Wind & Paper

This article I have shared below originally came from Firehouse Magazine, interviewed by Harvey Eisner & published in June 1, 2002. You can find that link here:


Many touching, heart wrenching stories in this article, I read them all, but the piece that sticks out the most is about John McGinty: my cousin. I adore his mother, and I still remember going to her house and sipping tea on her porch under her umbrella stand. Just listening and feeling her emotions. Now that I am a mother I couldn’t imagine the pain, uncertainty and anxiety that came with September 11th, 2001. She gave me a shirt that day, which I keep in my hope chest, that came from his firehouse.

My cousin Emily said it best about her uncle, “My Uncle John is the bravest, strongest and most inspiring person I know. He’s also the truest definition for hero. He’s the standard I set to be. This is the first time I’m no where near my city on this day, but my heart will always be there. Thank you to all the men and women who responded then and now, the service members past and present and to all the Americans who show pride in our amazing country.”

I apologize as this is very long, but I read his story every year:

Firefighter John McGinty/Special Operations Command/11 years

“I’m assigned to SOC. I believe I was to do manpower that day, when the first call came in, because Chief Downey doesn’t normally have someone drive him. No one’s assigned to that. I’m not really sure how they determined that I was going to drive him, but McGinty, get out here. I was in the locker room. I actually didn’t hear the call come in. They said a plane hit the towers, you’ve got to drive Chief Downey. I grabbed my gear. Chief Downey said wait for Chief Moran, who had worked the night tour of the 10th and was having breakfast. He was relieved, but he was the SOC chief. John Pailillo relieved him. We waited for him to load his gear into the sedan and headed out. We took the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the FDR Drive, and just as we got to the Brooklyn Bridge, which goes over the FDR, the second jet flew overhead, hung a hard left turn heading west back towards the towers. We were heading south on the FDR and it was coming north, and then it hung a hard left heading westbound back towards the towers. I know I screamed. Chief Downey turned to Chief Moran, he said, did you see that? Really, you knew it was flying too low, too fast. Now, United paints their jets a greenish color. Chief Downey said he thought it was a military jet, but I had prior work experience in the airline industry and I said no, that was a commercial jet. And that’s when he said, and I’m going to quote, “John, this is it, this is the big one.”

Now I believe that John was for John Moran, Chief Moran, but I’ll take credit anyway. At the point of the Brooklyn Bridge, when we saw the visual, I heard the second jet hit the south tower, but between the radios and the cell phones ringing in the car, both chiefs didn’t hear it. So I said, Chief, they just hit that tower. I didn’t know which tower they hit, but I knew they hit another building. And that’s when over the dispatch radio they said another jet crashed into the south tower. And just about that point, Chief Downey said, Car 40 Adam, I suggest you transmit a fifth alarm for both towers. And I think he told me to slow down and calm down at that point because I was quite excited. It was pretty scary. He might have had one other transmission with the dispatch prior to that. We proceeded southbound down the FDR through Battery City, Battery Park. Now we’re heading northbound on the West Side. And as we got to about the midway point of the two towers on West Street, we saw the members of the command post heading southbound on foot. I pulled the vehicle to the side right by the island, stopped there and Chief Downey said I’ll be over with Chief Ganci, get my gear out of the trunk and we’re going to set up a command post over here it looks like. It was on the west side of West Street, just south of the north pedestrian bridge. The police commissioner was there. The mayor was there. The fire commissioner was there. The chief of the department, Chief Downey, and companies are starting to assemble there. What I understood was they moved the command post from Vesey Street, the original spot, because they had a good vantage point there, but they didn’t have the south tower. So the logistics were now we could visualize both towers, see them visually, but they had to head a little south. They started to put together teams, lining the truck companies up, lining the engine companies up, just the manpower, no apparatus, to prepare them for some form of attack. As they would show up, they’d say get on the back of this line with your officer in two rows. And the truck guys were on the left side looking at the group of guys and the engine guys were on the right side. And it was pretty much everybody had that look in their face of, what do we do? I mean, there were a lot of people looking for advice there. Chief Moran went to the south tower because most of the manpower and equipment went to the north tower. It was the first one attacked, so they were concerned that we had nothing going on in the south tower and Chief Moran just said, all right, I hope to see you later and headed off to the south tower.

About 10 minutes, 15 minutes into it, Chief (Charles) Casper appears at the command post without any bunker gear or any radio or equipment. He came from home. He commandeered my handie-talkie, much to my chagrin. And he said that the SOC box truck would have gear for him, bunker gear, on Vesey and West. He said go get the gear and meet me in the south tower, we got to set up a command post in the lobby of the south tower. I went to the box truck, got it and proceeded to go south back to Liberty. I got to the south pedestrian bridge and debris was raining off that south tower pretty fierce, balls of flame, people, concrete, papers, plane parts. Also, as we stood at the command post trying to assemble everybody, I must have seen I don’t know at least 30 to 50 bodies, people jumping or being pushed, it was hard to tell from anywhere from 60 to 90 stories up in the north tower. Very, very tough sound to listen to and to recall. I’m trying to actually blot it out. Not a minute or two went by that someone didn’t come out hitting the ground. You could see them – you couldn’t help but look as sick and as sad as it was. So after a while I tried not to, but you got to still assess the building too. The SOC box truck is a utility vehicle that we use for anything. What had happened was Chief Casper called from either Rescue 5 on Staten Island or his cell phone or whatever and said I’m going to the World Trade Center, get me some bunker gear down there. I was surprised to see it there, but there was the truck. I got him a helmet and some bunker gear and I was going to go into the south tower. I guess I would have been his aide, but I had no access to the south tower because of the debris coming down off the south end of that building. I made a choice to go through the Vista Marriott, which is at the southwest corner of the south tower. I figured I would go through the bar on the corner, Tall Ships Bar, into the hotel lobby into a stairwell. If I get up a stairwell, get out on a fire exit, I can get onto the promenade level of the World Trade and I might have a shot of getting into it because I didn’t feel I had a chance of making it in without getting hit by something from any other approach. So that’s what I did, went through the bar, made it into the lobby. I saw Chief Galvin there. He used to be a SOC chief. I asked him if he saw Chief Casper, but he was too busy. I decided I was going to go up the stairwell. I made it to about the third story and I heard what I thought was dynamite or C-4 or whatever. In reality, it was pancaking. The building was collapsing. But because I couldn’t see it because I’m inside the hotel, it sounded to me like they were detonating bombs. So I said it’s time to get out of here. I turned around. I started running back down the stairs. I got down to the lobby and that’s about where I dumped the gear. I said this stuff’s weighing me down. And I was buried in debris somewhere in that hotel. Nothing too serious, duct work, tiles, Sheetrock. And it was pitch black, as black as you could possibly get, and a lot of dust. I had no mask, so it was all in my mouth, my nose. It was in my eyes and it was scary because not being able to breathe or see is usually pretty scary. I got out from underneath the debris and there were some voices in this room and some guys had flashlights, so I knew I was with other firemen and I would guesstimate maybe about 14 other people in this area who survived. About six, seven firemen and maybe six or seven or eight civilians with them.

And after a little while of searching around, someone found we were pretty much entombed. There was nowhere to go. We all started banging and feeling around, and one of the firemen found a roll-down gate. He pushed it up and there was just a hint of light, and he says I think I found a way out. I don’t know who the guy was. But we all single filed through a little narrow, like a cave almost, and it started lightening up. You still couldn’t see. It was a white-out from all the dust blowing around. We just kept following the light. We had to climb over this 30-foot pile of steel and rebar and beams and concrete and junk. I couldn’t even make out anything other than pulverized stuff. And it got bright, like daylight bright, but white-out. We just continued moving and I ended out on Liberty Street. There was some open steel beams that we were walking over and you couldn’t see into them. I would guess it was probably a garage down there, but everybody was whoa, don’t fall in between these beams. To survive that and then fall through them. There was a PASS alarm going off right past the beams, but I couldn’t tell if it was inside or outside. I got hit on the head pretty good. Actually, the first few times I stood up after the initial collapse, I fell down and I didn’t know why but it was just that my equilibrium was rocked and I just couldn’t stand up. It was like walking on the side of a wall.

So when I got outside finally and now I hear this PASS alarm and I yell to everybody wait, wait, you know we got a PASS alarm over here, help me look for it, and they just took off. Everybody was so terrified, whether it be civilian or fireman. Everybody pretty much had something to do, whether they were helping someone out or just had enough and were running for the hills. So I kind of thumbed around and couldn’t move any steel beams or anything like that. I couldn’t find it and I walked away from a PASS alarm. That’s something that’s been haunting me quite a bit. I headed west towards the Hudson River on Liberty Street, went around the back side of the Merrill Lynch and the American Express tower there. There’s a nice promenade overlooking the river. Well, it wasn’t that nice at that point. And it was all mayhem. There were people running around left and right. There was firemen disoriented without their companies, separated. My thought was try and find out what happened to the command post, see if I can get over to it. With the dust, you could see 50 feet. It took me about 200 feet away from the street to realize the whole tower was gone because the dust hadn’t cleared yet. But once I got about 200 feet away, I looked back and I couldn’t believe it, no way. I thought, if anything, the top of the north tower would have come down because when I looked at it, it looked pretty pitched from like the 60th floor up and I was thinking that it would have fallen easterly. I didn’t see most of the damage on the south tower because we were looking at it from the west side. I was over by the bridge that crosses Liberty in between West Street and South End Avenue, so I was right at that bridge and that’s when I turned and I saw. I said wow. I mean the steel debris, the beams, were out across West Street all the way across. I came south heading directly south out of 3 World, the hotel, ended up right into Liberty and, yeah, once you got there, it was climbing over, hopping. It was almost like a playground. Just skip over this, climb over that type of stuff.

I was heading west and I got to Merrill Lynch and American Express, over by the Winter Garden. A lot of chaos, a lot of people running around, a lot of screaming, a lot of people asking for help, but my intentions were to head north to Vesey and see if I can get back around near the north tower, hoping I would find the command post. When I got to Vesey Street, it was by North End Avenue and I ran into Joel Tenaski over in Rescue 1. He was off duty, but he was in bunker gear. He was with a couple of other rescue guys and I said to them, I drove Chief Downey, I’m his aide, have you seen him? And they said yeah, we saw him up on West and Vesey. And I said before or after the collapse? And they said no, we saw him after. I said are you sure it was after? Yeah. So I said all right, I’m going to go find him. I found an abandoned mask. Someone dropped their mask and I picked up an axe and a six-foot hook and I headed eastbound on Vesey looking for Chief Downey. I wasn’t even thinking of Chief Moran at that point, regretfully. That was kind of weird. You go on automatic, I guess. So I got to West and Vesey and I looked south and I saw the destruction. I saw the debris. I took a quick look south, a quick look north, and the north tower started coming down. You could hear the roaring of it. So this one I had a visual on unlike the south one, so I turned and I started running back towards the Hudson westbound on Vesey again and the debris started catching up to me. I had dropped the axe, dropped the hook, couldn’t get the mask off because I had the hip belt on. The debris, like I said, was starting to pass me, it would fly by. Over by North End Avenue on Vesey is a big office building and there’s recessed glass, big pane glass windows down on the ground level, and I just jumped in and hid behind a cement column. I was hoping that it was not going to collapse too. I was trying to keep an eye out and a cop went flying by and I just reached out and grabbed hold of him, pulled him in. Pulled the cop in. Now we’re face to face and it was sheer terror to see his fear. It was like when things are happening, you just don’t see it as much, but when you see someone else’s eyes, it really explains to you, yeah, this is the end of the world. So again my life passes before me. That was the second.

The first time it was in the hotel when I heard the collapsing which I thought was dynamite and my life passed before me. Now I said, oh, I’m not going to survive this one either. Then, somehow, some way, the debris turned into just wind and paper and dust. The two of us took a quick vote and said let’s run for it and we did. We made it around to the west side of that building and I tried just to regroup. All that stuff was just like a cloud. It was like a science fiction movie, where this creeping, living, moving thing just kept coming and coming and coming. It was tough breathing. And then it was eerily quiet. It was weird. It was either the loudest thing in the world or it was weird quiet. I wasn’t sure what to do at that point, so I tried to get my eyes cleaned out. It was a couple of guys from Squad 18 that I met up with. Both of them had worked and both of them had survived. I believe they were detailed out of squad, but they worked the night before, I’m pretty sure. We assembled down by the river between Vesey and Murray, right on the river, right on the promenade. There were a couple of officers and they started taking names of anyone who was working. I guess they were going to attempt some sort of plan of attack. As we’re standing there, I don’t know who said it, but it was either a cop or security came in and said, you’ve got to get out of here, there are gas lines underneath and there’s a gas leak, a major gas leak. So, here we go again. We all headed north. We must have made it up to about Chambers Street and came back out on West Street, and we stood fast there. I think everyone was looking for some orders, but there was nobody really to make a command decision and there were no tools left. There was no rigs left. After about 20 minutes of regrouping, I decided to head back south right to the towers, to possibly help or find anybody. I found a radio in a crushed Suburban, so now at least I had a handie-talkie. There was a lot of screaming and yelling on the radio. I think it was about 6 Truck when they were stuck and how helpless I felt. But there was very little else from someone saying come get me or here I am – there was nothing. There were no survivors that could even say, hey, here I am, come get me. I guess it never really sets in. You stand there and you say oh, my God, everybody’s dead. We gave up a lot of great guys there. By now, 7 World Trade Center had been free burning for hours and hours. I was pretty aware that eventually it’s got to come down. Nothing was going to withstand that. And they pulled everyone out again and it came down and it was just like oh, boy, this is the end of the world. It was like the whole city was going to collapse.

I remember reports, it might have been that night or whatever, that other buildings were unstable, coming down. I was like oh, man, when does this end? All the rigs looked so small. Normally, they look so big. Rescue 1’s was pretty eerie. 18 Truck was pretty scary. But they all seemed so small in contrast to all that steel. Where did it all go? As much debris was there, it just didn’t seem like enough. The facade that was sticking out of the ground in West Street, a giant piece of the superstructure of one of the towers, which one I could only guess, it was wow, I wonder if that thing’s going to fall over. And then you look over on the west side of the street and you see those buildings torn up and on the south side of Liberty, that one building there in the middle. The whole face of it was gone. Is this one going to fall? And the one on the corner. That would be what the southeast corner of Liberty and West Street that burned for like 10 or 12 hours and they just couldn’t put the damn thing out. I was like aw, that’s coming down. All the subways under there you worry about. One thing really was weird when I finally went home two, three days later. I have vertical blinds in my apartment. I went home and it was daylight and I had to get some sleep. I was still high strung. I was terrified still. The blinds weren’t closed all the way and the sunlight was pushing through them, and I just couldn’t get the picture of the superstructure facade of the towers, how that straight-line design…Well, here I am, I’ve been up for 2 1/2 days and, now I can’t sleep”

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