When the angels came down did they give you a choice?
Would they have let you stay where your were?
On September 11 I stood on the corner of 5th and 40th in New York City at 9:59 AM and watched a generation of Americans lose the last elements of their emotional Utopia. My friend Sharon cried when the first tower fell; I held her for as long as I could until I felt pulled to run downtown. Around Union Square, I spied the looming death cloud of ashes that was beginning to envelope the southern part of Manhattan. I slowed. At 10:28 AM it grew even larger.
I suppose I was running downtown to help but the Angel of Death shocked me into stopping: For certain 20,000 or so people were dead. I believe that on a “good” day, at the Twin Towers 50,000 people worked there and another 200,000 passed through as visitors. These numbers were my brick wall. I stopped. I felt tears on my cheeks. I walked back uptown.
I don’t remember much of the rest of that day other than being really mad. I had called Marian Fontana sometime after 9 AM because I knew her husband Dave – my lifeguarding and rowing buddy for many years – was there. September 11 was their wedding anniversary. I had friends who worked at the SEC which was headquartered in the WTC. My sensei worked for Homeland Security; I knew he was there. Friends worked at Cantor Fitzgerald above the 100th floor. I can’t remember how I made it back to Connecticut that night but I slept through until the next morning.
Not to live here in pain
Should not bring you shame
And the light is so hard to deter…
There was no doubt I was coming back to the city the next day; New Yorkers don’t shy away from a fight. The train station was quiet and far less crowded. Many had red eyes; it was clear that some hadn’t slept. Approaching the city, the plume from downtown was still heavy, ominous, scary, maddening; riders looked out the train windows and wept. One person was gabbing on his phone so loudly – the only person on the car who was anything but silent and introspective – that people were giving him evil eyes. He ignored them – he saw them – and continued talking to his friend.
I had enough; I was excruciatingly mad by now. I politely asked the fellow to consider not talking so loud, to be more respectful of what occurred yesterday. He told me to mind my own business; I grabbed his hand and his phone in one hand and politely told him that if he didn’t stop, I’d shove both up his ass.
He got off the phone and a few people in the car actually cheered and laughed. Don’t fuck with New Yorkers.
New York City was silent; not a single horn was blowing, no radios blared. People walked quietly. People held doors. Some even smiled. One of the people I had recruited to be a developer at a start-up where I was working thanked me for saving his life. He had two offers, one with me, the other with a subsidiary of Cantor Fitzgerald. I didn’t feel anything good, just rage.
By now it was clear what had happened. America was attacked and people from many countries, who worshiped many Gods, who spoke many languages, who worked many jobs, were murdered.
Well did the Gates of Heaven look just as you thought?
Did Sister Mary describe them quite well?
Years of Catholic school were all good to you because
You were the angel who fell
That afternoon, I left work early and went to the Army Recruiting Station in Bridgeport, CT. Made up my mind that I was going to enlist and find the devils who had attacked our country. I was in the best shape of my life, had degrees in engineering and psychology, and my family has a great history of service to this country. As the Sergeant began to fill out the paperwork and came to the “Date of Birth” box, I told him “3 – 31 – 59.” He looked up with a sad face; I was too old.
Shortly after work on Thursday September 13, I stopped at the Squad 1 firehouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn and asked for Billy Redden. Billy, you welcomed me like family into your family and I’ll never leave Squad’s side.
One of the first things Billy showed me was Dave’s locker. Inside, taped to the door were two pictures: One of Dave, Marian, and their son, the other of an old Jones Beach Field 6 Lifeguard crew. I always stood next to Dave in our crew shots; most of the guys already knew who I was.
I am the one who will never die young
I am a martyr and I will not hide
But I’m not a winner, I’m just brilliantly bitter
I’m sealed by my skin but broken inside
Ten years later, as I’ve done for every September 11th, I’ll be at Squad 1 as moments of silence are broadcast throughout FDNY for the times when planes crashed into the Towers and when the Towers fell. Family will always be family.
There will be salutes; there will be tears. I’ll stand by the right side of the house where hundreds of Park Slope residents gathered on Sunday September 16 when they heard that the FDNY HQ was going to close down Squad because 12 firefighters were murdered a few days earlier. I don’t remember why we pushed Marian out in front – perhaps she was just the angriest family member who lost someone – but I clearly remember the Squad 1 Lieutenant George Ebert and I typing out three paragraphs about the travesty and how Park Slope needed to rally around the firehouse and demand that the house stay open. And gave the sheet to Marian…
It worked and Marian Fontana became an eloquent activist and spokesperson for 9/11 widows, victims, and family members. I cannot tell you how proud I am of her because there are no words. Dave too was a single-minded force in supporting the communities where he was a firefighter; often the reasons why two people are simply destined to be connected forever aren’t revealed until a life-altering event happens.
When Dave and I rowed together, I could always tell how he was feeling. There were always “ways” to get him to pull the oars just a bit harder; I knew this because he would curse up a blue streak when we hit the perfect rowing resonance. I still find myself wondering what he felt as the tower fell…
Angels are fragile and devils are hard
And life is a masquerade
Colors will blend and hearts will all mend
Just tell me you were never afraid
I want to walk around the firehouse and remember what it was like all those weeks following 9/11; quite a few of the original crew have retired but always come back on 9/11. We’ll drink some coffee and go to Mass. I’ve made plans to see Marian and her son in the afternoon; I just want to hug them…tell them I love them.
And there are babies laughing and children running
Saying “read me a book, sing me a song”
And I was the one who I felt so, so sorry for
But you are the one who is gone
The number 343 haunts me; without fail, I’ll wake up at 3:43AM several times each week. I see 343 in the oddest of places. Do you know the movie, “Frequency” with Dennis Quaid as a 1960s FDNY firefighter? His street address? 343 42nd Avenue. Same thing with 9/11; I see this number too:
I see 12 quite a bit: The firefighters of Squad 1 in Brooklyn…
BC Jim Amato, FF Brian Bilcher, FF Gary Box, FF Tom Butler, FF Pete Carroll, FF Rob Cordice, Lt. Ed D’Atri, Capt. Mike Esposito, Lt. Dave Fontana, FF Matt Garvey, Lt. Mike Russo, and FF Stephen Siller.
I think many more people now have the same connection to numbers. Perhaps an entire generation experiences the same thing. Maybe it’s just those of us who are close to New York, Washington DC, or Shanksville, PA. It’s really hard to tell because after 10 years I’m fearful that many people have managed to go about their business…
“Enough is enough; it’s time to move on.”
As a nation we promised – we made a tontine - that we would never forget.
No, these are not just numbers…
So will you save me a seat if I make it that far?
Will you even know that I am the one?
I will be old for the angels have told me
That I will never die young.
(Lori McKenna, “Never Die Young”)