NYC One Year Later: A Firefighter's Diary

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - On Sept. 11, 2001, 343 firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty on one single day. No other fire department in the history of the world ever sustained losses of this magnitude in the span of just a few hours. One out of every nine people to perish in the destruction of the World Trade Center was a firefighter.

Firefighter Kevin Shea of Manhattan's Engine Company 40 was the only member of his entire company to survive. None of the six firefighters from Ladder Company 118 based in Brooklyn made it home.

The crew of Engine Company 65 based in Manhattan's Times Square are no strangers to large building fires. They were one of the first companies called when the initial alarms sounded.

Even before entering Tower 1, they knew this was no ordinary fire and rescue mission. The thick black smoke they saw on the upper floors meant a raging fire. They also saw what they thought was debris falling from above, but they quickly realized that it was actually bodies, people who had either leapt or fallen from the upper floors more than 1,000 feet to their death.

"We received our orders and began a coordinated effort in Tower 1," said firefighter Al Barry of Engine 65, a four-year veteran of the New York Fire Department.

As he climbed up the stairs, workers in the building were coming down.

"It (the evacuation) was very orderly. There seemed to be no panic in the people coming down the stairwell," Barry recalled.

The members of Engine 65 made it past the 20th floor, aiding in the evacuation and searching for injured. It has been estimated that other firemen managed to climb past the 73rd floor in Tower 1, an area just below the impact zone that was searing with the heat of the burning jet fuel from the American Airlines flight used as a missile by the hijackers.


"Never in my wildest dreams did I think the Towers would collapse," said Barry.

When they were built, the Twin Towers were designed to withstand a plane crash. However, a pair of 767 jumbo jets weighing nearly 400,000 pounds and capable of carrying nearly 24,000 gallons of aviation fuel was too much for the buildings to bear.

In 1993, a two-ton bomb set off in Tower 1's garage could not bring the building down.

When firefighters become trapped or injured while fighting a fire, they will dispatch a "Mayday" call for help. However, the Mayday call Barry and the other firefighters heard in Tower 1 came with an added message he certainly did not expect.

"When we heard the Mayday call saying 'Tower 1 in imminent collapse,' we were on the 20th floor. We dropped our gear and went down the stairs," recalled Barry.

At the time, he and his fellow brothers from Engine 65 had no idea that Tower 2, hit by the United Airlines jetliner had already fallen.

The members of Engine 65 were among the last firefighters to leave Tower 1 before it imploded.

"Moments after we got out of Tower 1, we heard the building rumble. It sounded like a freight train - and then it (Tower 1) began to fall," added Barry.

Investigators theorized that both buildings suffered structural failure due to the impact of the planes destroying key building supports and the intense heat of the burning jet fuel. When those supports gave way, the upper floors began to collapse onto the floors below, and that weight caused a cascade, which brought down both towers.

The collapse of the 110-story Twin Towers, the adjacent Marriott Hotel, and the 57-story #7 World Trade Center left a mound of debris more than 10 stories tall.

Firefighters then shifted into recovery mode, removing debris piece by piece in the hope they could find survivors, including their fallen brothers. The work was almost as dangerous as being in the Twin Towers that fateful day.

Recovery crews had to deal with dust and smoke in the air, a hazardous and unstable work area, as well as sections still emitting such intense heat, recovery workers complained the soles of their shoes were melting.

Firemen, in many cases working on their own time, stayed at Ground Zero until the last piece of debris was removed nine months later, never giving up the effort to retrieve victims.

New Tactics Needed

As efforts continued to recover the victims' remains, a report was compiled detailing the need for change within the fire department.

It concluded that dozens of firefighters directed to go to staging points on streets surrounding the Twin Towers on Sept. 11 instead went straight into the buildings.

"We've revised our mobilization procedures, controlling the number of personnel who respond at any one time to an event," said New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly when the report was released.

The department's communications equipment was also blamed. Immediately after the Twin Towers fell, the fire department concluded that it was impossible for personnel on the ground to communicate with firefighters on the upper floors.

"The department needs to change fire operations tactics," said Barry. "We go deep into a fire to search for life. In a high-rise building, once you get up above 30 stories, you lose contact with your commanders. Right now they're trying to figure out how to make it safer for us."

He said the fact he was on the 20th floor allowed him to hear the "Mayday" call.

"If we were even a few floors higher, we wouldn't have heard the call to evacuate. More firefighters would have died."

The New York Fire and Police Departments were credited with saving an estimated 25,000 people from the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, an evacuation "of historic proportions," according to the report issued in the aftermath.

On an average day, 50,000 people used to work at the World Trade Center.

The report emphasizes that it would have been nearly impossible for any fire department to prepare for an event of such unprecedented scale, however, according to Barry, preparation kept many more alive.

"Our training was invaluable. We use it every day. We used it on 9/11. We'll use it tomorrow, and that's what saves lives. We did what we were trained to do - go into burning buildings and bring people out," he said.

One year later, despite the large number of lives lost, firefighters still perform their duties in the same fashion as 9/11.

"For us it hasn't changed. Our job is to fight fires and save lives. That's what we do," said Barry.

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