The following is an accounting of the events at Ground Zero by now retired FDNY Firefighter Tom Dunn. Each year on this anniversary I am honored to re-post Firefighter Dunn’s amazing story. On November 12, two months after the terror attack Firefighter Dunn responded to the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Brooklyn NY. Read Tom’s account here.
That’s the entry I made in the company journal when I took over house watch at midnight.
The night tour was pretty slow, we had a couple runs–nothing worth talking about. At about 8 AM we received an EMS run for a cardiac. To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember this run, but I know we had it because I made the entry in the book. When we returned to quarters the day tour was already in. I was working a 24 that day, so I would be staying on duty. It was probably about 8:30. I remained at the housewatch and monitored the radio. The other guys were in the kitchen reading papers and drinking coffee.
At approximately 8:50 everything got very crazy. Someone yelled from the kitchen “Tommy, turn on the TV!” I did and saw that one of the towers was on fire. I had no idea what happened, just that it was on fire. The red phone went off announcing that a second alarm had been transmitted for box 8087 The World Trade Center. About a minute past and again the phone went off stating now that a third alarm had been transmitted. Almost immediately the computer went off “Battalion!” followed by the two tone noise that means we have received an alarm. I scanned the job to see if we were going, we weren’t, just the chief. I acknowledged the alarm read the job over the loud speaker and rang the four bells that signaled just the Chief was going. I ripped the ticket off the printer, opened the door and got the Chief and aides radios that I had placed on the charger. The Chief on duty that day was Battalion Chief Joseph Grislazk and his aide was Firefighter Michael Bocchino. I gave the Chief the ticket and said “go get em boys, wish we were going.” They grabbed their gear got in the car and drove off.
That was the last time anyone from our company would see them.
It was approximately 8:55. The chief had left. I went back to housewatch and was looking at the TV. I started to get excited because I started to think we might get a chance to go. I got my bunker gear close by and then realized, “Damn, I have control.” This meant I was the last one on the hose line if we went to a working fire. I knew that it was tour change and I hinted to the LT on duty, Lt. Auciello. I said “Hey, Lou, are we gonna keep the same riding positions or switch ‘em up for the day tour?” I was hoping to get the knob because I knew my groups were working and that means you usually get the knob. “OK,” he replied, “Dunn, you got the knob, Jacobs, you back him up, Murray control, Winkler, you’re driving.”
I was happy mission accomplished. I went back to the TV to see what was going on and I now heard that the second tower had been hit by another plane, this was the first point I had heard that this may be some sort of terrorist attack. The phone rang and I answered it. It was my brother, he was saying he was on the west side highway and that the World Trade Center was on fire. I said I know and that I thought we might be going.
I was still on the phone with him when the computer went off “ENGINE!” Followed by the two tones.”Jimmy I gotta go. We are going. I love ya, bro,” I said and hung up. I did the same routine, acknowledged the alarm read the ticket over the loud speaker, rang the bell once which meant the engine was going, ripped the ticket and opened the door. I gave the ticket to the LT got my gear and got on the rig. It was 9:10. We exited the firehouse and headed down Prospect Ave. to the Prospect Expressway. The Expressway had some light traffic that we were able to get through with the use of the lights and sirens. I continued to suit up getting the bunker gear on, hood, checking for my gloves, flashlight and helmet. We hit the merge of the Prospect Expressway and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. There was heavy traffic almost at a stand still. Winkler weaved in and out of the traffic and got to the HOV lane, which was a little easier to get through.
This was the first glance we got of the actual towers. I stuck my head out of the window and I could see that the towers were really going, a lot of smoke showing. I took a couple pictures. We were all getting psyched up and yelling and trying to get ourselves pumped up for the job. Brooklyn called us over the department radio and instructed us that we were not to go directly to the Trade Center but to help set up a staging area on the Brooklyn side of the Battery Tunnel. I was pretty upset at the time, because, to tell you the truth, I thought that doing this might have taken us out of the picture and we wouldn’t get a chance to go to work. Looking back now this saved our lives.
We made it to the tunnel and parked right down the block from L101 quarters. We were to stay there and wait for the Battalion Chief for further orders. It was approximately 9:20. We were the first ones to reach the staging area and units started to show up and we all got out of the rigs and began talking and looking at the Towers. L102 was there and my friend Pat O’Brien was working so I spent most of the time with him. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about but it was probably how we couldn’t believe this was happening and if we thought they would send us.
I don’t remember being scared, just really anxious to get to work and get started. I took another couple pictures and rechecked my gear. John Winkler, our driver, yelled over 240 “let’s start getting ready, they are going to send us.” We went back to the rig and another ticket came over the computer telling us to respond along with engine 201 to the command post at West Street and Albany Street. It was 9:45.
We started to pull out and I waved to Pat and we headed into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. There was no traffic because the tunnel had been closed to emergency traffic only for some time now. I would say it probably took us 3 minutes to make our way through the tunnel and out on to West Street. We proceeded down West Street and past Albany Street (there was nobody there but we could see a Chief the next block up) to Liberty. L113 was parked maybe a 100 feet from the south foot bridge and we were going to pull right up behind them when a cop motioned for us to stop where we were. We did and got out of the rig.
At my feet when I exited the rig was what looked like a piece of one of the air planes. We proceeded to get our hose rollups, put our masks on and walked to the front of the rig. At this point I could see why the cop had stopped us, there was a body directly in front of our rig. It was one of the jumpers from the upper floors and the best way I can describe it is that it looked like a dead animal that you might see on the side of the highway that had been hit by a couple of cars or trucks.
At this point I began to get my bearings. OK, we were on West Street (West Side Highway) between Liberty Street and the southernmost foot bridge. I could see the Marriott and both of the towers and they were both going. There were fires in the street and I could see other units in the area. There were several more bodies that were in the same shape as the one near our rig that were further down West Street.
We proceeded to the Chief’s car, which was about 100 feet from our rig. There were three people there, two Chiefs and an aide. I did not know them. I think they were Manhattan Chiefs. We announced to the Chief who we were and he told us to stand by while he radioed to find out where we were needed. We listened to the radio traffic and he patiently attempted to reach a Chief that was in the south tower to see where he needed us.
While we waited I kept looking up and at this point I started to get a little nervous because it was then that I realized the magnitude of this fire and that we were about to enter these buildings that looked more like war zones than any fire ground I had ever seen. My attention turned back to the radio and I heard the Chief from inside saying that we were to start walking up because it was going to take us about an hour to even get to the point he was at. The Chief said “10-4? and proceeded to brief us.
“OK, 240 your going up, you don’t need the roll ups, just your air, keep your heads up on the way in because a firefighter was already killed by a jumper. Prepare yourself–this is going to be very gruesome. God be with you!” At this point I began to get really nervous. I mean, here was a Chief with probably 30 years on the job saying stuff like that, and I began to wonder what he knew that I didn’t, I would have much rather if he said “Go get ‘em, boys!” or something like that. But the choice of words made me feel like we were going somewhere that we weren’t coming back from. My heart was going a million miles an hour and I remember thinking, “Let’s just go get this over with.”
I haven’t been to tons of fires in my life, but I do know that at the ones I have been to it was better to get right to work and stay busy than to sit around thinking about what lies ahead.
We began walking toward the Tower. As we were crossing West Street toward the Tower, I heard a loud noise. I don’t know how to describe it, but the best thing I could think of to compare it to was a freight train. All of our heads quickly looked up in the direction of the noise. I could very clearly see that the top of the Tower had begun to fall and it was coming right down on us. People began yelling “Run!” and pushing each other to get everyone moving. I would say that we probably had 8-10 seconds of full sprint time before I began seeing debris and metal fall in my periphery.
I ran across West Street toward the World Financial Center. As I ran I saw fellow firefighters and police and civilians diving under cars that lined the street. I remember very clearly making the decision that the cover of a car would not be enough and that I would try to make it to the building if possible. As I ran and approached the corner of West and Liberty I saw that there was a garage up ahead on the right and made that my goal. As I decided that, the sound of the collapse changed from that of a freight train to that of rushing air.
The air instantly went pitch black and I fell to the floor at the point where the wall of the building met the sidewalk. I don’t remember ever stopping. I continued to crawl as fast as I could to the point where I had remembered seeing the garage door. I felt my way and got to the point where the garage was, but the roll down gate was down and there was no way to get in, but I later found out that I was between the gate and what was a guard post.
Visibility was zero, and as I breathed I was gagging, choking on the air that was filled with debris. I stayed where I was and could feel other people huddled up along side me. Some were crying. Some were choking. All I remember doing for those couple seconds was cursing. I just said over and over (excuse the language) F***! F***! F***!
In between gagging and coughing, I waited to die. I was waiting to be hit by some steel at any moment. At some point I turned on my flashlight and that gave me visibility for maybe 1 foot. I grabbed my mask, turned it on and put the face piece on. The face piece was completely filled with debris and when I inhaled I almost threw up in the mask. I removed the face piece and took off my glove to clear out what I could from the mask. All the while I could still hear debris falling and hitting nearby.
I cleared out what I could from the mask and held the face piece to my face and took like two or three good breaths. I had probably four or five people right near me all of whom did not have masks, I think they were either police officers or fire marshals. I gave the face piece to them one at a time to let them get some air, but I guess they didn’t know how to use it because after they took their breath they didn’t hit the shut off, and the air would bleed freely. I pulled the face piece back and said that they would have to let me hold it while they took breaths so I could control it and not lose the air.
At this point I was assuming we were trapped. Visibility was almost completely zero and debris was piled on top of us and against us and the building. The sound of debris subsided to what sounded like just smaller pieces and we continued to share my mask. I began to hear people in the area and it sounded like they were talking in our direction and they were saying, “You’re not trapped, come this way.” We followed the direction of the voice. I crawled, trying to feel my way and I ended up feeling a car door, so I knew that I was in the street and away from the building.
I yelled for any other FD units and a guy came over to me. I think he was a truck officer. He asked if I knew where my other guys were and I said we were on West Street when it came down and that we all just ran. He said that West Street was gone and that I was to follow him. We were going to go around the rear of the Financial Center and try to get to another command post that he knew was north of the foot bridges. We began to walk down Liberty street and I was quickly separated from him because of all the people looking for hits off of our masks.
The next 10 minutes or so were spent wandering around blindly trying to find out from any Fire Dept. personnel that I found if there was any type of roll call or meeting area that we should go to. Everyone I met was just as lost as I was. I had no radio because I had the nozzle that day, so I did my best to listen in on others’ radios, but traffic was broken up and all I heard were Maydays and broken transmissions. I found a boss who attempted to contact my unit over the radio several times but couldn’t get through because everyone was stepping all over each other. At this point I had completely lost my bearings due to wandering around and the poor visibility. I ended up hooking up with a guy from L122 and a guy from E58. The guy from 58 was bleeding from the head but it wasn’t bad.
We wandered around trying to figure out where to go and then I heard the same sound I had heard earlier. I later found out that this was the second tower. Again visibility became zero and the process began again: coughing, gagging. Again people came to me for air. I remember wandering around and helping who ever I could, all the while trying to figure out just where we were and if there was a roll call being conducted anywhere. I ended up hearing of guys attempting to stretch hose line from the Hudson River and I joined in that.
I think John Winkler was the first one I saw from Engine 240. He was getting onto a fire boat that we were stretching the line from and he was helping turn some wheel. We stretched 3-inch line for blocks and every couple blocks there was a pumper that we were relaying to. At this point I had found Winkler and Murray from my company. Lt. Auciello may have been there, too, but I don’t remember.
We worked stretching these lines for what seemed like forever but was probably maybe an hour. I had already ditched my mask because it became too heavy and it was out of air anyway. We got the lines charged and I told Winkler that I was going off to try to find some water for the men. There was a cafe-type place that two women were in and they filled the buckets that the bus boys carry with bottles of water, soda, and juice. I made my way back to the guys and gave them all out. While I was doing this I ran into my roommate George. I was so thankful that he was alive.
We rested for a couple minutes and then Jacobs, Winkler, and me went to operate hose lines that were on West Street. We started to put out cars and vans that were burning along with rubbish in the streets. Each man in the area had their own hand line. We did this for awhile and Winkler said “Let’s go, guys are starting to search the rubble.” We made our way up to what I now know was the Vista Hotel. We grabbed tools along the way. I had a 6-foot hook and a rope.
Visibility had improved greatly but there was still heavy smoke and the rubble was a little hard to maneuver around. We made our way fairly deep into the rubble and there were other FDNY members around searching as well. A Chief came by and was yelling “Everyone off the rubble–imminent collapse!”
We began running as fast as we could down the rubble, trying to get back out to West Street near the south foot bridge, and as I was running I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle. I continued to hop as fast as I could, but I knew I was hurt. I believed the foot was broken. We evacuated to an area that the Chief told us to go and I rested my ankle. We were now reunited with everyone except Sullivan. I heard he was evacuated due to his eyes getting debris in them.
We waited for awhile for orders from a Chief but the LT said that I was to go get my foot looked at. I was removed by police to an area that EMS had set up to treat people and there was an EMS Chief there who said I was to be evacuated. I said I was not going and that they should just wrap the ankle up so I could go back. We argued and I said, “Chief, with all due respect, I’m not getting on that f***ing boat.” He said OK, that he would have the EMT wrap it for me and that I could go back if I stayed for a little while and drank a lot of water. I agreed. I drank some water and said I was going back and the chief turned to me and said ” Go with God!” This was the second time someone had said that to me that day.
I hobbled the whole way back to where I last saw my guys. Nobody was there and guys that were in the area had said that they were evacuated by EMS. I wandered around for awhile looking for anyone that I knew. I found no one and attempted to find the EMS place I was at before to see if the guys were there. I couldn’t find where I had been and I ran into some police that said they would take me to the main evacuation point to see if they were there. One of them gave me a cell phone and told me to call someone at home to let them know that I was alive.
I looked at the phone and for the life of me I couldn’t remember my own phone number. I was like a zombie. I made it to the evacuation point, which turned out to be the ferry terminal, and ran into this firefighter named Dog who was from Staten Island. He tried to help me find my guys but the EMS people we talked to said they were already evacuated and they didn’t know where they went. Dog was great, he stayed with me and convinced me to go to the hospital and that there was nothing I was going to be able to do at the Trade Center in this condition.
I was evacuated by EMS to Lutheran Hospital. It was approximately 6 pm.
All rights reserved Tom Dunn. Please do not preprint without his permission.