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Reflections on Sept. 11

Leo DeBobes
Sep 13, 2017
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“There are places I remember, all my life, though some have changed. Some forever not for better, some have gone and some remain. All these places had their moments, with lovers and friends I still recall. Some are dead and some are living, In my life, I've loved them all.”
—Lennon & McCartney

 

We all have special remembrances of major life events. In my parents’ generation, it was Pearl Harbor and V-Day. In my life, it’s been President Kennedy’s assassination, the Challenger explosion and even John Lennon’s murder. But the most numbing, painful and soul-searing event of my life has to be the World Trade Center attack. I allowed nearly 6 months to slip by before writing the thoughts I'm sharing here with you. Even now, they still rush at me like a flood--the faces of friends and acquaintances that I can’t push back into the nether reaches of my mind.

Sept. 11, 2001, was to have been a lazy day for me. I had planned to take the morning off and relax, since I was to work on Sept. 12 at the New York City Fire Academy on Randalls Island. As a faculty member at Suffolk Community College’s Fire Protection Technology degree program, I was to review the academy’s training program for equivalency as college credits for the New York State Department of Education. My daughter, Erin, called me in a panic on the morning of Sept. 11, not remembering which day I was scheduled to be at FDNY’s facilities. Erin’s call was my first alert to the initial crash and, like everyone else, I was stunned as the second plane crashed before my eyes.

Once the realization of what had happened sunk in, my mind shifted to that of a rescuer. As a fire chief on Long Island, I quickly rushed to the firehouse to muster a crew of technical rescue technicians--confined space, high-angle rescue, collapse and HazMat technicians--from my town and the surrounding towns to await the call we knew would come.

When it did, a convoy of rescuers from Long Island’s North Shore flew into Manhattan to the staging area. My first thoughts as I approached the city line in my chief’s car were amazement at the size of the disaster and the huge amount of smoke coming from downtown. As we reached the staging area, I was unprepared for the amount of bad news I was to hear, the names of friends and colleagues who were unaccounted for. And the good news as other friends were identified as being safe.

My career in safety began when I was 21 and was the result of my work as a volunteer firefighter. This combination of vocation and avocation led to many intertwined relationships with so many people who were lost on that incredible and indelible day. 

Brian Hickey was one of my colleagues as a teenaged firefighter in Bethpage. I still remember our water fight with hose streams where he sent me spinning in mid-air like Charlie Brown getting tossed by a batted baseball and our “buffing” at fire stations in Bermuda. Brian was Captain of FDNY Rescue 3 and was working with Rescue 4 when the towers collapsed. He’s been missing ever since.

Pete Brennan was one of my favorite students at Suffolk Community. He could be the teacher’s pet or the class clown, but he was always anxious to learn more and do more. When ASSE Long Island Past President Maureen Kotlas and I taught hazardous materials, it was Pete who brought in extra supplies to make sure that we had plenty of equipment for a realistic drill. He had been president of the Fire Science Club, a volunteer and career firefighter, and served on various boards at Suffolk Community. I remember Pete telling me and some students only 5 days before that he was going to ease up on his extracurricular activities, as the Father's Day Fire in Astoria, which had killed three of his fellow firefighters, had affected him deeply. His wife and young daughter were too important to him and he wanted to be there more for them and for his then-unborn second child.

Just 5 days later, Pete was killed in the line of duty as an FDNY Rescue 3 firefighter at the World Trade Center. Coincidentally, Pete, who was also a volunteer fire lieutenant in Hauppauge, had been selected as the Gold Medal for Valor recipient for all of Long Island and was to have been honored in late September. His wife was presented with the award posthumously at a rescheduled ceremony in January.

Tom Moody was my neighbor in Stony Brook as well as one of my co-instructors at Suffolk. His course for the Fall 2001 semester, which was to begin on Sept. 11 but had to be postponed, was Building Construction for the Fire Service, in which Tom was to teach firefighters about the concepts of building collapses during fires. Tom, who was also a licensed P.E. specializing in environmental engineering, was the Captain of FDNY’s HazMat Company 1. He was also killed that day. I taught Tom’s class for the rest of the semester, teaching his students about building collapses, while using the same collapse that killed him to teach his students. 

Ray Downey was a superstar of the FDNY and the nation’s leading expert on collapse response. He had been one of the coordinators of the Oklahoma City bombing rescue. He and I were to meet at the Fire Academy the day after the attacks to review the curriculum. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Chief Downey was killed while manning the Command Post at the WTC. Guess who created the four building collapse videos that I used to teach Tom’s class? None other than Ray Downey. I remember chatting with one of his daughters a month before 9/11 and was taken by how often people told her how impressive her dad was. 

George Howard was a Port Authority Emergency Services police officer and a Hicksville volunteer fire captain. He was also a high-angle rescue and confined space expert, who taught these topics at the Nassau County Fire Academy. When SUNY Stony Brook looked to create a confined space rescue team a few years ago, George was the lead instructor. In fact, he taught virtually all of the technical rescue team members who responded with me that day. George was off duty on Sept. 11, but raced in on hearing of the crash. He was killed when the towers collapsed. You’ll recall the mother of a police officer presenting his badge to President Bush at the WTC. That was George Howard’s mother.

Bob Ferris was a CSP and was already one of the ASSE “big guys” when I first entered the safety profession some 25 years ago. We chatted often about our “side jobs” as volunteer firefighters, with Bob being a Garden City volunteer. He had been president of the Metropolitan Chapter around the time that the Long Island Chapter was created and was working for Aon at the time of the WTC collapse. I’m convinced that Bob was not killed as a building occupant, but as a rescuer at the scene.

Lars Qualben was also a CSP. He had been ASSE’s Metropolitan Chapter president while I was the Long Island Chapter president, and we spent a lot of time together at conferences and meetings. While I was with UTC, Lars was with M&MPC, our insurer. Lars was also killed at the collapse.

Other personal friends still come to mind as well. Dan Trant, a former Boston Celtic, was a financial expert and our daughters played travel soccer together. I can still recall him carrying his son on his shoulders at all of the games. Dan called his wife Kathy to reassure her before he tried to leave the building. That was their last conversation. He never got out.

After responding on Sept. 11, we all felt very frustrated by the inability to do more, to find survivors, to find our friends. We waited what seemed like forever right outside the site, but so much was still collapsing that crews weren’t allowed to go right onto "the pile." Days later, when we’d return, we still felt frustrated at the inability to do more to find survivors, to find our friends. But we tried. And we hoped.

On Sept. 15, I went back, along with colleagues Maureen Kotlas and Joe Loretz, and, after working on the pile, narrowly escaping a burning chasm that swallowed and injured two Indianapolis firefighters. We paused at the impromptu shrines and the blocks of missing persons posters by the Armory. All of the faces that family members hoped would miraculously be found in a hospital with amnesia, like my neighbor and fellow firefighter Kevin Shea, who still doesn’t remember the collapse that nearly killed him. And the three of us looked at all of those smiling faces on the posters and we cried. 

So many faces. So many long-ago conversations and shared beers linger in the back of my mind. Like Ray Meisenheimer, an FDNY Rescue 3 and Long Island volunteer--the guy who got me started in the HazMat business. And the near-misses, like Richie Rotanz, an FDNY Captain assigned to the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management and Ex-Chief of my own department, who was beaten up by falling debris as he helped occupants out. And Bill Siegel, my colleague in the fire department and at Suffolk. Bill responded in from home, but had called enroute to have his gear brought in from the firehouse. When the second tower collapsed, they found Bill’s gear and assumed he was lost. He was on the missing list before anyone realized that he was working at the scene.

And Father Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain who was the first confirmed fatality that day. The photo of him being carried out has been described as a modern-day Pieta. While we were responding in, the radio mentioned that an FDNY chaplain had been killed. FDNY Deputy Chief Joe DiBernardo was riding with me and said, “I hope that’s not Mickey Judge.” But it was. Like me, Mychal Judge was a fan of Irish music and he and I would often be the two gray-haired old men jockeying for position in front of the stage at Connelly’s when we would go see Black 47. Mychal Judge may yet be canonized as a saint, but he sure wasn’t giving up the better vantage point to see the band!  

Brian, Pete, Tom, Ray, George, Bob, Lars, Ray, Dan, Mychal. In my life, I’ve loved you all.

Leo DeBobes wrote these memories about 6 months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attack on New York City.

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