‘Then the First Body Hit’
Each of these city firefighters was a prisoner of memory.
The weeping paramedic who feared that his wife was among those still inside the inferno; the deputy commissioner who fixated on falling aircraft parts because he could not bear to watch the falling bodies; the fire chief who could not stop a new recruit from staggering back into the collapsing ruins; the firefighter who hid under the car and buried his face in his helmet when the first tower fell.
In the confessional of a closed administrative hearing, 503 New York firefighters and paramedics tried one by one to make sense of the call they answered to the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. For more than three years, their testimony has been secret.
But under a court order Friday, the New York City fire department unwillingly bared its soul.
The department released a massive archive of radio calls and oral histories compiled by the firefighters who rushed into the chaos of the twin towers, where 343 of them ultimately died.
Through 12,000 pages of oral history transcripts and recordings of emergency radio traffic that filled 23 compact discs, a day that became a patriotic talisman of national resolve dissolved back into the irreconcilable fragments of carnage, horror and heroism on a September morning when two hours seemed an eternity.
The release of so many separate accounts of the terrorist attack on New York highlighted the mystery of how threads of private recollection weave into a national narrative of redemption and renewal.
“These kinds of powerful, emotional events tend to be talked about, rehearsed and rehashed,” said Harvard University memory expert Daniel Schacter. “Recounting and retelling strengthens the memories so that they become even more accessible and indelible.
“The more you talk about it, the stronger the memory becomes.”
The New York Court of Appeals ordered that the edited material be made public in response to a lawsuit by the New York Times. The tapes and transcripts were withheld on the direction of the U.S. attorney’s office, which had been prosecuting Zacarias Moussaoui, FDNY spokeswoman Virginia Lam said. Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to charges in connection with the Sept. 11 plot.
The department began collecting oral histories in October 2001, when memories were sharp and recriminations raw.
As the firefighters, paramedics and administrators responded to laconic questions from a panel of three department officials, there appeared to be little effort to conduct a postmortem on operational matters.
Instead, each delivered an intimate, often emotional, account of the day’s events, as if the department intended only to give its personnel an opportunity to purge themselves of whatever memories might be haunting them most.
Often resorting to the cryptic language of emergency management -- in which a “1040" is an airplane hitting a building and an “evulsion” is a slashed scalp -- the firefighters unburdened themselves.
It was the office workers leaping from the towers to escape the flames that firefighter Maureen McArdle-Schulman could not block from her mind.
“Somebody yelled something was falling. We didn’t know if it was desks coming out. It turned out it was people coming out, and they started coming out one after the other.... We saw the jumpers coming. We didn’t know what it was at first, but then the first body hit and then we knew what it was. And they were just like constant.... I was getting sick. I felt like I was intruding on a sacrament. They were choosing to die and I was watching them and shouldn’t have been. So me and another guy turned away and looked at a wall and we could still hear them hit.”
Emergency medical technician Mary Merced was transfixed. The images remained vivid. “I see debris drop. And I look and it was people. I could tell you almost every color clothing all the people that I saw fall had on, how they fell, if they tumbled, if they swan-dived.”
Merced gripped the hand of a co-worker to keep him from running into the burning tower. “Everything is in like slow motion, like time stood still.” Then the south tower collapsed, the first to fall. “It was like in dark hell, like a nuclear blizzard.”
Chief Fire Marshal Louis Garcia started the morning at a charity golf tournament in Queens. He was trying to locate a makeshift command post when the south tower fell.
He started running from the hot, black fog of powdered concrete and debris.
“I turned over my shoulder and I just saw this cloud. I mean, the building collapsed. There was a cloud coming at you. You knew you couldn’t outrun the cloud.... You can’t breathe. You had a very tough time breathing and you’re just saying to yourself: ‘I hope I get out of here.’ Your mouth is full of dust, concrete dust ... your mouth and your nose is all full of that and you’re just choking and you’re trying to breathe.”
Garcia questioned whether anyone could have brought the fires in the twin towers under control.
“You’re talking about multiple floors and the entire floor from east to west, north to south, an entire floor burning. That’s a lot of fire. I don’t think we were capable of putting out that much fire in a building,” he said.
Even so, people tried.
Firefighter James Curran remembered that he made it to the 31st floor of the north tower and forced the door open. “You smelled jet fuel right away, so we shut the door.” He retreated to the 30th floor with about 60 other firefighters. There, lighted only by the emergency strobes and flashlights, they huddled to catch their breath.
Curran called his mother. She was watching the disaster unfold live on television. While they talked, she saw the south tower collapse.
“I told her: ‘I will call you back. I got to go,’ ” Curran said. They raced back down the stairs to the lobby, emerging only minutes before the north tower fell.
Trying to evacuate a woman with a broken leg, FDNY Lt. Spiro Yioras sought shelter under a an overpass. Even so, he was struck by debris. “A couple of things hit me ... bricks or wood. But it hurt. It hurt,” he recalled.
“We couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t breathe. I mean, I thought I was going to buy it. I really thought I was going to die in there.”
When Fire Chief Mark Steffens pulled his car onto West Street adjacent to the site, the destruction stunned him.
“It was just like nothing I have ever seen in my life. All the apparatus, the fire trucks, everything all blown out. The windows were all blown out, body parts lying on the street, mud, soot, people walking around dazed.”
Steffens could not shake the memory of a lone probationary firefighter he encountered on the street.
“I saw one proby -- he had proby on the helmet -- by himself, walking by himself. I tried to get him to come with us. He said: No, no, I’ve got to go back. We washed his eyes. I gave him something to clean his face. Then he turned and went back into the cloud. I never saw him again.”
“Do you recall his name?” a member of the administrative panel asked.
“No, young, young guy.
“I didn’t want him to go back and he wouldn’t listen to me,” Steffens said. “He just walked back into that big black cloud.”
Paramedic Manuel Delgado had trouble believing what he had seen. “I remember seeing body parts and I remember saying to myself, where the hell did these freaking body parts come from? Where are these coming from?”
Then he saw an aircraft engine in the middle of the street. There were charred body parts, bloody shoes and scattered luggage. The blast of air from the collapsing south tower knocked him down.
“Everything from bombings I have been to and plane crashes at La Guardia,” he said, “I’ve never seen something of this magnitude.”
At the end of the day, paramedic Tracey Mulqueen found it shocking how normal everything seemed outside the immediate scene of the terrorist attack. Had not the world completely changed in the time it took the towers to collapse?
“People were just going about their day,” Mulqueen said. “People were sitting at cafes eating. I know life goes on and stuff, but to see people.... It was almost like how could you just be going on about your business?
“Don’t you know what happened?”