Title: The Pocket Watch
Name: Cheyne Curry
Story Type: Uber/Original.
Disclaimer: Our usual X/G likenesses can be used but since there is really no character description, they don't have to be. This story concerns the deep love between two women. If that isn't your cup of tea, then move along, nothing to see here.
Description: Jenna Coleman and her partner, Brynne, have a committed, loving relationship. A frisky beginning to a beautiful Indian Summer morning becomes one of continuous horror woven into the fabric of everyone's history.
Content Warning: This is a fictional, detailed depiction of one woman's personal 9/11. It may not be for everyone.
I remember looking at Brynne's grandfather's pocket watch before I went to sleep the night before. Something had made it lose time and currently, it ran exactly an hour late. We had tried setting it and keeping it wound but it still fell behind. I'd been promising her that I would take it to Hands of Time on Prospect and I made my mind up that today, my first day off in a 10-day stretch, that I would do it.
But…first things first…
Brynne lovingly cursed me on her way out the door, knowing our impromptu lovemaking would make her late. Part of me was apologetic but a bigger part of me was unrepentant. Brynne was a dedicated employee who got along well with her boss, so her being late was a rare if not downright nonexistent occurrence; I was doubtful he would even mention her tardiness. Brynne and I had barely seen each other over the last two weeks, much less exchanged any intimacies; I felt arrogantly entitled and pleased that I still had that kind of influence on her after ten years together to coax her into ignoring her alarm clock.
I knew she would sit at her desk today, intermittently think about her wake-up call and be so aroused by the time she got home, I'd be surprised if her clothes didn't start to come off before she even got in the door. Brynne hated to be rushed, especially when it came to our personal time since, with my schedule, we seemed to have so precious little of it. She had not had the opportunity to reciprocate this morning and I knew she'd plot her revenge all day long. I chuckled and wondered if I'd be able to get out of bed tomorrow.
I reluctantly showered off the remnants of the morning's sweet activities. The bedroom window was open and it was obvious Indian Summer was in full bloom. I hoisted up some well-worn, denim shorts over my hips and pulled on my sleeveless FDNY t-shirt, stepped into comfortable sandals and picked up the pocket watch from Brynne's side of the bed. The face showed the elegant big hand on the line just above the three-quarter hour mark and the little hand pointed to the eight. That meant it was really 8:47 AM, on an unusually warm, September morning. I looked out the window, across the East River at the World Trade Center and smiled. Brynne should just about be at her desk on the 95 th floor of the north tower, I thought. She probably wasn't as mad as she pretended to be about missing her morning meeting.
Our cat, Holly, wound her way around my ankles, voicing her displeasure at being fed late. I picked her up, carried her to the kitchen and poured her the morning ration of her favorite kibble. She ate happily and purred with every bite. I started the coffeemaker, toasted a bagel and gave a quick glance to yesterday's Daily News. I quickly completed the Jumble and decided to save the crossword puzzle for later. I picked up the remote and clicked the ‘on' button to see what was happening beyond the confines of Brooklyn .
That's when the world stopped turning.
It had only been, maybe, five minutes since I'd looked out the window and now what I saw on TV strangled me with fear. The cameras were focused on a huge, gaping hole in the face of the north tower of the World Trade Center and the Breaking News scroll reported that a plane had crashed into the building.
I was frozen in place. Brynne.
The newscasters first reported that it was a small plane but the size of that hole and the amount of smoke already billowing toward the roof told me a different story.
My cell phone suddenly rang but my hands were shaking and my fingers wouldn't work properly. I finally pressed the answer button. An excited male voice hollered through the receiver, “Coleman, are you seeing this? Which tower does Brynne work in?” It was one of my co-workers.
“Bill, it's…it's that one. Do you know what floor it hit?”
“Not sure. The 90 th ? Call her.”
“Yes. I'll…I'll try…”
The ninetieth floor. And the fire was rising. I knew this was bad. I hung up and speed dialed Brynne's number. It immediately went to voice mail.
“Baby, it's me. Call me the second you can. I need to know that you're okay. I love you.”
I didn't even bother to call Bill back. I just grabbed my keys, slammed the door behind me and ran toward the Brooklyn Bridge . It seemed like forever before I reached the Cadman Plaza East and Prospect Street access to the bridge. My first instinct was to take the subway but I didn't want to get stuck between Brooklyn and Manhattan with the confusion of the panic and no way to leave the train. When I was halfway across the bridge, I watched with morbid fascination as another plane deliberately, if not surreally, flew into the south tower. This isn't random…this is deliberate! My feet moved me along at a dead run but my mind was too stunned to catch up immediately.
I attempted to call Brynne again but all I got now was stillness. My heart was in my throat. I tried to hold it together but the tears came anyway. This can't be happening .
On the last section of the bridge, I realized I was moving against the current. Waves of people were running and walking by me, into me, slowing my pace and sometimes pushing me back. The bridge vibrated and swayed to every synchronized step the voluminous crowd took to get away from the horror, destruction and death that was behind them.
My legs instinctively carried me to my engine company, headquartered in the financial district. By that time, a general alarm had been sent out and I had no doubt that every company that made up the twelve FDNY battalions in Manhattan were on scene, along with the battalions of the other boroughs. This was too big of an incident not to have all available personnel involved and knowing a firefighter's nature, I would have been shocked if every off-duty officer, like me, wasn't already here or, at least, on their way.
Bill Fitzsimmons, the man who called me earlier, was standing outside when I arrived. He had been sidelined with a broken leg and had been ordered to man the phones and radio since he would be more of a detriment than a benefit at the event. He was looking up at the towers in horrified awe. “This is big, Jenna. This is…bad, it's really bad.”
I turned around and followed his gaze. Now that I was closer and could see the fires more clearly, I was shocked and unnerved by the size of the holes in the buildings, the volume of thick, black smoke and just the sheer horror of it. My thoughts instantly went back to Brynne and I knew if she was not able to immediately evacuate, she was doomed. I headed to the back. “I've got to get there,” I said, with urgency in my voice.
Bill followed me. “Have you heard from Brynne?”
He scratched his head, his silence awkward as Bill always had something to say. Finally, he said, “I'm sure she got out.”
I wanted to snap at him, ‘Are you really sure, Bill? Look at that fire! She's above the crash, do you honestly think anybody above that inferno will make it out alive?' but I couldn't because I knew he was trying to be supportive and he was worried, too. Bill and the rest of the boys knew Brynne well. We'd been to parties, celebrations and cookouts at each other's houses. We were family. When one of us lost someone close to us, we all lost someone close to us.
“We responded to Tower 1 but that was before the other plane came in. I heard one garbled transmission, something about the South Tower but…it's crazy out there. A lot of radio traffic, you know?”
“Thanks, Bill. I'll find them when I get there. Someone has to have a command post set up and know where everybody's supposed to be.”
“In normal circumstances, yeah, but ain't nothing normal about this.”
He was right, there was absolutely nothing normal about this. I got to my locker and stepped into my turnouts. This ritual was almost robotic for me, for which I was grateful. My thought process was in bedlam; I couldn't think. I just acted, knowing I had to get there. The love of my life was missing and I needed to find her and my country was in a national emergency and my skills were required to assist in the crisis. Duty or not, Brynne came first and if searching for her was going to cost me my job, so be it. If I lost her, if she has not survived it, I doubt I would survive it, either, so saving my job was not a priority.
I had to try and clear my head. If Brynne had been trapped above the crash, it was doubtful she was still alive but I had to know. I wondered how hot the floors were just below the fire. Radiating heat could have made it impossible to even get close to the actual fire. Could she have gone to the roof? Heat rises and I doubted a helicopter would be able to hover long enough to make a rescue. I knew the elevators would be off-limits but wondered about the stairwells and how much damage the impact had on them. Could she have gotten to a stairway before the fire got impossible? It was torture not knowing and I prayed I could get some reliable information once I got there.
My company was already on scene and, had no doubt, been there since the first report of fire. As an engine company, we were in charge of extinguishing a fire. We were the truck that arrived to do the hose work as opposed to a ladder company that was responsible for running into the burning buildings to rescue, ventilate and ensure the hot areas and heat sources were deconstructed.
I checked and rechecked my messages. There weren't any. I tried Brynne's phone again but now my cell got no signal. Dread seemed to be staking its claim on every inch of my body. Dressed and my bunker gear in place, I hitched a ride to the site with a passing patrol car. We didn't speak. We couldn't. What was there to say?
The police cruiser stopped on Church Street , a little beyond Dey, and just parked in the street, along with a majority of other service and emergency vehicles. There was no way to drive the car any closer. Hoses were stretched out and equipment littered the street, along with firefighters, police and EMS personnel. I bypassed that staging area and continued toward the fires.
Once at the plaza, it was pandemonium. It appeared that chaos had taken over any semblance of order. I scanned the sea of faces that flooded out of the towers to no avail. If Brynne was in that crowd of hundreds, I did not see nor sense her there. I prayed against the odds that she had been able to get out before I got there.
I automatically checked my phone again: still no service. I placed my cell in an interior pocket for safety. If there were no signal, there would be no messages.
Several colors of departmental headgear were huddled by what looked like a possible command post in the lobby of the north tower. I moved quickly toward a red helmet, and I connected with Declan O'Keefe, one of the command post supervisors and a mentor who had transferred to another battalion directly after his promotion to captain. While he was on his handheld radio receiving a transmission, I was able to survey the shocking destruction that had happened before I arrived. The twenty-five foot high glass had been blown out of all the lobby windows and the air was thick with the stench of smoke, fuel and burned flesh. There were bodies in the plaza that were broken and bloody. Now off the air, Declan caught me staring at the corpses.
“They jumped. I guess they figured it was better than burning to death,” Declan said, his voice reflecting the same disbelief we all seemed to feel. Just as he said that, I heard what sounded like a bomb going off. I looked upward and he said, “Another jumper.”
If I hadn't heard it for myself, I never would have believed a body could have made that loud of a noise but, depending on how far up they were when they jumped, they must've reached a speed of a hundred miles an hour on the way down. If the average human weighed one hundred fifty pounds, it suddenly made sense that the sound would be nightmarishly loud.
I looked back at him, terrified that Brynne may have been one of those casualties. Then I tossed that thought out of my head, knowing she was scared witless of heights and insisted her desk be the farthest away from any window. She would have taken her chances with smoke inhalation if there were no chance for her to escape. Once again, the thought of her trapped by fire and having to deal with her own end shook me to the core. No, I had to stop torturing myself by speculating and do something.
“I have to go up, Declan,” I said to him.
“You can't go up, Jenna, that's not where your company is. They were doing the hose work on Tower 2 and they just ordered the evacuation of that tower so they are probably just helping the people get out of there and get clear.”
“They're evacuating emergency personnel? Why?” That was not a good sign.
“They're concerned about the integrity of the structure, especially on the fire floors and they're talking partial collapse. I keep getting reports of constant popping noises, like small explosions.”
“Like other detonation devices? How could terrorists have gained access to the buildings to plant them? I don't understand. What the hell is going on?” I couldn't keep the alarm out of my tone.
“Just stand by with me until I get clearer info.” He shook the portable in his hand. “These radios are pieces of shit. The damned communication system should have been overhauled a long time ago.”
“You don't understand, I have to go. Brynne is up there.”
His eyes cast back sorrow and apology. “God bless her if she is.”
“NO! Don't say that!” I started to run toward the stairway and he grabbed my arm and turned me around to face him.
“Maybe she got out,” he said to me.
“But what if she didn't?” The desperation in my voice could not be ignored.
Declan pulled me close to him. “Jenna, listen to me. I know this is difficult. If she got out, then she's probably safe and if she didn't…then, it's too late. Nobody can get anywhere near the 91 st floor, much less any higher. It's too hot. The stability of the ceilings and floors are in question and we know for sure the stairways have been compromised. We still don't know the risk of an inverted burn and –“
“I can still go up and help out,” I protested. I couldn't come to terms with the possibility of Brynne being dead. “Maybe she's still in the stairwell, still on her way down.”
“Then your going up won't make her get down here any faster.”
He was right and I knew he was right, even though I couldn't wrap my head around that concept. I wanted her to magically appear before me, unscathed, as though none of this horror had ever happened. I easily snapped out of my desire to see her safe by the constant sound of fire air horns and stuttering sirens of still responding personnel. Civilians continued to pour out of the building in a steady stream but none of them were Brynne. I knew she would look for me if she were okay. I knew that she knew nothing could have kept me from being at the scene and if she couldn't get to me or vice versa that she would find another firefighter and ask them to please get word to me that she was okay.
“She's probably somewhere in the evacuated crowd,” Declan said, but the look in his eyes told me he held out little hope for that.
“Have you hear any calls for me on the radio?”
“No but I told you, these portables are good for a lot of static and, maybe, every second or third word, if even that.”
I was shaking. I took deep breaths and walked around in a circle a few times, trying to make myself think more clearly. “Okay. Okay.” I faced Declan. “I'm here. What are we looking at, other than the obvious?” We constantly had to move or step out of the way of people hurrying by us to flee from the destruction and imminent danger that hung in the air.
“There are no communications, other than our radios; no working landlines or cell lines. All the building services are out, the elevators aren't working, which means the controls are useless. We're moving this command post because we're concerned the elevator cores may have been compromised by the impact and then the fires and that would mean they would have no emergency brakes, nothing to stop them from dropping all those floors and blowing out into the lobby. It's those elevator shafts that generate that strong odor of jet fuel down here and that's a big problem. We can't knowingly put our emergency responders in a situation like that. What we're dealing with on an obvious level is bad enough.”
“How many elevators?” I asked as the sound of two more bodies hit, one right after the other. I cringed at what that noise represented.
“Ninety-nine in each building,” Declan continued, staying focused. “We've rescued some people from elevators stuck on specific floors below the fire but there are many more that we don't know the status of. It's just another piece of this disaster waiting to happen.” The radio crackled again and I couldn't understand the transmission and neither could Declan as I heard him say, “10-5? 10-5?” He looked at me, frustrated. “Pieces of shit.” He spoke into the hand-held again. “If you can copy me, 10-2! All units 10-2.”
It had to be bad as he was calling all personnel to return to their command. “What can I do to help? Where do you need me?”
“Go to the south tower. You can help get those people to safety.” He pointed to the west side of the building. “Go that way because it has the least amount of damage. Help lead a group out on your way to the command post. Stay clear of the plaza because that's where most of the jumpers seem to be landing. We don't need anybody finally getting out of the building only to be killed by a falling body or debris.”
I nodded in acknowledgment and got my bearings. Suddenly, I noticed, except for the firefighters who accompanied people down the stairwells, into the mezzanine, then the lobby, that a majority of the emergency personnel had left our immediate area. I looked at the command board and it was empty of the magnets that usually designated positions of buildings and other critical information. “Where'd everybody go?”
“I told you, we're evacuating. They've probably moved to Vesey and West. I'm going to stay here until –“ He held the radio to his ear, then shook his head, keyed the mic and spoke, no longer bothering to use the ten series to communicate. “Say again your last?”
“Urgent!” was all we heard and it seemed to be a broken, crackling response from several sources.
Just then, the ground started to shake. I'd been in only one earthquake in my life and that's what this initially felt like, except it became much more violent. The roar that accompanied it was deafening and it was so powerful, it felt like my brain was shaking. In a matter of ten seconds, Declan and I had been thrown against the northwest wall by a blast of hot air, dust and debris. It happened so quickly and so forcefully that I felt as though I had died for a moment. I remember thinking, very clearly, ‘that's it, I'm dead' and the only comfort was that Brynne and I had died on the same day and maybe I would be with her in the afterlife – if there was one. There were several minutes of blackness and then nothing: no noise, no motion, no thought, like my brain had ceased to function. My own coughing and gagging startled me out of the abyss as all faculties were restored to the present. To say I was disoriented would have been a gross understatement. What skin wasn't protected by my turnouts was cut and stinging. My lungs were not only on fire but they were filled with remnants of whatever had pervaded the lobby of Tower 1. It felt as though I had swallowed a bale of cotton. I needed water to rinse out my eyes so that I could see and assess my immediate situation. I tried to move all my body parts and, though I had been thoroughly jolted and was sore, everything seemed to function. My helmet, my tools, anything that had not been secured to my body had been completely blown off me. My ears eventually stopped ringing and had cleared out enough to hear others coughing and hacking and the repetitive whistling of firefighter alarm packs that had been automatically activated. The high-pitched signal came in a series of four beeps, indicating distress.
I heard the voice of one of the other brigade chiefs start calling out to survivors. I was relieved to hear Declan's voice respond and then he called to me. “I'm here,” I managed to say with a heavy rasp.
“Turn on your search light, we need to see what we've got here,” he advised me.
“What the hell happened?” I heard another voice ask.
“My guess is the south tower just came down,” the brigade chief announced.
The horror of that thought stunned us all into another momentary silence. My company had been up there. My brethren, my… family . Could they have made it out in time? It was just too horrible to think about. What was happening? In the back of my mind, I always speculated about the cause of an incident but this was too big, too much to get a grip on. Those of us in the midst of it could only act in the moment and deal with what was right in front of us and what we could do about it.
It was still dark and I couldn't even see my own hand in front of my face. Fifteen minutes later, breathing was still a struggle and the black cloud was still dense enough so that I could barely see any brightness from anyone's flashlight, including my own. There was total silence except for coughing and distress signals from alarm packs. Declan and the others continued to try and raise different companies while the brigade chief tried to raise the division and field communications but it was just…dead air.
“I've got some people over here!” I didn't recognize the voice but we all moved toward where the shout had come from. It was difficult because it was still dark and smoky. I was grateful for the heavy material of my turnouts because there was glass, sharp metals and God-only-knew-what, everywhere. On my way, I saw the muted glow of what I soon found out to be Declan's searchlight. I moved toward it and hugged him when I discovered it was him. He was covered in dust and debris and if I hadn't recognized his voice, I never would have known it was him and I was sure I looked just as bizarre.
“Where's your cover?” he asked, referring to my helmet.
“I don't know. The impact knocked it off my head.”
“Christ, Jenna, it's lucky you're not dead!”
“It's lucky we all aren't dead,” I said.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” came the Irish brogue of one of the commanders, “it's Father Mychal.”
We could tell by the commander's tone that it wasn't good news. We found the commander by the escalators and others gathered around us. There were a couple of firefighters attempting to perform CPR on Father Mychal but as the lights were focused on him, if anything was clear amid the whirling soot, it was that he hadn't made it. The priest was the official chaplain of the New York City Fire Department and he had been in the lobby praying, offering aid and administering last rites. I was not a religious person but we all loved and admired Father Mychal. The strong devotion between the priest and the firefighters was mutual and to have him die here and now was an irony of monumental proportions, although I could estimate a guess that if he had to die, ministering to firefighters is how he would have wanted to go.
“Let's get him out of here,” someone said, solemnly. Another firefighter found a board to lay Father Mychal on and they carried him up to the concourse and then outside. I found myself choked up and it had nothing to do with the acrid air. Normally, I would take many deep breaths to get myself under control but I was unable to do that. I couldn't mentally comprehend the enormity of the terrible scene playing out all around me. I felt like I was in the middle of a horror/disaster movie except this was real.
There were still people filing down the stairs, much more hurried now than they had been. Several firefighters continued to try and call their companies down to the ground floor. The more official personnel that reached us, either from upstairs or outside, helped with moving the bodies of those who had been found in the lobby in the wake of the tower collapse.
The air was now gray and had become a little easier to inhale or, maybe, I had gotten used to it. When we made our way to outside, it felt like we were walking through a thick, dirty brown haze. The streets had disappeared and before me was a mass of detritus and fire. Where West Street once was, now lay the remains of one of the tallest buildings in the world. It was inconceivable that we had that catastrophic an incident. I could have understood a partial collapse but for the entire structure to come down…it had overloaded my senses. I was not able to see the extent of the damage at that point but rescuers who had just reported to duty and had seen it happen spoke of it with horror, awe and profound despair in their voices.
It continued to rain paper and dust and the consistency of the ground under my boots was oddly pliant, like walking on the beach. All I could think of was that it looked like we had just survived a nuclear attack. I had never served in the military so I had never participated in battle but this looked like my idea of a war zone.
We helped people to safety and directed them north. Everyone looked understandably shell-shocked and stupefied. None of them were Brynne but there were still people coming out so I had hope. We also pulled out bodies as we found them and, so far, I hadn't known any of the men we had been able to drag to the makeshift morgue. I wondered how many emergency personnel had been lost along with my company and the civilians who had still been in the South Tower .
We had just returned to the lobby when one of the firefighters from another battalion ran over to us. “We've got to evacuate. There are explosions everywhere, the building is rumbling like Tower 2. It's coming down,” he told us.
“Explosions? Nothing should be exploding! What's exploding?” Declan stated.
“Can't tell. From the transmissions I can hear, it sounds like little detonations.”
“Little detona- you mean, like squibs? You mean like from a controlled demolition?” Declan wanted to be clear.
He shrugged. “I can only tell you what they're telling me.”
“But there are people still there!” Brynne. Brynne was still in there.
“If this building comes down, we are going to die. How does that help anything?” Declan said to me. “Where's the closest command post?” he asked the other firefighter.
“Chambers and West.”
Declan had to pull me away. If I left that building, I was leaving any likelihood that I would ever find Brynne. The unthinkable had happened; I was forced to abandon the other half of my soul.
I didn't have long to ruminate as the ground started to shake again and the roar was earsplitting. This time we could hear the painfully loud screech of steel beams twisting among the sound of everything breaking apart as it started to rain down on the street. On instinct, Declan and I just ran faster than either one of us ever thought we were capable of. The north tower had begun to collapse onto itself. The nine seconds it took to for the building to hit the ground was not enough time to get far away.
A positive wave of energy pushed us forward with the rubble almost knocking us to the ground as a wall of debris catapulted by us. Before the negative wave of pressure had a chance to come back at us and form a vacuum, Declan and I ducked into an alcove, which led to a deli.
“Everybody away from the windows!” I yelled when we entered, just before a similar black cloud enveloped everything, like a thick blanket.
The energy released from the force of the collapse broke the glass wall of the store and we were once again assaulted by wind, heat, ash, smoke and rubble. We huddled together against a corner while what felt like a miniature meteor shower pummeled every available inch of us. I found it more difficult to breathe this time because my throat and lungs still felt ravaged from the last collapse. When the rumbling stopped, I knew I had to find somewhere to claim at least a sliver of air. It was as though someone had gagged me with a heavy, hot, dry rag.
I was disoriented. As I broke away from Declan, it was tough to determine from which direction we came in and how to get out. The emergency lights had automatically come on at the loss of electricity but it was not for many minutes until they actually illuminated anything. The only sound was coughing.
There had been three people in the deli when we rushed in and it was difficult to tell how many were hacking and hemming. “Everyone okay?” It was a rasp but it was audible.
Declan and finally three others sounded off. “It's the wrath of God coming down upon us!” It was a female voice that wailed out those words when she was able to speak.
At that point, I wasn't sure if it was too far from the truth. We still didn't know what was happening. We had no idea if more planes were coming in to New York , if bombs had been planted anywhere else, if suddenly vanguard terrorist forces were going to take to the streets… No one wanted to make calculated guesses anymore because, it seemed, even those who were supposed to be in the know were in the dark, figuratively and literally.
“Do you have any water?” Declan asked into the darkness. “We need to rinse out our eyes so that we can go back.”
“You're going back there?” A man asked us, incredulously.
“It's our job,” I told him.
We were handed a couple bottles of water. We both poured the fresh, clear liquid into our eyes. It stung but it felt good and I could finally see. I had to resist the urge to use my sleeve to wipe my eyes with. Whatever water I had left, I rinsed my mouth out. Declan did the same.
When the air started to clear and the ability to see still dark but navigable, Declan and I walked outside and back toward where the towers once stood. We followed the muted sounds of the distress signals and muffled shouting and the lighter the visibility, the easier it became to find our way. The ground was dark gray and the dust, ash and pulverized debris covered everything like a powder one might see at a ski area after a fresh winter storm. It was difficult to decipher where we were, exactly, because nothing looked familiar or even recognizable and the closer we got the worse it was.
Dust and rubble still fluttered down on the street like a dark snowfall. There were fire rigs, police cars and vans and EMS vehicles that were crushed, destroyed and covered with whatever had come down from the towers. There was devastation everywhere. As a firefighter, I was used to seeing some pretty shocking scenes but nothing came close to this.
I thought of Brynne again and the pain that pressed into the center of my heart got stronger. I felt totally empty and lost inside and that frightened me. Wouldn't we still have that connection if she were still alive? Wouldn't I still feel her? The darkness and absolute evil of the day was suddenly so profound, I thought I was being strangled and blinded. It took everything I had to compose myself and continue walking next to Declan but I knew I had to do something . There would be no making sense of any of it and if there was even a flicker of hope, I had to keep it. The best thing I could do for myself at that point was to just work and focus on search, rescue and recovery.
Declan and I didn't speak until we got closer to the pile of ruins that was being referred to as Ground Zero. The dust and soot on the ground was now several inches thicker than it had been perhaps twenty minutes earlier. We started to encounter people, civilians, who had come out from shelter and they each had the lifeless expression of a zombie. It was easy to recognize they were in shock as they walked slowly and aimlessly toward the destruction. We got them turned around and pointed to the direction from which we had just come. We weren't sure if there were any first aid stations set-ups in that area but at least they'd be headed away from danger.
We began to run into other firefighters, a few police officers and an EMS worker or two. They all looked like hell, worse than we did; they resembled movable statuary. Eyes, faces crusted with gray powder and bodies caked with the same building remnants that had littered the ground. Unlike the civilians, we all walked with a purpose toward a particular goal: to get back to collapse to see what we could do. We may have appeared as zombie-like at first glance because none of us spoke but we all instinctively fell back to the basics of our training and did what we were taught to do: rescue.
As the number of our group grew, we silently picked up anything we found along the way that may have been abandoned during the escape or blown out of firefighter's hands that could assist us in our objective. I found a pair of goggles that, except for dust, were unharmed. I also found two fire axes: one that was broken and one that was intact and usable. Declan picked up a pike pole and spanner wrench and by one of the flattened fire trucks, we found a rescue rope. Others grabbed first aid kits, air masks, cutting and forcible entry tools, stokes baskets, whatever we found, even if we already had one and brought it with us.
Most of us knew each other by name or reputation, if not personally, even though we were from different companies, battalions and divisions. The New York City Fire Department had always been one big, extended family and I instinctively knew this tragedy would only bring us all closer. When a company lost a firefighter, we all lost a firefighter so there was no doubt that this event would set a new precedence.
We reached another gathering of rescue workers, mostly firefighters, who stood before a huge assemblage of twisted steel, concrete and iron. We mobilized quickly and the highest-ranking firefighter among us, Battalion Chief Ken Talwerth, stood on top of a damaged police car and discussed our next step. He used a megaphone to be heard. Even amplified, his voice sounded as though he had gargled with gravel but we could still understand him.
“I know we've all lost a lot of people today but there are still survivors and we need to get to them as quickly and as safely as possible. We have to remove the debris and I'm waiting on word from the mayor about getting trucks in. In the meantime, we have to get started. I will divide you into two teams. For our own safety and protection, we need to sweep the perimeter for HazMat situations. We need to make sure that there are no secondary devices or radiation, nerve…no biological agents.”
He, of course, was right; the last thing we needed was to bring more victims into the situation by running in blindly and unintentionally killing ourselves. As we walked the nine square block perimeter, the air had become clearer but even by the time we got back to our starting point, we still couldn't see the full extent of the enormity of the scene in front of us.
Someone came around with air masks and handed them out to those of us who had lost their Scot Packs for one reason or another. I placed the filter over my face while Talwerth shouted into his bullhorn that he did not want to see a firefighter working without a mask since we weren't exactly sure what was in the air that we had already breathed too much of.
I returned my attention to the task at hand. There was just so much debris, almost too much to comprehend. There were walls of bent columns, some about fifty feet high or more, all askew, still smoking. There were unstable hills of twisted steel, sharp, torn up metal, a jungle of wires and the sound and heat of crackling fires around and beneath it all. And that was just what was in front of us. Beyond what we could see was more of the same.
We looked at each other and I believe we were all thinking the same thing of what do we do first? The pile of rubble was so overwhelming. We all knew we couldn't just stand there, that we needed to start looking for any survivors but it all seemed so futile. Who could have possibly survived it? Except for the steel, concrete and wires, everything was pulverized dust. My heart lurched again at the thought of Brynne being a part of the powder that now covered every inch of the site and most of me. I took a few deep breaths and walked forward with several other colleagues and got to work, trying not to think of anything but finding survivors or remains, if there were any.
We just started moving debris by hand, the things we could actually get a grip on. We had to be so cautious because of all the sharp edges. Our gloves mostly protected our hands but we had to be careful where we stepped because what was underneath our feet was unsteady and yielding. After an hour of digging with our hands, we felt helpless and had made no progress. By then, most of us had removed our turnout coats because it was too hot and too cumbersome to continue with them on.
I turned to the firefighter on my left and he looked just as daunted as I felt. He was covered with much less dust and pulp than I but he was burnt on his right side. He'd been in the lobby of Tower 1 when an elevator door exploded open and licked his face with flame. Later, he told me that he'd been with his company for eighteen years and he remembered the first bombing in 1993. When I told him I'd never seen anything like this, he placed a comforting, gloved hand on my shoulder and admitted he hadn't either. We both agreed that we hoped this would be the worst experience we would have in our careers.
“Did anyone see that explosion come up out of Trade Center Six this morning about a minute after Tower 1 got hit?” The firefighter next to Declan asked. Several people, including me, looked over at him but no one spoke. “Seriously,” he continued, “it destroyed it.”
“That's the U.S. Customs building, isn't it?” Declan asked.
“Yes, among other things. The Secret Service ammunition bunker is there,” I said. “That's probably what exploded.”
“I'd be shocked if everything around us isn't involved or devastated,” Declan said.
“They reactivated the Harvey for this,” someone in line yelled to no one in particular. The Harvey was a retired fireboat that, according to the word of mouth, was now tethered to the Battery Park City pier and had been pumping water along side the Army Corps of Engineer boats. The damaged water mains needed to be restored and until then, the fireboats pumped tens of thousands of gallons of water a minute. The Harvey , named after marine firefighter John J. Harvey, who was killed in the line of duty when a ship exploded, had a distinguished career with the FDNY from 1931 to 1994. This was clearly going to be a monumental day for many reasons.
“Hey! Over here!” one of the rescuers yelled, excitedly. “I got something!” We rushed over to where he stood and saw a firefighter's glove and boot peeking out from underneath some concrete. We all fell to our knees, digging with our hands, but the two items were all that we found. Most returned to their original spots on the pile while a few stayed at discovery location and continued to dig in a broader circle.
We dug and pushed aside transportable items and moved what we could to take away layers of debris so that we could get to what was underneath. When we dislodged everything we could manually budge, we repositioned to another location to start all over again.
“We save people,” A young firefighter who next worked next to me said. “That's what we do, we run into burning buildings and we bring them out alive and now we're looking to save the very people who save others.” He shook his head, sadly. We exchanged names and which companies we were assigned to and though we rarely spoke over the next sixteen hours, we somehow felt closer to each other.
As we dug, the heat was a constant reminder that there were still fires below us. I was down to my t-shirt, suspenders and turnout pants and I was bathed in sweat. I wanted to remove my protective mask because it seemed more of a detriment than an advantage but there was still a high concentration of particles in the air so it was to my benefit to keep it on.
I kept digging and pushing the light, gray soot away, each time having to shut my eyes because the dust would swirl up into my face. Minutes became hours and it still felt as though we were working in vain. We kept hearing that the big machines were being ordered in to help but we had yet to see any. Five gallon pails had been brought in for us to use, however, at this point, only a few of our line utilized them.
A couple hours later, one of the HazMat guys came around and lined us up to form a bucket brigade. He and a few of his colleagues had responded to Oklahoma City six years ago and he told us that this was how they did it there and it actually helped to feel organized. I had not thought about that tragedy until this point and wondered if this catastrophe was also a result of homegrown terrorism. We knew nothing except our own speculation, which was that it was probably the same organization that tried to bring Tower 1 down in '93.
Grateful for the direction and the break, I listened as he instructed us to take all the big pieces of movable metal and make a pile, then gather all the pliant, smaller materials and put them in buckets and put the searched contents in another pile. We set up separate piles for concrete, metal, rebar and small debris, including the pulverized matter. It wasn't that we weren't intuitive about what needed to be done, I think it was more than we were all dazed by the magnitude of what lay before us and just… lost . None of us knew who had lived and who had died or even an approximate number of casualties, except that perhaps entire companies of firefighters, police officers, rescuers and people's loved ones – including mine - were lost somewhere in this rubble. What made search and rescue so frustrating and complicated was the realization of all that was left of some people was the fine, powdery substance that sifted through our gloves, like cremated ashes. That thought made me pause briefly at the idea that my Brynne, whole and beautiful one minute and dust the next.
Tears came quickly but they didn't fall. There were too many bits and pieces of whatever was in the air that had collected in my eyes. It burned and stung like the fires of hell and I knew I had to make a concerted effort to find safety goggles before my eyes got any worse. I needed to stay strong to do my part just as I knew the others working that line were doing the same. I knew that the longer I worked, the less I would think of Brynne's gruesome fate. Please let it have been quick.
I went back to digging and I found something I knew was nothing like I'd picked up since I'd begun. I called Declan over and we both studied it.
“Oh, Christ, it's part of an arm,” I said. I finally recognized the weird-looking thing burnt black and embedded into what I'd deciphered as the wrist area was a watchband. The limb was scorched and all that was left was muscle and bone. Declan nodded, grimly, and took the appendage from me so that he could turn it over to the proper supervisor.
As odd as it sounds, it gave me renewed determination to keep going. Even if all I found were parts, it was better than dust; parts could be identified whereas dust could not. Families waiting on news of their loved ones would have answers with distinguishable fragments. I wondered how many families would never have anything to bury. I wondered that about Brynne. My stomach pitched again and I felt nauseous. I removed my mask, bent at the waist and rested my hands on my knees. I gulped in several deep breaths, which only made me cough violently. The air was still thick enough to practically chew on it.
“First time seeing a body part?” I looked up to see one of the older firefighters sympathetically study me.
“No, it's not that,” I answered. I didn't want to get into any details. “I think I'm just…overwhelmed.”
“You eaten anything today?” he asked.
I thought back to the untouched toasted bagel still sitting on the kitchen table at home. “Just coffee.” Home. It would never be the same again.
My colleague wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “Maybe it's better you don't have a full stomach.”
I nodded, put my mask back on and returned to digging.
Declan had just returned to the line when someone else found a scalp, then a foot. Grisly discoveries of parts soon became more frequent but the amount of carnage one would expect from such devastation was absent. We really had to look to find remains because nothing was obvious, especially on the surface.
We were prepared to triage but when we did find people, they were deceased. We marked their location and moved on to hopefully find survivors. The first expired firefighter we unearthed had been buried pretty deep under a pyramid of rubble. It took several of us a while to push, pull and lift assorted materials off him. None of us wanted him to be from our individual companies and no one in our line recognized him. His helmet with his company ID number was found beneath his body. Declan called for a stokes basket and we all stopped when the remains were loaded onto the rescue litter and carried out of our area.
An unspoken dark realization washed over me and, from the respectful silence, the rest of our line, too, that a lot of our colleagues were really gone. Suddenly the surreal atmosphere of this nightmare took on another reality: just exactly what was going to be left of the five Burroughs of companies that made up the NYFD? If everyone responded, even on their day off, like I did, and got caught in the towers, what kind of loss were we looking at? Word was coming down that entire companies had been extinguished in the collapse and I assumed that meant my company, as well. It wouldn't be until many days later that most of us would know what the personal death toll was.
I knew when I got into firefighting that there was a chance I could lose my life. Brynne once told me that no sane person runs into burning buildings for a living. She loved and hated my job equally; she was proud of my profession and that I was so dedicated to it and good at it but she loathed the dangers and unpredictability of it. Much like a police officer's spouse, she never knew when I left for work if I'd come home that night. The irony was I never expected the dangers found in my profession to ever affect her in such a paradoxical way.
I had to force myself to stop thinking about her before I fell apart completely and was no good to anyone, least of all myself. I couldn't speak for the others but I was running on complete adrenaline. It had to be the stress that was keeping me and, I'm sure, a lot of the others, moving at such an unstoppable pace. It was a strange feeling, though, trying to stay detached while still being so connected.
Talwerth was a good person to have as the chief of our section. He kept an eye on our group pace and our individual progress. If any of us appeared to falter, he made sure he or someone else was right there for us. I knew it had to be difficult for him because he had to be aware that several of his fellow battalion chiefs had fallen when the towers came down yet he did what we all did and pushed that aside to get the job done.
It was getting close to five o'clock and ten of us were told to take a mandatory break to get water, food, whatever we needed to bring us back to relieve the next chosen ten to take their break. I walked off the pile, with Declan, to a tent where volunteers were handing out water and snacks. I was handed a bottle of water and a nutrition bar by a woman I recognized as an actor on a hit TV show. She smiled at me and said ‘thank you' and I repeated the same to her. She was tinier and much better looking in person, even without make-up or the proper lighting. The acts of kindness from sources one would never expect also bolstered our determination to find as many survivors or identifiable remains as we could.
Broadway shows had been cancelled, as had local television and film productions. The film companies sent over their lights when it began to get dark to help in our search and the equipment was a godsend.
Declan and I rested in silence. We just breathed air that wasn't as acrid as it was on the pile and thought about getting back to work. When I went to toss my plastic water bottle into the recycle basket, I smiled again at the actress and said, “I love your show.”
She bowed her head, humbly then looked up and smiled brilliantly and said, “I love your dedication.” She gave me a thumbs up.
I nodded my thanks, put my mask back on and walked back to the pile, relieving the next group. Just as we started to dig, we heard another big rumble, felt the ground shake and all of us looked around.
“I bet that's 7 coming down,” someone new to our line said. World Trade Center Seven had been on fire but there had been no water with which to fight it because the mains were down. WTC 7 had not been a concern because the building had been long evacuated. I was told that Building 7 had sustained damage from the debris that had landed on and damaged it from the collapse of Tower 1. Although that seemed farfetched that it would feed more danger to Building 7 than to Buildings 3, 5 and 6, it was not my job to question, just to work. Nothing much made sense that day so to try and use logic to figure out why things happened the way they did would only serve to give me a brain cramp.
The cloud from the collapse plumed and rolled in a direction away from us. We were on the south side of what was once Tower 2, about five blocks away from Building 7, still we still got rained on with some residual debris but nothing compared to earlier. We waited for the blanket of rubble and dust to pass and went back to work.
We dug and moved and pulled and pushed and hauled and found more body parts. Thank heavens for DNA because, otherwise, I don't know how anyone would have gotten any peace, never having anything of their loved ones to claim. Again, I thought of Brynne. I still choked up but it appeared to be lessening. I did not know whether to be happy or sad about that and I was sure that was because I was still in shock.
Declan touched my arm. “Come walk with me. Talwerth wants to make sure everyone is rotated and sectored evenly. He wants to make sure our people are taking proper breaks, replenishing themselves and all that happy horseshit. He wants me to assess the piles and if I think they're too dangerous, he wants me to pull people off and wait for the machines to come in.”
I nodded. “So…what can I do to help you?”
“Just walk with me, okay? Be my other eyes and ears. You may alert to something I don't immediately see.”
I knew he just wanted the company and thought it might distract me if I was assisting him. “Sure. Let's go.”
As we walked, I stretched out my cramped legs and aching back. I hadn't realized how long I had been hunched over in the same positions and it had come back on me now that I was moving. It was now approximately nine hours after the initial event and I looked around me – really looked around – and noticed the parked cars that had been propelled upward to awkward angles from the force of the falling towers and the vehicles, including a few ambulances and fire trucks, that had not been completely crushed, were still smoldering. I glanced up and saw the surrounding buildings destroyed, uninhabitable, on fire with no resources to extinguish the flames, smoky - windows with no glass, facades scorched, a school, a church, businesses, untold lives lost due to this one vile act.
We walked through powder nearly calf-high and papers…there were papers and documents everywhere that were nearly as deep as the dust. There were mounds of bent, bare steel, broken cement, rebar, concrete and pulverized debris. There was also a lot of mud because of the water from the broken mains had mixed with the finer rubble. It was all just monumentally bizarre.
We'd moved counter-clockwise up what was once West Street but was now unrecognizable as a street at all. Had it not been for the remnants of the north pedestrian bridge, we might have questioned where exactly we were. I was aware of the totality of what had happened but it was like I was now seeing it through different eyes. The air was still gray and thick with the acrid fumes of concrete, steel, fire, blood and death emanating from the destruction all around us. As the clouds of the talc-like substance began to settle, the magnitude of the damage was too much to comprehend. Remnants of the towers spired up like tilted, skeletal fingers, about fifty feet high above, and amid piles of scrap that spread out over a full nine blocks. It was a compelling image in all its Gothic effigy.
I shook my head, still in disbelief. “Declan, this is going to be impossible. How could solid things and people just disintegrate into…this…” I gestured around me.
“I would say it had to be that the energy released acted almost like a compressor.”
“You know what's strange? I mean, other than the obvious?”
I pointed to all the papers on the ground. “There are all these documents, most of them don't even look smudged, torn or even wrinkled, yet there is no indication that they came from anywhere. I haven't seen a filing cabinet or a desk or a chair or any office equipment. No computers, no printers or copiers, not even a damned telephone. Just all these papers, wires, metal scrap and dust.”
Declan clapped his hand on my shoulder. “You're thinking too much. Don't lose sight of our main focus.”
“Right. Keep the living alive, put out extinguishable fires, make obvious rescues and keep our searches limited to only what doesn't put us any further in harm's way.”
He stopped walking and halted me with him. He put both his hands on my shoulder. “Jenna, we'll get through this. Whatever happens, whatever has happened, we'll survive.”
I thought about Brynne and then I thought about all the others. “Are you sure?”
We began walking again. “I'm positive,” he said. “Now let's finish our walkabout.”
Declan ordered some men away from the scaffolding under the steel hanging off Building 6. They reluctantly moved until they saw just how precarious their work area was. Everyone was trying to do everything they could to improve the situation without adding to the body count.
Just as we got back to our original rescue site, we heard the Cats, front loaders and the dump trucks start to arrive. The cranes and other heavy machinery were expected in at some point later on. I was torn about that – I knew we were going to need help to get the bigger debris moved, but I also wondered how many remains would be disturbed and removed into the dump trucks without anyone's knowledge. I wasn't sure how that was going to be handled. There would have to be some way to sift through the powder and sediment for body parts, they just couldn't take it all to a landfill and leave it, could they? That just seemed morally wrong. Before today, I wouldn't have thought twice about that but after hours of separating and filtering out the smallest pieces of bone or teeth or jewelry while working a bucket brigade, I knew what a time-consuming, delicate process it was.
Also, sometime, during our absence, a cadaver dog had been brought in to our section. I felt sorry for the beautiful animal because she had nothing to protect her paws and there were sharp edges and objects everywhere. She didn't have a lot of luck where we were but when she was moved to another search area, she sniffed out two bodies; one of which was a well-known Battalion Chief named Peter Bianchi. Chief Bianchi was as popular and as well liked as Father Mychal. We didn't have time to be sad, we had to get back to our task of search and rescue but I did notice a few of the guys remove their gloves and attempt to wipe their eyes.
Soon after that, we heard some joyous whoops and hollers and quickly learned that three people had been pulled out alive, one of them being a firefighter. That news brought all of us back to the sobering priority of finding survivors and me keeping a glimmer of hope that somebody might find Brynne.
An hour later, Andy Lupo, a young firefighter I had worked with a year ago before he transferred to a ladder company in Brooklyn , approached our conga line (somebody started calling the bucket brigades that and it stuck) and asked if any of us had seen his father. Vince Lupo was a captain of a ladder company uptown and he was missing. He and his squad had been in Tower 1 when it collapsed. We told Andy we had not seen him nor had we heard that he had been found and Andy moved on to the next line. This had become a recurring theme of rescuers asking if anybody had seen or found someone in their company or their family. I wish it had helped me to not feel alone in my loss but it didn't. To combat such overwhelming emotional pain that washed over me again, I worked harder. I looked down the line at my colleagues; we were all plagued with a similar, haunted expression. I wondered how long it would be before any of us felt “normal” again, if ever.
It had gotten dark but the work areas were illuminated with theatrical lighting. Most of us had lost track of time as one hour melted into another. The bucket brigades kept actively moving and as the pails were filled and passed down the lines, I saw a lot of personal items, like shoes, hats, ballcaps, wallets, necklaces, purses, watches… I thought of Brynne's grandfather's pocket watch, secure in the safety of my locker. I would still have to get that fixed, now more than ever.
There was so much that had to be done. Tons and tons of debris had to be removed by buckets before survivors or even remains could be found. We had been lucky in our discoveries so close to the surface because we knew what we were really looking for was buried deep beneath. When remains were found, whether a whole body or just parts, it would drive a stake deeper into our hearts. Of course, when news would hit that someone had been rescued, renewed resolve spread like a hit of pure oxygen but as the hours wore on, the rescues became less and less and the recovering became more and more.
Declan called my name and pulled me from the conga line. “Jenna, we've been here nearly eighteen hours. It's time to rest.” I started to protest but he put up a hand to forestall it. “I know, I know. But neither of us are going to be of any help if we collapse from exhaustion. Go back to your station, clean up and go home. You can come back tomorrow when you've rested some.”
“I can't go home.” I told him. “I…I just can't yet.”
His big hand cupped the side of my face. “I understand. You can always clean up and bunk at the station. But you will have to go home sometime.”
“Besides, for all you know she might be home waiting for you.”
I loved him for trying. “It's possible but not likely. I know her schedule. I know how long it takes for her to get to work and I know she would have been at her desk when the plane hit.”
Declan studied me, sympathetically, and brought me into a hug. “I told you we'd get through this and I meant it.” He broke the embrace. “Now, get going. That's an order. I don't want to see you back on these piles until at least noon or after.”
“You know if I stay at the station, it will be well before noon,” I told him.
He stood there, resting his fists on his hips. He pointed behind me. “Jenna, go. Now.”
I gave him a half-assed salute. “I will see you tomorrow.” I turned around, picked up my bunker gear and headed toward my station. Once I was actually on my way, I was glad Declan had made me stop. I was bone-tired and could barely keep my defeated, bruised eyes open. Everything hurt and stung and my lungs were still burning from all that I had breathed in, even with my mask in place. I could feel my feet ripped and bleeding from being in my boots so long and my body throbbed from the hard work and the abuse it had taken earlier during both collapses.
I was halfway there when I knew I couldn't walk anymore. Since I was out of all the blocked off areas, it was easy to hail a cab to get me the rest of the way. When he pulled in front of the station, I told him I would have to go inside to get money out of my locker to pay him and, in his heavily laced Jamaican accent, he refused to take anything and thanked me profusely more times than I could count before I exited his car.
It was nearly four AM when I walked back through my company door. I was covered from head-to-toe in soot, grime and pulverized human remains. The building was quiet and felt really empty. I heard the sounds of someone approaching and turned to see Bill Fitzsimmons leaning on his crutches. His reaction was one of shock, then happiness.
“Jesus! You're alive! You're really alive! I thought everyone was dead! You're the only one who's come back!” He dropped his crutches and hopped over to me, squeezing me in a bear hug that nearly crushed every rib in my body.
“No one's come back? No one?”
He released me, shook his head and wiped his tears away. “No. Right now, I've heard that us, another engine company and six ladder companies are all missing. All of them, not just a few members and there might be more.”
I nodded. “I'm not surprised. I was there when both towers fell. It was…I can't even find a word to tell you how horrible it was. And to think that Brynne-“
“Shit! Brynne! I'm sorry, I should have said that first…Brynne is upstairs waiting for you.”
“What? What!? ” I couldn't breathe. I was choking on air, on tears, in relief, in shock. I thought I was going to pass out before I could make it upstairs to the dorm. I don't know where the surge of energy had come from but suddenly I stood beside the bunk she was curled up asleep on. I had never seen a more beautiful sight in my life. Although her eyes were closed, I could see that they were swollen, most likely from crying. I started to touch her but pulled my hand back. I didn't want this to be an illusion, something to shatter me all over again. I had been so exhausted, I could have been hallucinating and I didn't want her to disappear when I touched her.
I watched her and held my breath. She was the most beautiful creature on the face of the earth. When I could no longer stand it, I reached down and gently stroked the soft skin of her face. Oh my God, she was real and I couldn't stop the tears from running, stinging my eyes like nothing I had ever experienced before.
She woke up, startled, and looked at me. Then she focused. “Jenna!” She leapt up from the bed and into my arms with such force, she propelled us both backward. “Oh, my God, I've been so scared. I thought you were dead and all the phones lines have been down and –“ She kissed me until I couldn't breathe again. “Oh, God. You have no idea…”
We were both weeping. “I have no idea? I thought you were dead. How did you get out of the building?” I couldn't take my hands off her and held her to me as we spoke. I kept smoothing her hair and kissing her.
“I never made it upstairs. Because of your horniness, I had just barely made it into the concourse when the plane hit. By the time I got to the security desk, the security guys were holding everybody up until they got more information. The building shook and debris was falling into the plaza and there was a lot of confusion. Someone came running in from outside and said it was a plane. I went outside to look at what everyone else was looking at and I saw it looked pretty close to where the office was. That's when I started trying to call the office lines. There was no answer on any of them. I was terrified but trying not to panic, so I went across the street to have a cup of coffee and wait it out. If I learned anything from you, it's to never run into a burning building.”
“Oh, baby, I am so glad you didn't go upstairs.”
“Jenna…I think I lost everybody I work with,” she said, her voice a whisper, as though saying it out loud would make it real.
“I understand. You've been here with Bill, right? So you know we've probably lost all the guys. They were all in South Tower when it came down.” I squeezed her to me again. “I kept trying to call you.”
“I know. With all the noise and confusion, I didn't hear my phone ring and by the time I tried to call you, I was able to retrieve your messages but not call out. Since I was so close, I came here, pretty sure you'd check in but Bill said you had just left and were going to find me. So I waited.”
“You've been here for 18 hours?”
“Yes. Bill said you'd come back here to change before going home. When the towers came down…I thought the worst.”
“So did I.” I held on to her and we stayed that way for a long time. Finally, I said, “Do you mind waiting just a little longer? I need to shower and try to rinse this crap out of my eyes.”
She nodded and wiped her tears. In thrity minutes we were on our way home. I just wanted to hold her close to me forever.
I knew I would be back at Ground Zero the next day and the day after that and I knew I would be attending a lot of funerals in the weeks to come. I was just grateful that Brynne's wouldn't be one of them. The experience on September 11, 2001 never once altered my dedication to my job, in fact, if anything, it solidified my commitment. A firefighter is a firefighter in their soul until the day they die.
I looked at my grandfather's pocket watch. It still read 7:44. In reality, it is an hour later and I am ready to go to the funeral home to place it in Jenna's casket. I gave it to Jenna as a gift of my heart. She carried it with her always. Up until the day she died.
We never got it fixed after that horrifying day in September. To me, it represented the love, determination and dedication it took for Jenna to get through that day, to wait for me to get back to her.
It took a long time for her to stop eating, sleeping and breathing the events of September 11 th . She had so many questions about what happened that day. Many more questions than she, I or any of the others ever got answers for.
We had another ten years together, seven of them in blissful happiness. Early in 2008, Jenna was diagnosed with mesothelioma and multiple myeloma from the days she spent at the highly toxic Ground Zero site, looking for me, along with the search for other survivors, including police, emergency medical personnel and firefighter brethren. Of course the doctors won't officially link the diseases to Ground Zero but too many of the rescuers are getting sick with the same or similar lung and breathing illnesses or have already died.
Bill Fitzsimmons drove me to the funeral home, where I would have a few moments alone with Jenna before the wake started. The casket was a half-couch and the lid was open to reveal Jenna from the waist up. The department had provided her with a fallen firefighter's duty Class-A dress uniform and she looked quite classy in the jacket, shirt, tie and many collar pins. Her white-gloved hands were crossed above her waist and she really looked as though she were just asleep. The cosmetologist had done a wonderful job of making her look healthy and whole again. She looked beautiful and more like the Jenna we all held in out hearts. I leaned over and kissed her for the last time and placed the watch under her left hand.
“I'll see you in heaven, my love,” I told her and smiled through my tears.
I wasn't looking forward to the service. I had attended so many the last couple of years. Declan O'Keefe's was a full Irish funeral and the last big event Jenna was able to attend. Chief Talwerth had passed away five months ago and a lot of the rescuers Jenna met, working side-by-side on site had also died recently. Andy Lupo, just a baby at thirty, wasn't expected to live another year. The services were turning into not much more than a widow's room of sorrow. I loved these women; we had been though a lot together but I knew when the burial was done, I had to leave New York . I wasn't the only wife who was tired of the reminders of that horrible day. It was too hard to still see the consequences.
Many innocent people lost their lives on September 11, 2001. Sadly, many rescuers also lost their lives on that day, too - except it has taken them much longer to die.
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