — the south tower — and the first to collapse. The crew of Engine 16 were directed into the tower one – the north tower, and the second to collapse. Of the few tales of mercy to have emerged from that day, the story of Lt. Kross and Engine 16 stands out. Firefighters Marmion, Lee, Fallucca, and Brown got out of the tower with seconds to spare. Lt. Kross, at 54 a veteran of 24 years service to the FDNY, was in a stairwell on the 4th floor when the tower pancaked down.
These are their stories:

Pete Falluca

I remember hearing a plane come overhead real low. I said that sounds low for Manhattan. Two seconds later it comes over the scanner, a plane just hit the World Trade Center. Lieutenant Kross comes in, he says `did you hear that?’ Within five minutes we were on our way there. Initially we just thought it was a plane crash.

I had Sean Brown sitting across from me. He’s just out of the academy, he’s on a 14 week program with us. This was the first job he’d ever been on. He’s all excited cause it’s his first legitimate fire. Do some real work. I told him, this is going to be messy. We could see the black smoke pouring out of the tower and hole that had to be 100 feet by 100 feet. I knew it was gone be bad but never knew it was gonna be that bad. And I never thought the other tower was gonna get hit. I didn’t think terrorist attack, I just thought plane crash. It was odd because it such a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky.

As we got closer the second plane hit. We were just trying to get through the streets. They were packed, like New Year’s Eve on Times Square. We were about a block away when it hit but I couldn’t see cause I was on the opposite side of the rig. Paul Lee and Tim Marmion could see and they cringed down like holy shit. When we got out we saw another gaping hole. The first thing we see a cop tells us he saw a rocket hit it that came off the Woolworth building. At that point I realise it’s a terrorist attack. I’m saying, oh my god. How we gonna fight this fire when they’re shooting at us?

I was concerned. In a fire your adrenaline’s rushing, but this is I knew was a attack and we had our work cut out for us. I wasn’t thinking collapse, I was thinking another bomb or something. Even the chiefs, the deputy commissioner, all the top brass of the department, the brains of the whole operation, had no clue. We were concerned with falling glass. There were jumpers. The first thing I see looking up for glass is somebody jumping out. I can see him now, dressed in a business suit with his tie waving behind him like a cape. That sticks out in my mind. This guy spreadeagled, just free falling. I’d seen suicides but I’d always been there after the fact. I’d never seen people flying and hitting the ground. It was difficult to get into the building. It was very possible something coulda landed on us. Stuff was falling all around us. I mean, I know one firefighter got killed from someone landing on him. There was glass, people, anything. All kinds of stuff flying.

So we got into the lobby and there was glass and marble everywhere. It looked like a bomb had gone off. I think all the elevators had crashed down and blown the doors out. So started going up, took a break on 12th floor and got up to the 22nd. There were these guys in suits, I don’t know who they were. Security for the building or something. They said there was another plane headed this way. So they start getting out of there. We were up there five minutes when the whole place started shaking. I thought we’d got hit with another plane. The lights went out. People were starting to run down now. I heard over the radio, mayday, mayday, everybody out of the building. I’d got separated from Lieutenant Kross but I had Sean Brown with me. So we go down four floors and were calling Lieutenant Kross but there’s so much radio traffic he can’t hear him.

So I run into another lieutenant from 65 Engine who says Lieutenant Kross is on his way down. I says, you sure? he says yes. So we get down to the lobby and I still don’t see him. I don’t wanna leave him ’cause i’m worried he doesn’t know where I am and he may be looking for me. I don’t want him to be left behind cause he’s looking for me. So I’m waiting and waiting in the lobby. Timmy Marmion came down helping carrying a woman. So I says to Sean, let’s follow Timmy cause he’s the senior man in the engine.

When we first got out I looked to my left I’d seen the building’s gone. I said, oh my god I can’t believe they got it down We get about a block away and I start opening up my jacket, taking off my airtank, figuring that nothings gonna fall on my head at this point. Then the second building started pancaking down. It collapsed before my eyes. I took off running and got caught in that black cloud of soot and ash. I felt the push of the cloud, the pressure, but it didn’t knock me down.

After we got out, we wanted to get back in there, but they wouldn’t less us back in. They had plenty of fresh guys coming in from all the different boroughs. I went up to the hospital to get checked out, my eyes were all irritated and I had a burning in my chest. Then I came back to the station. All the wives were calling up. Have you heard from Bobby? Have you heard from Vinny? I didn’t know that the guys from the ladder were even missing until I got back here. I was hoping for the best but there were so many different rumours. Normally we’d respond together and we’d go into the same building. But they were already out on a run and they got sent to the second building, while we got sent to the first.

Either you walked away from it or you didn’t. People were looking for miracles in this whole thing. Lieutenant Kross is one of them, the people who were inside the collapse and got out of there. They made TV program showing the rubble inside the shell of the building. You can’t make anything out. The only thing intact was this section of staircase that they were on. Probably about a dozen guys were on it, and they walked away from it with just scratches. It’s amazing. How could you possibly be in that building and survive. He was in the right place at the right time. Luck? God? A little bit of everything I suppose.

I became a fireman at 30. Before that I was doing home improvements. I always wanted to be a fireman. It’s a good job and it helps me provide for my family. It’s not great paying but it comes with benefits. It’s a rewarding job, a respected job. You tell people you’re fireman and they’re like really. You tell people you do roofing and they’re like, alright. It’s always been a job to be proud of, but even more now. People realise what goes on, they saw it first hand. The numbers say it all. Some people had the attitude, oh you just sit round the firehouse, you don’t do nothing. There are times we’re sitting around but when we go to work our life is on the line.

After the bomb in `93 I’d always looked at them and thought, they actually tied to knock `em down! Could you imagine what would happen. In my mind, I’d pictured them coming down like a tree. I didn’t know all this stuff about implosion. I envisioned them taking out half of lower Manhattan like dominos. Course I never thought of plane crashing into them.

Three days after it I was like an emotional wreck. I was shattered. I would cry at the drop of hat. I think it was worse watching it on TV ’cause you feel helpless. I came back to work three or four days after. That was the best therapy, being back with guys. Getting down there, getting the chance to dig a little bit. I feel like I should need counselling, but I feel like I don’t. I feel fine. I don’t know how I’ll be down the line but I feel like I’m accepting and dealing with it.

Now we’re like celebrities. Everytime we go out on the run, as we’re turning the corner, a bunch of people will start applauding us. About a week after this happened we had a car fire. To us it’s something routine, like putting out a trash can, no big deal. Everybody starts whistling and cheering. The public support has been overwhelming. I’m married with two kids but it’s a good time to be a single firefighter. I’m a window shopper but there’s a couple of guys in here who’ve been doing very well for themselves.

But it’s hard being in a station were we lost so many guys. I was talking to everyone of those guys that morning, drinking coffee, discussing what we were gonna have for lunch. They get a run and it’s like ok, see you guys later. Then that’s it, they’re gone. You can accept it when it’s an older person but this when it just like that, done, so final, one minute to the next, it’s over. These guys were just like me, married with kids, it coulda been me. We’re always swapping tours with guys on the ladder. It could very easily been me if i’d wasted another minute looking for the lieutenant, not heard the radio transmission to get out, stood under the building instead of walking a block away…

Tim Marmion, aged 40:

One of the guys heard the plane fly over, I didn’t hear it. Pete Fallucca told me that was standing out front, he saw this jet fly down south here at a very low altitude and he thought that was very unusual you know. The first thing we heard on it was that explosion at the World Trade Center at about quarter to nine that morning, that was the first report they had was that it was some sort of explosion from the dispatcher. And then they called alarms, they came pretty rapidly at that point, first alarm, second alarm, third alarm you know within minutes. We went on the third alarm.

The one plane had hit it at that point, and you know it was just this big slash in the side of the building with a tremendous amount of smoke and fire flowing out of it. From where I was I could see the building and I could see little white specks on the side of the building, and I knew what those little white specks were, those were people hanging out the window, jumping. And not at this particular job but at jobs before I had seen people jump out of windows, and that was probably the most horrible thing I have ever seen is somebody jump out a window. As a rescuer you feel helpless, as a fireman you feel you know it must be an outrageous condition up there for somebody at this particular place to jump 100 stories rather than deal with what was going on inside. So that kinda gives you a feeling of how it must be in there you know. It’s a helpless feeling though. And what I said to the guys on the back step at that point was, whatever we do, stay together, whatever happens up there stay together, don’t go off. We realized we were gonna have to climb fifty, seventy stories, you know these types of jobs I knew there wouldn’t be an elevator, and that was probably the first thing that crossed my mind was how am I gonna make it up there. I had three younger guys with me, one guy had three years on, three or four yours, another guy had maybe a couple years on, and one guy just had a couple months on.

TM: As we arrived, we went to make a turn down I believe it was Liberty, and we couldn’t make the turn, the streets were full of people, incredible confusion going on at that point, people trying to get away from the tower, move around, some people trying to watch what was going on. It was thousands of people on the sidewalks, and then we try to make a turn, and we couldn’t make it so we hop off and try to back the rig up, because all these people. As I hop off a guy from my parish who knows me, I coach his son in baseball, hops out of the crowd and shakes my hand and says, is it a plane? I says, that’s what we’re hearing, it’s a plane. And I says you know you better get out of here, it’s getting pretty hairy, you know. He moved away, we backed up the rig. As we got back on to the rig, we start to pull away, the second plane hits.

I didn’t see it was a plane. All I could see was this giant explosion, feel this giant explosion and this giant fireball, and we looked up and go what the hell was that? We thought it was an explosion, we couldn’t believe it was another airplane. As we pulled ‘round the corner, we stopped the rig, and a cop walked over to us and said, `I saw them shoot a missile launcher off that building, you guys better be careful up there.’ He thought it was a missile launcher, he saw it out of the corner of his eye, you know he probably saw you know the smoke line of the jet engine and maybe just assumed. He said you know be careful, watch yourselves in there, he thought that they might shoot again at it.

At that point Mickey came around the rig and he wanted to talk to the guys for a second and group us together and you know and he said just you know be careful up there, you know again, saying stay together, don’t do anything stupid, you know do what we can here you know. And then we proceeded around the corner into the lobby, where the command center was. And when we got there, the first thing that occurred to me was that we went on to a third alarm and there wasn’t one fireman in the lobby. Now to me to a fireman that’s weird because anytime you go to a multiple alarm fire, there’s a hundred firemen there, apparently everybody was just going right up, there wasn’t enough firemen there to satisfy whatever needed to be done. See you’re dealing with a hundred stories, so I mean eventually I think we had four or five hundred firemen in those buildings at one time, probably closer to five hundred, of which 343 didn’t make it out.

Part of this problem in accountability and trying to find out where our company Ladder 7 is in that rubble is that our command center got wiped out when the second tower collapsed. It killed all our head chiefs that were running the job. And they had this board, like this big, it’s a foldout board that they’ve been using for a hundred years it seems, and they offered to use other things but it’s apparently, being portable and being able to move it around, it works better for us apparently. That thing got wiped out and the chiefs who knew where the companies were got wiped out, so it’s been a kind of guessing game ever since then, where people were, how many people were in the building you know. Plus there were a lot of off duty guys in the building, guys who came in that were unaccounted for until after, you know they’re missing so obviously they must be in the rubble somewhere.

So we started up the stairs. We’d go up six stories and then we’d rest, our third rest was gonna be on the 22nd floor, we get up to the 22nd floor, our lieutenants had heard that there was some sort of command center on that floor and they wanted to go see what was going on and what we were gonna do when we got up a little higher or if they even had a destination for us. But we were told in the lobby, get up as high as you can. So I guess they were gonna play it by ear and see what happened you know as we got up, as things progressed. At that time the two officers went away to try to talk to somebody at the command station where at the end of the hall there was a partial collapse that came out of the elevator shaft, so they had to climb through some rubble to get to where that command center was.

At that point our building started to shake like an earthquake, just like shook, you wouldn’t believe being in a building this size that it could shake literally this much. The lights went out, and the shaking stopped. During the shaking, which lasted it could’ve been 15 to 30 seconds, which is a pretty long time. We weren’t sure if we had been hit by another plane, they also told us on the way in that there was a third and fourth plane on the way. On the way up the personnel from the Port Authority who run the building, they told us that if you get up to the floor, you should be careful if you breach a window, if you break a window, the vacuum from being up so high could suck you right out of the building, you know.

So those were several things that we were thinking about, you know, things that you know scare you but things that I guess it’s better of that you know than not know. So after the building shook and the lights went out, we thought again we might’ve been hit with another plane, a bomb had exploded, or the building we were in was coming down. What it turned out was that the other building was coming down, and that’s what we felt. But being in the inner core of the building and people had asked me did you know that the other building came down, I don’t remember if I knew. I know I couldn’t see it and most people couldn’t, ‘cause you were in the inner core of the building, and it’s a huge building, you know, you guys know how big that building is, so you could be in that building and never see a window or light of day for a month you know. And so for us to actually see it, I don’t know, I don’t remember knowing that it happened. After a little confusion about whether we should go up or go down, we decided to go down. A lieutenant from Engine 1 decided, OK, we’ll go down.

We heard over a handy talky to evacuate, but we weren’t sure if they were talking about us or talking about the civilians. If they were talking about the civilians, civilians are leaving already … civilians know to get out. So they’re not talking about the civilians, they’re talking about us if they’re saying evacuate. They also gave ‘em a red phone. Our communications with our radios don’t work very well in a building of that size. So they gave ‘em a red phone and you can plug it in and kinda have like a hard line down to the lobby where you can speak to the command center. He did that and they told him to evacuate, to get out of the building. So we started down. We started down from 22, it was orderly evacuation, the civilians were at ease, that’s why I believe there weren’t too many people that knew that the other building came down, or if they knew, they must’ve been at ease because we were there.

On the way down there was a woman, a black woman that you probably saw on TV, and she was with somebody, and the man said, I guess he’s from Port Authority, he said that he would take care of it, he would bring her down, but she was going very slowly. I went down a couple more floors and they brought a woman out on a frame that somebody could sit on who couldn’t walk. It’s like a stretcher kinda thing but something that’s good to carry downstairs, like if you had four people you’d carry it down very easily, it’s a beautiful design. I relieved one of the civilian guys that worked with her in their office, and I brought it down, and another fireman took another side, he helped, and so we ended up bringing her down and out of the building.

I had made sure before I started down that the three guys that were with me, ‘cause Lieutenant Kross had gotten separated when he’d gone upstairs to talk to the chief who’d told him to come down, you know take up the rear, make sure everybody’s out. So at that point I made sure that the three other guys that were with me had already started down, I was sure they were in front of me. So when I got down there were two of them waiting for me, and they saw me with the woman. I said just come with me, we got it, we’ll carry her over to an ambulance, and you guys just stay with me and this way we don’t lose anybody else, you know we’ll catch up, and we’ll round up with the rest of the guys later.

So we walked out and around they had those, you know they had those concrete partition things that they had surrounding the buildings because of the last thing that happened. So we had to walk around that and I got to an ambulance that was out there, the closest ambulance to put this woman in there so she could be taken away. I would say we were vertical with the building, certainly in the shadow of the World Trade Center. We put her in there, ambulance driver was adamant, come on let’s go I gotta get out of here, I gotta get out of here, I gotta get out of here. So OK just let us put her in there. At that point we started to walk away, and we got maybe half a block, just you know a hundred feet or so, and I had seen a friend of mine who was a cop, who is a cop, and he looked a little frazzled, so I said, Tommy, how ya’ doin? He goes, `Shit, I almost got fucking killed just now, that building came down.’ He was talking about the first tower that came down, he was in that area.

As we’re shaking hands we look up and the other building starts to come down, so before I could even turn around, he was running, I was running, you know everybody was just … you had to be three blocks away or else you’d be sucked under by this thing you know. So we start running. It was like what you see in a movie theater, a big black cloud chasing you, and as you look over your shoulder it’s gaining on you. As it hit the ground I could feel the heat from the building. I didn’t know in this black cloud whether there was gonna be a fireball that was popping out. I was just running, I had this stuff on, I had to run as fast as I could. I didn’t have my mask with me, I’d dropped my mask down. So I was just running down the street and this thing was gaining on me and as I got to a building I dove into the building as the cloud overtook where I was. You didn’t know what was in that cloud, you didn’t know if there was a rock propelled at such a speed it could go through your helmet and then through your head. I didn’t even have my helmet on I don’t think. It was deafening. Actually my son’s mother said it was amazing how it didn’t make a sound, you know, and it did make a sound, it made a tremendous sound, it made a sound like you’ll never hear again, I’ll never hear again, I don’t even… it was awesome to hear what was going on. I guess people that have been in wars only have experienced a similar thing… I don’t know how honestly to describe it.

I’m not sure if the ambulance ever got out of there, I never asked, I don’t think I wanna know because I’m not sure if he was ready to leave. He didn’t have much time after we put that woman in, to make the move out of there.

After it came down we were all scattered. One guy had stayed with me, so I had to go find these other guys, so I did get the next guy, then it was three of us. I started asking around you know did you see so-and-so, and eventually we caught up with Paul Lee, who was at the other end, he was down by an ambulance maybe a block or two from where we ended up, and we got him together and the three of us, and then I got the chauffeur — the guy that drives the rig — he ended up finding us, he caught up with us. I had all the guys except for Mickey. There was another command post that was on the other side of the buildings, the other side of the tower, and I thought that he was probably over there. At that point the chiefs were adamant, the chiefs that were left, that we stay together. I asked can we go back into the pile to find out, you know, not even back into the pile at that point just to check out the perimeter, and look for people that are hurt or injured. And he said no, we want you to stay here, we’re gonna get teams together.

At that point you don’t wanna be part of the problem, you know, you don’t wanna be somebody that goes there and you don’t know if there’s another bomb there, you don’t know if another building’s gonna collapse. As much as you wanna go back into that pile, you can’t because it’s really not the right thing to do you know, you could risk your life and other people’s lives looking for you, you know. If I had known how long it would take us to get back into the pile and do a search, maybe I would’ve, but I guess everything worked out for, I don’t think there were any injuries, so it would’ve been fruitless anyway.

We waited down there, did what we could, I walked around the perimeter to see if I could find Mickey, to see if I could find out what happened to Ladder 7. I heard their rig was on the other side of the building and you know I figured that they were in this other area, I was told that maybe they were in that first building that collapsed, I wasn’t sure. There was literally thousands of firemen down there by the time, by mid-afternoon you know, and so we walked around looking for whoever, and we didn’t really find, but we had heard, not that I saw him but we heard Mickey was all right, he had gotten out and people had definitely seen him. We just couldn’t find him so we just came back. We just stopped somebody in a van and had them drive us back to the firehouse.

We got back at about eight o’clock. We’d been at that site for eleven hours When we got back, women were outside, girlfriends, wives. I wasn’t 100% sure who was who but I realized that they were probably these guys’ wives and girlfriends that were missing. When we pulled up, the guys say us get out and they all rushed to the front door and they wanted me to tell them what happened, and I couldn’t, I just walked right into the back of the firehouse, I didn’t wanna talk, I especially didn’t wanna talk in front of those women. I had nothing good to say, I couldn’t tell them anything they wanted to hear, that’s for sure. And then I talked to them in the back a little bit, but, you know, the women were around and I couldn’t talk to them at that point, it was still a little too emotional for me.

[Since then] we’ve kept ourselves busy around here with everything going on. Right from the first day people started dropping off flowers, food, whatever was asked them, after a certain time people were asked to bring certain things, they came in truckloads, people spending their own money, going to whatever store was needed to go to and get things that were requested of them and they just started bringing stuff like you wouldn’t believe. And it’s been that way for a month, hundreds of people coming to firehouse each day and drop off a check, you know a secretary that makes 25 or 30,000 dollars a year and has a $1500 rent to come up with, so she can barely afford to live there and she’ll walk over and hand you a $100 check and you know that $100, that’s something to her you know she’s not gonna pay the light bill that month you know. I mean it’s that kind of generous outpouring. A lot of women that come by to drop off flowers, they’ll just burst into tears and throw their arms around you because they feel for your pain, they see the faces of the men that we lost, they realize there’s families involved, they realize we’re hurting, we’re hurting a lot, we might put up a certain façade, but…

For the first week or so we were working every other day, 24 hours on, 24 hours off, so you went home you were exhausted, you were mentally and physically exhausted, because you’re dealing with this all day, and then you go home and try to relax. I remember I would sleep all day. I’d get up for a few hours and eat and then I go to sleep all night and then I go back to it again. The people in the community have been unbelievable, people from Florida. One guy’s friends were down here, they live in Cape Cod which is quite a ways from here, they were down here that night, they came, the fireman, one of their friends was missing, they were down here that night, it’s gotta be four or five hours to Cape Cod. They were down here by eleven o’clock that night. So they went down there, they came back at four or five o’clock in the morning, they said well they only let us do a little, they had a lot of people down there, you know and it was just unbelievable to see these guys and they’d stay for days and they’d go down there trying to get in there, trying to help. And guys came up from Florida, dropped off huge checks that they’d collected standing in intersections with their boots, collecting money, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, dropping off checks to us, for the UFA, for widows and children. You get this stuff coming from all over the nation, all over the area, our community has been nothing but great. Restaurants sent us food every night, making sure he eat dinner, making sure we had lunch, and so we don’t have to cook things, you know we’re dealing with a lot of things here.

I live on Staten Island, I heard they lost 87 of the firemen that were lost. Staten Island was 87 out of 343. It’s too much to handle because a lot of those people from the World Trade Center lived in Staten Island. They take the ferry across every day and they walk to work. And every day in the Staten Island Advance there’s 20 pictures of people every day, 20 new people in there that they put it out just to have their pictures in there. They put their spread in the middle of the paper with as many people as they can fit you know. And you realize that there’s a funeral every day, there’s five funerals every day, every funeral parlor on Staten Island has something going on you know. This past Saturday we had 24 line-of-duty funerals. The Saturday before we had 16, and that’s not to mention all of them during the week.

We don’t do our job thinking we’re gonna die. I don’t think you could do your job thinking you’re gonna die. You know, I guess I look at things a little differently now. I think I’ve opened up with my feelings a little more, I think you have to, if you keep it inside you’ve got some problems you know. My twelve-year-old son is very important to me, he always was, before and after, and maybe he’s a little more now but maybe not because I can’t imagine I could love him more than I loved him before this happened. I think he feels a little closer with me and realizes what I went through, and you know he’s a great kid.

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