Trial by Fire: I Was an FDNY Rookie on Sept. 11
Firefighter Jason Cascone graduated from the FDNY academy in September of 2001, a few days before 9/11.
After finishing the fire academy, my first real day in the field was Sept. 11. I was 21.
That morning my mother woke me up and told me that there was a fire at the World Trade Center. After a quick glance at the television, I knew that I needed to respond. I called the FDNY Bureau of Training and was directed to report to the closest firehouse. Minutes later I was barreling at breakneck speed toward Engine 66 in the Co-op City section of the Bronx.
The FDNY members there had already commandeered a city bus and had begun loading men and equipment onto the improvised transport vehicle, which had much more room than any of the fire trucks. If I wasn’t already terrified of what was in store for me that day, I certainly was after a Catholic priest offered me absolution before boarding the bus.
I will never forget a lieutenant on the speeding bus telling me, “Kid, we just lost hundreds of guys down there.”
Our arrival at the site was chaotic. The second tower had already collapsed and there were dust-covered, bleeding, dazed firefighters everywhere. The surviving FDNY chiefs restrained us from entering the pile. They knew that the death toll was already high and they didn’t want to lose any more. We were forced to wait until the collapse of the 7 World Trade Center building until we were finally allowed to access the pile of debris.
The level of anxiety was intense as rumors ran rampant about more planes heading for New York City and bombs being planted in cars surrounding the site. The conversation quickly turned to conjecture about who had been killed and who hadn’t. I quietly wondered about the guys in my new firehouse, Engine 33 and Ladder 9, on Great Jones Street in downtown Manhattan. I knew that they had been sent to the scene, but I had no way of knowing their fate. It wasn’t until the following day that I found out that nine members on duty from my new firehouse were “missing.”
I saw a guy from my academy class soon after the second tower fell; he was white with dust and his eyes were filled with tears as he described barely dodging what he thought was a falling airplane engine. “I thought I was about to get jammed up,” he told me. In fireman parlance, that meant he was just feet from being killed.
Although 343 FDNY firefighters had just been killed — including the nine men from the new firehouse to which I’d been assigned — it didn’t register until much later that if I’d been working in Ladder 9 that day, I most likely would have died along with my new colleagues.
I don’t know that I experienced what’s called “survivor’s guilt” after 9/11. To the extent that I even understood what survivor’s guilt was, I was too young, too new to the fire department and too overwhelmed by the enormity of the catastrophe to feel it.
The initial stages of work at the WTC site were understandably grueling. We worked a schedule of 24 hours on duty, 24 hours off. Being that the trucks from my firehouse had been destroyed in the collapses, we were transported to the site each day via any available means. Sometimes that meant piling into a member’s pick-up truck and driving there on our own.
While the work was brutally laborious and emotionally charged, what truly made the job dispiriting for me was an abject feeling of futility. As I worked alongside thousands of other rescue workers for the first two months of the rescue, recovery and cleanup, I couldn’t help but feel that my contribution was of little practical significance. As I stood in line for hours clearing debris in the endless processions known as “bucket brigades,” it seemed as if the small pieces of scrap metal and pulverized concrete were meaningless in the sea of destruction surrounding me.
While the firefighters and police officers responding on the morning of Sept. 11 were credited with saving up to 20,000 civilians by evacuating both towers prior to their collapses, it was difficult to see beyond the 3,000 people who were killed.
Now, as I look back on the past 10 years through the lens of perspective, my outlook on the tragedy has changed. I no longer focus on the futility of my rescue efforts; I now admire the efforts of the initial responders who, in evacuating thousands of civilians, performed one of the greatest rescue operations in history.
And, despite suffering the unimaginable loss of 343 of its members, I am awestruck by how the FDNY brought its culture, tradition and fortitude to bear in rebuilding the department. Veteran firefighters who lost scores of their best friends showed up to work on Sept. 12 and steadfastly participated in months of rescue and recovery efforts.
Equally remarkable is that in the years following the disaster, over 5,000 new members have joined the FDNY family. Their decision to serve comes with the knowledge that they may suffer the same fate as the brave firefighters who perished on 9/11. These new members have placed themselves in the belly of the beast, directly in harm’s way, in a world where terrorism is a never-ending threat. Any of our new members could have quietly and shamelessly opted to pursue other careers; sometimes I think that their commitment is greater than my own, as I joined the department blissfully unaware of the dangers lurking ahead of me.
But my sense of pride extends far beyond the rank and file of the FDNY. I am also astounded by the response of millions of other Americans who have spent the past decade serving, protecting, rebuilding and rehabilitating.
Millions of dedicated Americans have responded to the realities of our post-9/11 world by embarking on careers in public service, ranging from jobs as police officers, firefighters and soldiers, to nurses, physicians and attorneys working in the public domain. When I think about the armed service members who have made unimaginable sacrifices during the past 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, my eyes swell when I remember that their mission began on that fateful day.
As masses of patriotic, next-generation Americans are choosing to fight the good fight by selecting careers in public service, it is difficult not to attribute the renewed sense of civic-mindedness to the losses of Sept. 11. Their collective mission has been largely shaped by our post-9/11 society, and they have performed just as admirably as the first responders who rushed toward the burning towers in those first frantic moments.
For the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, I plan to honor those who sacrificed their lives for our country at the FDNY’s memorial mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral on Sept. 10. In the finest tradition of the FDNY, I will stand quietly by and honor the presence of the families who have survived their loved ones. In the process, the FDNY will renew its vows to them: to never forget, and to love and support them for eternity. That’s part of our code. We never leave the families of our fallen.