8:00am

Wed September 7, 2011
Reflecting On Sept. 11, 2001

NYC Firefighters Share Memories From Ground Zero

Originally published on Wed September 7, 2011 1:33 pm

Ken Haskell, a second-generation firefighter, was off-duty and planning to work on some home reconstruction projects on Sept. 11, 2001. His brothers Timmy and Tom, also New York City firefighters, were both working that day. Both Timmy and Tom went to the World Trade Center and died when the towers collapsed.

Ken arrived at Ground Zero shortly after the North and South towers fell. He spent the next two months working at the Ground Zero site, sifting through the rubble and trying to find the remains of people who had been trapped in the towers. His brother Tim's body was recovered while Ken was on-site; Tom's body has never been found.

Haskell's memories of Sept. 11 are collected in Dennis Smith's A Decade of Hope: Stories of Grief and Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends. Haskell, along with Smith and New York City Fire Department battalion chief Jay Jonas, who was inside the North Tower when it collapsed, join Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a discussion about their memories of Sept. 11, and how their lives have changed since the terrorist attacks.

Ken Haskell: 'I Was Looking For My Two Brothers.'

Haskell remembers arriving at the World Trade Center and then realizing how few bodies were retrievable from Ground Zero.

"That was a realization that set in very quickly for me," he says. "The site had been reduced so that anything that wasn't metal was reduced to ash or completely pulverized. ... So the likelihood of anyone surviving was minimal."

Haskell worked on the pile for hours that day. He went home at 4:30 in the morning but was back on-site by 8:00 the next morning. He spent most of the next 48 hours sifting through the rubble, alternating between the South Tower rubble and the North Tower rubble because he knew his brothers had been in separate towers.

"I was in a unique position knowing that I was looking for my two brothers in addition to doing all of the responsibilities I had as a firefighter," he says. "When I did come across remains, I found myself analyzing what I was looking at, as if I might know what my brother's femur might look like because that's what I had in my hand."

A week later, Timmy's body was found completely intact in the shell of the North Tower. But Tommy was still missing. Tommy's oldest daughter, Megan, was 9 years old at the time. "Every chance she got, [she] asked if I was going to bring her father home," says Haskell. "That really was difficult for me because I didn't want to make a promise to my niece that I knew I wouldn't be able to keep."

The family held out hope that Tommy would be found. "All through Timmy's wake we held onto the possibility that we would recover [Tommy's body]," he says. "When it became obvious that that wasn't going to happen, we decided to hold a memorial because we thought it was the appropriate thing to do."

Instead of a funeral, the family held a memorial service for Tommy, where everyone brought something to place in an empty casket, which was then buried next to Timmy. Tommy's three daughters, who had always loved ladybugs, told Ken that whenever they saw a ladybug, they thought of their dad.

A month later, Ken returned to work as a firefighter with Ladder 175. His first fire was large — a three-story frame house.

"Something was telling me not to go in there," he said. "But I went in anyway, and I was able to get into one bedroom. And rather than go through the hallway and go through the rest of the apartment like I normally would have, I decided to go back to the ladder. Went back down, and then part of the front of the building collapsed, and the room that I was just in [fell] over. Afterwards I was sitting on the stoop across the street, reflecting on what had happened. And as I went to raise a glass to take a sip of water, there was a ladybug on my hand. ... I looked up to the sky and said hello to my brother — just sort of thanked him."

Jay Jonas: 'You Want To Be Happy, But You Can't'

Capt. Jay Jonas was on the 27th floor of the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed. When he found out, he didn't tell the firefighters who were under his command.

"There was another captain on the 27th floor, and I said [to him]: 'You check the south windows. I'll check the north windows,' because I thought a piece of our building had just collapsed. And he just looked at me and said, 'The South Tower collapsed.' The firefighters under my command didn't hear the conversation, and I just looked at them and said: 'It's time for us to get out of here.' "

The captain and his men started to make their way down the staircase. Minutes before the tower came down, they came across a woman named Josephine Harris. She said she needed help.

"She was crying," he says. "My guys stopped and one of my firefighters turned around and said, 'Hey Cap, what do you want to do with her?' And every fiber in my being was screaming at me to get out of this building. Every second we waste was one second closer to us not getting out of the building. But that's not what firemen do. We were there to save peoples' lives. That's the whole purpose for us climbing those stairs was to save someone."

Jonas and his men started carrying Harris down the stairs. They reached the fourth floor landing when the building started to collapse.

"The floor started to move," he says. "Since the collapse started 1,300 feet away, the sound was off in the distance. And it got louder as it got closer. And you could hear the floors hitting the other floors, and it created tremendous vibrations in the stairway. You could also hear the sound of twisting steel all around you."

After the building collapsed, Jonas' first thought was that he didn't get all of his men out. His second thought was that he was about to die.

"We were coughing and gagging and trying to get debris out of our mouths and our noses, and I thought, 'I wonder who else is still alive?' " And I gave out a roll call, and all of my people were accounted for," he says. "So our initial thought was, OK, 'We're alive. Let's dust ourselves off and continue down the stairway.' "

The stairway was gone. Jonas, Harris and the other firefighters waited for several hours when they saw a sliver of sunshine hitting them. He could see a pencil-width beam of sunlight.

"I looked up and saw a sliver of blue sky," he says. "And I looked up and saw the sky. All of a sudden I realized we're on top of the World Trade Center, [which was] four or five stories tall."

Jonas and his men finally found a way to inch their way out of the rubble pile. Once he saw the devastation, he says he didn't know how he was able to survive.

"You want to be happy, but you can't," he says. "It was hard to feel any sense of joy or accomplishment — looking out and knowing how much pain and grief was going to be going on over there. ... [While I was being treated] I talked to a guy who was one of my contemporaries and he said, 'I heard your radio transmissions. Congratulations. That was unbelievable. That was one of the most dramatic things I ever heard. ... By the way, did you see Engine 4 today?' And I thought to myself, 'Gee, what an odd question.' And I said, 'Honestly, no, I didn't see Engine 4 today.' And he said, 'Oh. My son was working in Engine 4 today.' And that hit me like a ton of bricks — that this is going to be monumental, the amount of grief and suffering within the fire department.'"

Jonas took a month off to recover from his injuries. When he returned, he had a new rank — battalion chief — and a new set of responsibilities.

"My first fire after Sept. 11, it was actually pretty strange that once I went to the fire, all of the stress and anxiety were gone," he says. "I felt most at ease, during a fire. ... The fire went out. Nobody got hurt. And it was just something in the back of my mind that said, 'This is going to be OK. We'll survive this.' "

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're doing a series of programs this week relating to September 11th. Today, we're going to hear from three firefighters. Later, we'll talk with Deputy Chief Jay Jonas, who was on the fourth floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower helping rescue a woman when the building collapsed. He'll tell us how he survived with 106 stories of the North Tower raining down around him.

Jonas is one of the people profiled in the new book "A Decade of Hope," about first responders and families with loved ones who were in the towers. It was written by Dennis Smith, a retired firefighter and bestselling author who spent 56 days at ground zero and attended dozens of funerals in the months after the attacks. Smith will also join us later.

First, we'll hear from Ken Haskell, who is the subject of a chapter in "A Decade of Hope." He's a New York City firefighter, as was his father and two brothers, Tommy and Timmy. The brothers died at ground zero on September 11th. That morning, Haskell was off duty. He was busy refinishing part of his house when he heard the news and headed right to ground zero.

I recorded this interview with him last week. He couldn't make it to the studio because he was helping his mother fix up her home after Hurricane Irene, so we spoke by phone.

Did you know your brothers would be at the World Trade Center, trying to rescue people?

Mr. KEN HASKELL (New York City Firefighter): Well, I had assumed my brother Timmy would most likely be there, because he worked in Squad 18, which is in Lower Manhattan. But he'd also lived in Lower Manhattan, in the Tribeca area. So he was very close to the proximity of the Trade Center. So I had a big inclination that he would be there, one way or other.

My brother Tommy was a captain who worked in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I wasn't sure if either was on duty, but I was less concerned about Tommy actually having to respond, you know, from such a distance. I didn't actually confirm that they were working till probably, I guess, 1 or 2 o'clock that morning when I ran into some people that had responded or seen them responding. And so it wasn't until about two in the morning that I actually found out they were there and they were missing.

GROSS: When you got to ground zero right after the towers collapsed, you first started trying to put out the fire in Building 7. And then you had an instinct that it was going to fall, so you walked away, and it did. It did fall. And then eventually, what you took on as your work was looking for the remains of people who had been trapped in the towers.

When you started doing that job, did you think that your brothers might be in those remains?

Mr. HASKELL: Well, obviously, anybody who was there on the scene, you know, had the realization that there was going to be a tremendous amount of casualties. One thing that was striking, there wasn't many remains left around the sight. You know, the whole sight had been reduced to - basically, anything that wasn't metal was reduced to ash, or completely pulverized, you know, which was really a true testament to the energy that was created when those buildings fell. You know, so the likelihood of anybody surviving was minimal. And that was a realization that set in very quickly for me and gave me a lot of perspective about how I went about working the first couple of days, you know, the risks I was willing to take versus the reward that might be out there.

You're always an optimist when you're working situations like that. You're always hopeful that you're going to be able to help somebody, to, you know, perhaps save a life. So you're going to continue work, regardless of the circumstances that are in front of you. And unfortunately, on September 11th, there just wasn't too many survivors. And that was very apparent, almost immediately, for anybody that was working the site.

GROSS: You know, you used the word rewards in terms of, like, finding remains. And it's such a topsy-turvy thing when finding, like, a body or an arm or a leg is the reward for your work. It's such a gruesome and tragic reward.

Mr. HASKELL: Well, as a professional firefighter, I had a responsibility to my department and to my job. But I also was dealing with the moral obligation I had to my family, particularly my brother Tommy's oldest daughter Megan, who at the time was nine, who, every chance she got, she asked if I was going to bring her father home, you know. And that really was difficult for me, because I didn't want to make a promise to my niece that I knew I wouldn't be able to keep.

But, you know, having said that, you still go to work every day and you're hopeful. And, you know, and I was in a unique position where, knowing that I was looking for my two brothers, in addition to doing all the other responsibilities that I had as a fireman at the - you know, during that time, when I did come across remains, I found myself analyzing what I was looking at, you know, as I if I might know what my brother's femur might look like, because that's what I had in my hand, you know.

GROSS: One of your brothers, Tommy, was never found. But the other, Timmy, his body was found pretty intact.

Mr. HASKELL: Right.

GROSS: How do you think his body managed to remain intact? What kind of scenario did you create in your mind to explain that?

Mr. HASKELL: Well, you know, when Timmy was found, I was actually underneath the South Tower, because I would actually alternate my time, parts of the day, once between the North Tower and once between South Tower, because I knew one of my brothers were in each. Now, the fact that we were able to recover him was because Timmy had gotten high in the North Tower - from my understanding, he was in the upper 30s, close to the 40th floor.

My brother Tommy, you know, having put the pieces of the puzzle together by asking questions about guys who were in the vicinity of him and his company. I was able to find out that they were located near the lobby area of the South Tower at the time when it collapsed. So, really, there was expectation of any kind of recovery from him or anybody else that was in that portion of the building, because this - just the radiant heat from all the fires and all the compression and the - you know, the energy that was created when the buildings collapsed just pulverized everything at that point.

GROSS: Did it make a difference in how you and your brothers' families and your mother grieved for them, the difference between having an intact body and having no remains at all?

Mr. HASKELL: Well, you know, even throughout Timmy's wake and his funeral, you know, the conversation...

GROSS: Timmy's the brother who was - his body came back. Yeah.

Mr. HASKELL: My brother Timmy, you know, was found in the North Tower. We recovered him, and we were able to have a funeral. But all throughout his wake and the funeral itself, there was hopeful talk amongst the families, you know, whether we were going to recover Tommy or not. We still held onto that possibility that perhaps we someday would.

You know, as the weeks and months went by, it became obvious that that wasn't going to happen. So in the November of '01, we decided to go ahead and have a memorial, because we just felt that it was an appropriate thing to do. And rather than have a funeral, we had a memorial where a casket was actually there and everybody was asked to bring something in relation to Tommy or write a note or put a picture in or something that meant - was meaningful to them, and which also meant something to my brother. And subsequently, we buried that casket next to Timmy.

GROSS: Oh. So, in December, you went back to work as a firefighter. And in the book, you describe your first fire after going back to work in a three-story frame house that was burning on the second and third floors. And you say that you felt really apprehensive. And you had something like a clairvoyant moment, telling you not to go in there. But you went in anyways. Would you describe what happened after you got in?

Mr. HASKELL: Well, my brother Tommy's daughters and his wife Barbara had always said that after Tommy was gone, they always felt his presence anytime they saw a ladybug. And anytime any of the girls had seen a ladybug, no matter where they were, they would always text me or call me and say, hey, you know, I saw a ladybug today, and I happened to be thinking of dad at the time. So it kind of became, you know, a bit of symbolism for them, you know, the way they memorialized Tommy. And that particular fire, like you said, I did kind of have a moment of, like, clairvoyance, where, you know, while it was a bad fire, it wasn't unique.

It was, you know, similar - I had been in similar situations before, gone in, done my searches and helped fight the fire without incident, but there was something telling me not to go in there, and it's - you know, I went into the apartment real quick. I was able to get into one bedroom of the apartment real quick, and rather than go through the public hallway or make my way further into the apartment, like I normally would have, I just decided to just go back to the ladder.

I went back down, was going to make my way around, find another way to get back in, and then part of the parapet, the front of the building, collapsed and took out the ladder I was on, and in the room I just left flashed over.

So I went about fighting the rest of the fire, and afterwards, I was sitting on a stoop across the street, just having a drink of water, and I was kind of reflecting on what had happened. And as I went to raise the glass to my mouth to take a sip of the water, there was a ladybug on my hand.

So I really think - that really struck me, you know, in a way that I hadn't heard the story or had that relation with the ladybugs and the girls, I probably wouldn't have thought anything of it. I probably would have swatted the bug away, you know. But in that situation, it was like, looked up to the sky and said hello to my brother and thanked him, you know.

So you felt like somehow your brother had kind of told you to get out of the building right before your ladder burned and the parapet collapsed where you were.

Mr. HASKELL: Yeah.

GROSS: Was there ever a part of you that thought you can't still be a firefighter because two of your brothers had died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. You were the only remaining son your mother had. You'd seen one of your brother's wives become a widow. Did you ever think, like, I really can't go back and do that because I have to - I have to make sure I don't die in the fire for the sake of my family?

Mr. HASKELL: You know, I had thought about that and not so much concern for myself but for my wife and for my mother, obviously. But it was quite the opposite for me. I felt more of a responsibility to give to the department after my brothers were killed. I mean, it's how I was raised in the department, you know. It's the traditions that we have, you know.

You really - I always took that to heart. I felt a great responsibility. I love the job. It's provided, you know, a great career for me, and I felt a responsibility to stay on because we lost so many guys, and I knew we'd be hiring a lot of young guys, and there would be there would be, you know, a need for senior guys to help these guys, to show them the way.

You know, I actually, after my brothers were killed, I actually transferred to a busier firehouse than the one I'd been working at at the time. So not to say that, you know, I enjoy taking chances, or I'm hooked on the danger. I mean, I do love the job still. I'm most happy when we're busy and when we're doing things. But it really came from a sense of respect for the job and almost a sense of obligation that I felt personally to give back in the spirit the way, you know, in the way that Tommy and Timmy served and the other 341 firefighters that we lost within the FDNY.

I mean, those guys are the true symbolism of heroism and commitment, and I have a tremendous amount of respect, you know, for the legacy that they left.

GROSS: Well, Ken Haskell, I want to thank you for the work that you do.

Mr. HASKELL: Thank you. Nice talking to you, Terry, and take care.

GROSS: Ken Haskell is a New York City firefighter and is one of the people profiled in the new book "A Decade of Hope." After a break, we'll talk with Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York Fire Department. He was on the fourth floor of the North Tower when it collapsed. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I still don't really understand how my next guest survived the collapse of the World Trade Center's North Tower. Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York Fire Department was a captain on 9/11. He led his men up the stairs of the North Tower trying to rescue people. After the South Tower collapsed, he decided to lead his men back down the stairs, assuming the North Tower's demise was imminent.

But on the way down, they found Josephine Harris, who could barely walk. Knowing that rescuing her would slow them down and increase the chance that all die in the collapse, Jonas decided to take her with them. When they got to the fourth floor, the tower fell. Jonas was trapped with 12 firefighters, five under us command, one port authority officer and Josephine Harris.

Chief, you knew you were risking your men's lives and your own life to rescue Josephine Harris and that the odds were you wouldn't save her either because she was so slow, and the building was on the verge of collapse, and you were, what, on the 27th floor?

Deputy Chief JAY JONAS (New York Fire Department): Yeah, we were on the 27th floor when the South Tower collapsed. That was our big indicator for us to make our escape.

GROSS: So how did you decide to stop for her, knowing it meant you would all be leaving very slowly, probably too slow to get out?

Deputy Chief JONAS: Well, it was a lot easier decision for the firefighters under my command, because they didn't really know that the South Tower had collapsed - didn't know that until later. We experienced the - you know, all kinds of earthquake-like rumbles. Our building swayed back and forth and the lights went out for 30 seconds. And it wasn't really apparent what that was.

And there as another captain on the 27th floor, Billy Burke, the captain of Engine 21. And I told Billy, you go check the south windows, I'll check the north windows, and we'll come back here. And I kind of felt that a piece of our building had just collapsed, that's why our building move so violently.

And he just looked at me and said, the South Tower collapsed. And I didn't realize it, but my firefighters under my command didn't hear the conversation with Captain Burke and myself, and I just looked at them and said: OK, if that one can go, this one can go. It's time for us to get out of here.

And they looked at me a little quizzically, because they had just climbed 27 floors with 100 pounds of gear on their backs, and I said let's go. It's time to retreat. And we were actually making pretty good time going down the stairs, and once we made it to the 20th floor, we saw Josephine Harris standing in the doorway and she was crying.

And my guys stopped, and one of my firefighters, Tommy Falco, turned around to me and said, hey Cap, what do you want to do with her? And it was - how can I put this? Every fiber in my being was screaming at me to get out of this building. Every second that we waste was one second closer to us not getting out of the building. But that's not what firemen do. We were there to save peoples' lives. That's the whole purpose for us climbing those stairs was to save someone.

And that culture, that firefighter culture, overtook whatever personal need I felt to get out of the building. And I said OK, let's stop and we'll save this woman. And it seems like it was a monumental decision at the time, but there was a true spirit of altruism within the building, and, you know, it was the right thing to do.

There was a lot of other firemen who were in that building who were doing similar things to what we were doing.

GROSS: So since she had such trouble walking, how were you trying to get her down the stairs?

We took her arm, one of her arms, and put it around one of my firefighter's shoulders, and - Billy Butler's shoulders - and all the other firefighters in my company took some of Billy's tools and equipment, and we were actually carrying her down the stairs, hoisting her, you know, that way.

It wasn't until we got to the fourth floor - was when she couldn't even support her own weight anymore. She fell to the floor, and she started yelling at us to leave her. That's when I decided to break into the fourth floor to look for a sturdy chair that we could have put her on, and we can pick her up with her in the chair, and we could run with her.

And the fourth floor was not an office floor. So it didn't have any chairs. So I was way on the other side of the building when I just thought to myself, well, we're just going to have to drag her down the stairs. And I started running back to the stairway.

GROSS: At what point did the building start collapsing?

Deputy Chief JONAS: Just before I made it back to the stairway on the fourth floor. That's when the collapse of the North Tower started.

GROSS: So were you separated from the other men?

Deputy Chief JONAS: Matt Komorowski was waiting for me on the landing, and everybody else was on the next flight of stairs going down, before they got to the half-landing.

The vibration was so violent that they all fell to the ground. Matt Komorowski was actually picked up by the air currents that were being created from the compression of air inside the building with the collapse coming down, and he actually got thrown down about two and a half flights of stairs.

So I dove for the stairway, and I just covered up as best I could.

GROSS: So you made it into the stairway.

Deputy Chief JONAS: I made it into the stairway, made it to the landing of the fourth floor.

GROSS: Can you explain how in the world you managed to survive when the North Tower collapsed on top of you? You were on the fourth floor.

Deputy Chief JONAS: The only thing that I can offer as an explanation is that the two buildings collapsed in two different ways. The South Tower collapsed differently than the North Tower. The South Tower collapsed, it kind of leaned over first, and then it collapsed. Because the way the plane hit it, it created a plane of weakness, you know, similar to the way you would cut a piece of sheet rock or something like that.

The North Tower collapsed the way it was designed to. You know, they these people think that it could fall over like a tree. Well, that's not true. They're not designed to be loaded like that. It actually collapsed in what's called a pancake fashion. And the building actually just kind of peels away, similar to the way you would peel a banana, and we were the banana.

We were in the geographic center of that building, and everything just kind of fell outward and down. If you were a little higher than I was, the stairway was intact up to the fifth floor. So you would survive if you were up on the fifth floor, but if you were on the ground floor, you wouldn't survive because the weight of everything coming down would have crushed you.

So you kind of had to be where we were, somewheres between the first floor and the fifth floor.

GROSS: Could you just describe what you experienced as the tower collapsed on top of you?

Deputy Chief JONAS: Well, it started out, the floor started to move. And the distance the collapse started about 1,300 feet away, the sound was off in the distance. And it got louder as it got closer. And you could hear the floors hitting the other floors, and every time that happened, it created tremendous vibration in the stairway. And you could also hear the sound of twisting steel all around you.

And it got louder as the collapse got closer, and the vibration got more violent as it got closer, as well.

Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department will be back in the second half of the show. He's one of the people profiled in the new book "A Decade of Hope" by retired firefighter Dennis Smith. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department. On September 11th, he was on the fourth floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower when it collapsed. He was trapped with 12 firefighters, five under his command, a Port Authority officer, and a woman they were trying to rescue named Josephine Harris. When we left off, he described what it was like when the 106 stories above him fell.

Were you shocked that you were alive after the collapse was over?

Mr. JONAS: Yeah. My first thought initially was that I didn't get my men out. That was my first thought, that I had failed them. And I just covered up as best I could and hoped for the best, and then the collapse stopped. And we were coughing and gagging and trying to get pieces of debris out of our mouths and our noses, our eyes. And my first thought was all right, I wonder who else is still alive.

And I gave out a roll call and my, all of my people were accounted for. And we had a, you know, I didn't know Josephine's name at the time. I said what about the woman? And they said yeah, the woman is still here. She is alive. So our initial thought was OK, we're alive. Let's dust ourselves off and continue down the stairway. And word came quickly from down below that we couldn't get out from down below. So that's when we started our survival mode, I guess.

GROSS: How did you get out?

Mr. JONAS: Eventually, like about four hours later, the smoke and dust cleared enough outside where all of the sudden some sunshine started to hit the stairway where we were. And all of a sudden I could see a pencil-width beam of sunlight hit the stairway. And I looked up and I see a little sliver of blue sky. And we were in the dark most of the time. So all of a sudden I realized that there used to be 106 floors over our heads and now I see blue sky. I said well, we're on top of the World Trade Center.

GROSS: Oh wow. You mean you're saying at this point the fourth floor was like the top floor because everything had collapsed beneath you?

Mr. JONAS: Yeah. Yeah. And it was at that point that we were able to with the additional light, we were able to figure out that we could reach a hole in the rubble and work our way out.

GROSS: So you climbed out through what had become the top of the World Trade Center?

Mr. JONAS: Yeah, Yeah. The fourth floor at this point, because the rubble pile at that point was about four stories tall, about 40 feet high. So we essentially went out sideways and then down a little bit and then the rubble was very uneven. You know, so but right at that point, right where the B stairway was it was about four or five stories tall.

GROSS: So when you escaped the collapsed tower of the World Trade Center did you allow yourself to experience the elation of surviving or was your heart too heavy, knowing about how many people had not gotten out of those towers?

Mr. JONAS: Well, my first thought once I exited the rubble and I actually saw what it looked like outside, we really didn't know what it looked like outside, you know, just we were trying to get a visual from talking to different people over the radio. But once I saw the complete devastation my first thought was oh my God, I can't believe that I survived this.

And you want to be happy but, you know, you can't. Later in the day when I was being treated at an ambulance, one of my guys was talking to me. Tommy Falco was talking to me. He says, hey Cap, how many guys you think we lost here today? And I stopped and I thought about it and I looked around and I says oh Tommy, I don't know, maybe a couple hundred. And then I caught myself when I said that. I said what the heck did I just say? Prior to that day our biggest life loss was in 1966, we lost 12 firemen in the 23rd Street collapse. And I just - and I just said the words a couple hundred. And it turns out I was off by almost double, you know.

So it was hard to feel any sense of joy or accomplishments or anything like that, that looking out and knowing how much pain and grief that's going to be going on out there. Soon after I spoke to Tommy Falco, one of the - there was a guy who was one of my contemporaries, Jimmy Ritchies, came up to me he said Jays, I heard your radio transmissions. Congratulations. He says that was unbelievable. That was one of the most dramatic things I've ever heard. And I said, thanks, it's good to be out. And then he said by the way, did you see Engine 4 today? And I thought to myself, Jesus, what an odd question. And I thought about it and I said, no, I can honestly say I didn't see Engine 4 today. And he said, oh. He said my son was working in Engine 4 today. And that hit me like a ton of bricks that this is going to be monumental, the amount of grief and suffering.

You know, you had so many father and son and brothers within the fire department that this is going to be monumental in scope as far as grief and bereavement.

GROSS: You say in the book that you don't like it when people say to you: You survived because God was with you. Why don't you like it when people say that?

Mr. JONAS: Well, first of all it's a little pompous to say that you are a miracle, you know. But second of all, by them saying that God was with me that day you're also kind of saying that God was not with them that day, and that's certainly not the case. You know, I think of the one radio transmission between Chief Pete Hayden and Captain Paddy Brown. Chief Hayden is talking to him as we're coming down the stairs and I'm hearing this over the radio. Pete Hayden is calling Captain Paddy Brown on the radio. He says Command Post to Ladder 3, get out of the building. Get out of the building. And Paddy Brown gets on the radio and he says I refuse the order, which is unbelievable, you know, that somebody would say that. He says I refuse the order. I'm up here on the 44th floor and I've got too many burnt people with me. I'm not leaving them. You know, it still sends shivers up my spine hearing that. And...

GROSS: I take it he did not survive.

Mr. JONAS: No. Paddy Brown, all the men from Ladder 3 and all the people that they were treating all died in the collapse.

GROSS: You say in the book that whenever you go to work you always have in the back of your mind the possibility that this could be the last day of your life. Why have you continued to do the work that you do and put yourself in the position of experiencing that kind of possibility every working day?

Mr. JONAS: Well, it's hard not to feel that way after seeing all the death and destruction down there, that this could happen again. And it's hard not to feel that way but I wanted to be a fireman my whole life and I'm doing something that I want to do and I'm very happy to still be doing. So I don't want to have somebody chase me away from something that I love to do.

GROSS: Did your family ask you to give up the work after September 11?

Mr. JONAS: No, they never did. My children went through different bouts of anxiety with it, but no, they never did ask me to leave.

GROSS: You were on medical leave for a while afterwards. What were the problems that you were having?

Mr. JONAS: I was on medical leave for a month. I actually went to, went full duty on October 11th and my eyes were injured, I had a twisted ankle, my breathing wasn't the best and, you know, just the high levels of stress and anxiety that they just says you could stay out as long as you want. And I says well, how long does it take for the adrenaline to leave your system? I asked her something like this. She said about a month. And I said all right, I'll take the month.

GROSS: And that was enough?

Mr. JONAS: Well, yeah. And I got promoted to battalion chief five days after September 11th. So all my comfort zone was now gone. So I no longer had my own firehouse again. I had a different rank and I had different responsibilities. So all during that time I was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONAS: ...stressing out what I was going to do when I went back to work. And my first tour in I was driving to Coney Island and I had my first fire that night after September 11th. And once I went to the fire, all the anxiety was gone, all the stress was gone, that I felt most at ease, you know, during a fire.

GROSS: Like you knew what to do and all of your automatic responses just kicked in.

Mr. JONAS: Well, it's something that we've trained our whole adult lives to do and it's something that we do very well. And, you know, went to the fire. It was a fire in a high-rise housing project and the fire went out. Nobody got hurt. And it was just something in the back of my mind that says, you know what? This is going to be OK. We'll survive this.

GROSS: My guest is Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department. He's one of the people profiled in the new book "A Decade of Hope." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Deputy Chief Jay Jonas, who is a firefighter profiled in the new book "A Decade of Hope: Stories of Grief and Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends." And also with us is the author of the book Dennis Smith.

So let me ask you both. Dennis Smith, you were at ground zero for over 50 days trying to help out there. And Chief Jonas, you were in the North Tower when it collapsed. But then you took off a month and returned to work in a different area. So you both had good reason to feel long-time aftereffects of the impact of 9/11 - physical aftereffects I'm talking about. So have either of you had long-term medical problems? You know, breathing, headaches, other physical problems?

Mr. SMITH: Well, you know, Terry, in the book, I interview Dr. David Prezant who is the chief medical officer for EMS in the fire department. And he's a lung specialist. He says just a great guy. Everybody loves him. He was there. He got knocked over. He got thrown. He got covered deep, almost died. But he -I interviewed because he does know about the health problems that grew from 9/11. Thirteen months to the day, October 11, 2002, I was diagnosed with throat cancer. And so then I went through a period - I lost 60 pounds. I went through a period of extraordinary radiation for 30 straight days, a very difficult time. And then I got through that and then, you know, a year later I got diagnosed with chronic obstructed pulmonary disease. And so that will never go away, you know, that will always be with me. And...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. SMITH: ...I'm clearing my throat all the time and coughing, I apologize, but that is from that day. As Chief Jonas can tell you, you know, he's been in a lot of fires in his life prior to 9/11 and said no one had ever experienced smoke like that smoke that existed on 9/11. And you knew that this was harmful and that it would have consequence and there was not much that Chief Jonas could do about it. And in that morning when everyone else responded to the scene, there were just not enough masks to go around. There was no way to protect yourself really, but no one really thought that much about protecting themselves because of the - what everybody knew was in front of them.

So the health problems are pretty significant. And, you know, among my personal friends there's a lot of cancer and a lot of pulmonary problems.

GROSS: And Chief Jonas, what about you? Have you had long-term health problems?

Mr. JONAS: My breathing isn't what it used to be. I can feel a difference on a very cold day, a very humid day, I find myself laboring to breathe.

GROSS: And anything else?

Mr. JONAS: No. Thats it so far.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONAS: You know, we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

GROSS: I hope it doesn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONAS: And, you know, you can't really have witnessed all that we witnessed and see as many people as we have come down with chronic diseases and or worse, people who have died with secondary effects from the World Trade Center, and not anticipate that the other shoe is going to drop sooner or later.

GROSS: You both...

Mr. SMITH: And you know, Terry?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SMITH: I was going to say that I interviewed so many people who - in this book - who were not first responders. The first responders have, I mean it's almost predictable, their health problems, and they had an awful lot of psychological problems as well, you know, and there need to be a lot of intervention therapy for the families of so many people who died, you know. There was such extraordinary stress in those families, and such psychological pain, because, you know, you lost somebody that you loved dearly and who was very important to the, you know, in many cases, extremely important to the economy of that family. And when they were gone, they suffered that absence in such a way that it caused really serious psychological problems.

GROSS: You both know a lot of people who died on September 11th. You both know a lot of people who have chronic health problems as a result of it, and Dennis Smith, you are one of those who has chronic health problems as a result. And Chief Jonas, you do too, though not as severe. I'm wondering if 9/11, and all of the aftermath that youve witnessed, have changed the way you see the meaning or the lack of meaning in life?

Mr. SMITH: That really is a question for Chief Jonas, honestly. You know, I have never met anybody in my life who has been through what he has been through and, yeah.

Mr. JONAS: Meaning of life? Hmm. Hmm. Hmm. I really have no regrets of any of my actions on that day, even though we took extraordinary risk. And if I did die that day, I would have died doing something that I love and helping out my fellow man. So the meaning of life: Just live life to its fullest and help other people and that's it. You know, theres, try not to be so self-absorbed and try to seek out things that you can do to make a difference in somebody else's life.

GROSS: Let me just pick up on something you said, try not to be self-absorbed. How do you keep the memories of that day - of the tower collapsing on top of you - how do you keep that stuff from haunting you?

Mr. JONAS: Well, I continue to have, like, a little revelations of the day, even almost 10 years later. Like I remember seeing a documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and them describing how people were jumping out of that. And I stopped and thought about that. I says well, I wonder how many people jumped while I was climbing the stairs? You know, just thinking about little things like that.

People have asked me how I, do I have survivor's guilt or things like that. I really don't, because I was doing what everybody else was doing. We were in there with the best of intentions, to try to save someone and we were able to do that. We were able to bring one person out in addition to ourselves. And, you know, she became essentially the reason why we were there. And so it it doesn't really haunt me? No. And, you know, like I'll go down to the World Trade Center site now and people kind of dance around me and say, boy, you must have a little anxiety of being around here. I says no, I really don't. It looks nothing like it did that day and, you know, it is hallowed ground, but it doesn't haunt me at all. No.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us and thank you for the work you do the work that you've done. I wish you both well. Thank you.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you, Terry.

Mr. JONAS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department is one of the people profiled in the book "A Decade of Hope" by retired firefighter Dennis Smith. You can read an excerpt of "Decade of Hope" on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg responds to a question hes often asked: How did September 11th change our language?

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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