NEW YORK—“All gave some, some gave all.’’
It’s a sign on a wall in a firehall that is part shrine: Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9.
No firehouse in the city was hit harder on 9/11 than this one in Midtown Manhattan. Fifteen fighters jumped on their trucks as alarms started blaring after a plane hit the World Trade Center.
None of them made it back.
An entire shift killed.
One of them, Chris Santora, had switched shifts with a colleague. He was the “new guy’’ in the house, just 23 and only a couple of months on the job. The man he was replacing that fateful day would recall years later: “I think about Chris all the time. I think about what his life would have been, what he should have accomplished by now. It’s a huge weight to carry around.’’
Mike Lynch wasn’t supposed to be working either, but was doing another other firefighter a solid. “You know, they call it fate, in God’s hands.” Joe Ceravolo, the firefighter whose shift Lynch had taken, would later observe. “I don’t know about it being in God’s hands. But the guilt that I should have been there, it was hard to face.”
Of course, off-duty firefighters and other first-responders from across all boroughs and beyond left their homes, dropped what they were doing, and raced to the scene to help.
Even though Engine 54 is a considerable distance from the World Trade Center, its firefighters were among the first to respond, first to arrive.
The crumpled remains of an Engine 54 truck would be found a year later, 20 metres below ground.
The old brick firehouse near Times Square is shrouded with testimonials to their 9/11 dead, each man’s face on a placard, alongside relics from the inferno, patches, patriotic signage, haunting artifacts. A psychologist was assigned to the station for several months afterward, to observe and monitor the survivors’ mental health. There are a handful remaining who were working that day, haven’t retired yet, haven’t become too ill — so many firefighters are still suffering, mentally and physically.
Shrouded in memories, all of them, although not all gutted still, because, at some point, the hurting has to stop for a person to endure, make a life. “Certain guys I was close to, you still hear them laughing in a crowd,” an Engine 54 firefighter told a TV station — and that was a decade ago. “You turn around and look.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, the New York Fire Department lost 343 of their own.
Among the dead was the beloved department chaplain, Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest who lived at a friary directly across the street from a Hell’s Kitchen firehall. Judge was killed as he knelt to give last rites to a dying firefighter, struck in the head by flying debris from the collapsing South Tower. He was officially designated “Victim 0001,” not because he was the first to die, but because his was the first body to be recovered and taken to the medical examiner. Judge’s biographer would recount that the priest, as he prayed over the injured and dying, kept repeating aloud: “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”
Also among the firefighters who perished was Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan, highest ranking fire official killed on 9/11, in the North Tower when it pancaked. The 71-year-old had insisted on helping to pull firefighters to safety after the earlier implosion of the south tower.
There were some — they were a precious few — miracles that awful day. A dozen firemen and one policemen were among a group of 14 people, the other a civilian office worker, rescued, largely unscathed, from an intact stairwell section between the second and fourth floors of the North Tower. But only two other people were ever rescued alive from the boneyard of those ruins, both Port Authority employees.
It should be emphasized that upwards of 5,000 people were able to walk away, or flee, from the towers before the towers convulsed and pancaked.
The bravery of those fire crews — these are the people who race into burning buildings when everyone else is running out — has been commemorated in books and documentaries and miles of newspaper. There’s hardly a firehall without a plaque commemorating a personal 9/11 loss.
Yet the dying has continued. Others, just as selfless and noble, survived 9/11, but not its protracted aftermath. At least 250 firefighters have since joined the roll-call of the dead, felled by adverse health effects from toxic dust released into the air by the toppled towers, according to data from the Uniformed Firefighters Association of New York. Some (not all), such as John H. Marr — he had 20 years with Engine 34/Ladder 21 until his retirement in 2003 — have had their names added to the Memorial Wall at the FDNY’s Brooklyn headquarters. Marr, who succumbed to illness stemming from the attacks, passed away in April, 2020.
It’s been a tough, often harrowing battle, securing recognition of those who died in the protracted aftermath, and, just as crucially, to compensate them or their families for the cost of a long, debilitating sickness, which can be prohibitive, even with insurance. Last year, Congress voted to extend a medical compensation fund for first-responders, firefighters, police officers, paramedics and volunteers that was due to expire.
I recall, in 2006, speaking with the father of a cop who’d just died, age 34, two years after he’d finally been granted tax-free pension benefits equivalent to about three-quarters of the salary he’d been earning as homicide detective, although his family was still left with $50,000 in medical bills. James Zadroga had narrowly escaped death when Building 7 collapse and would go on to spend 470 hours aiding in recovery at Ground Zero. He died from black lung disease and mercury on the brain, leaving behind a four-year-old daughter who’d already lost her mom to cancer.
“Nobody’s stepped forward to take responsibility for what happened to my son,” his dad, Joseph, told the Star at the time. “I hope somebody will do that because we have such a sense of betrayal. He felt a sense of betrayal. I can’t begin to tell you how that feels.
“Is this how we treat heroes?”
Approximately 410,000 first-responders spent days and weeks and months on “The Pile,” crawling over rubble, exposed to more than 2,500 contaminants and carcinogens that hung in the air: asbestos, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphate, crystalline silica and other metal elements.
A recent report from the Fire Department of New York World Trade Center Health Program outlines the 9/11-related health effects on 15,200 firefighters, paramedics and other first responders; almost 75 per cent of them, more than 11,300, have been diagnosed with a physical or mental illness recognized by the WTC Health Program, from the modest, such as asthma and chronic reflux, to the severe, such as black lung and various cancers. The review provides a 20-year snapshot of the most affected and highly studied contingent of emergency personnel, whose lives were upended that day and beyond.
The report noted that 3,097 FDNY members had at least one cancer diagnosis related to 9/11 and hundreds were diagnosed with more than one cancer.
The sadness of watching these “heroes” die from diseases that slowly torture and kill has been unbearable for their loved ones.
Nine per cent of those in the program still meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, 18 per cent for clinical depression.
Not that they need reminding, but it will all come back on Saturday and the 20th anniversary commemoration, for a tragedy that shook America to the soul.
At Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, there is one saving grace, the finest service they have been able to perform on behalf of their fallen colleagues: Surrogate parents to the 28 children the dead left behind.
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno