Jimmy Gaughan thinks of many different analogies to describe the sights, sounds and smells of Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
And Gaughan, a retired Philadelphia firefighter, knows exactly what he’s talking about. By Sept. 12, 2001, he was standing at Ground Zero alongside thousands of other volunteers, breathing the poisoned air and sifting through the rubble of a modern-day Pearl Harbor.
“It was like Hiroshima,” Gaughan said in the days leading up to this week’s 10th anniversary of the world-changing event. ldquo;It was like a dust plume that covered the whole southern tip of Manhattan. You couldn’t tell there was a city there.”
That’s what the Holmesburg resident and his fellow firefighter, Mark Farrell, saw as they drove from Elizabeth, N.J., into Staten Island on the morning after the twin towers collapsed and thrust a nation into panic.
A short time later, as they crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn, the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic was not a problem. Neither were tolls. The booths had been left abandoned. Gaughan spied the remnants of a large cardboard box and apprehensively wondered if it contained a bomb.
If it did, the explosive inside did not detonate as they passed it.
“One of the weirdest things was there was nobody on the road. There were no toll-takers on the bridge or any of the highways around Manhattan,” Gaughan said. “We stopped at a firehouse in Brooklyn right near the (Brooklyn) Bridge. The more we talked to them, the more we realized there wasn’t anybody around stopping anybody. It was like Escape From New York.”
Soon after, the two Philly firefighters, who were among dozens from their department who took it upon themselves to respond to the neighboring metropolis in its greatest time of need, made it onto Manhattan. They simply drove along, waved on by the armed National Guardsmen positioned every few blocks.
They found a rescue-worker staging area at a municipal building and parked nearby. Then they hopped a shuttle to a security perimeter within blocks of Ground Zero.
“The walk from where the bus dropped us off to the Trade Center site was so eerie,” Gaughan said. “Everything was covered in a foot of dust. It was dark and there were sites where front-end loaders were piling debris. You’d see the flashes of welding torches going.”
The surroundings reminded him of a scene from The Killing Fields, the Academy Award-winning historical drama about the Vietnam-era civil war in Cambodia.
They still do.
Gaughan, then 51, was not scheduled to work on Sept. 11, 2001. And on that Tuesday morning, as most of America watched with horror the television news coverage of a burning Tower Two, followed by the collision of a second jetliner into the upper floors of Tower One, Gaughan was unaware of it all.
Then Gaughan’s wife, Patty, called home from her Center City office to convey the news.
“She called and said, ‘Turn on the TV. It’s terrible,’” Gaughan recalled.
Because of the emergency and a fear of the unknown amid the growing crisis, Patty’s office closed early. Gaughan drove downtown to pick her up.
“I had to park like twenty blocks away from where she worked. Traffic was terrible. It took us three hours to get home,” he said. “The rest of the day we spent watching television. The more I watched, the sadder and angrier I got — like everyone else.”
It also happened to be Jimmy and Patty Gaughan’s 19th wedding anniversary.
“By the next day, I had decided I was going to go up there,” Jimmy Gaughan said.
Patty Gaughan knew it was coming. Her husband is the son of a Philadelphia firefighter, Jimmy Sr., and had already spent 27 years on the job, loving virtually every bit it.
Gaughan always worked in ladder units, mostly with Ladder 1 at 16th and Parrish streets in the Francisville section of North Philly. The unit, which was controversially disbanded by its department in 2009, was known as the Ridge Runners because of its proximity to Ridge Avenue.
“I liked the physical aspect of the whole thing,” said Gaughan, who retired in 2009. “I found it really exciting. And after time, you found yourself in a liaison-type position, kind of between the younger guys and the supervisors. They say you fall in love with the first job you’re assigned to, and I guess it’s true. My first assignment was a ladder company.”
“He came in and had a certain look in his eyes. I could see he was going to go,” Patty Gaughan said. “So I said, ‘Don’t go up alone.’”
Her husband didn’t think of the risks, but she did. She insisted that he bring a mobile telephone and call her regularly. Jimmy Gaughan left home and paid a visit to Farrell, who also had the day off from work. Farrell was assigned to Engine 13, which was stationed in the same firehouse as Ladder 1.
“I went around to him and said, ‘Let’s go up.’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ So we both went up. We just got in our cars. We stopped at the (fire) station and got our running clothes,” Gaughan said.
In the heat of the moment, it wasn’t a matter of seeking formal approval from the fire department or planning a specific strategy. They were running on emotion and the recognition that New York firefighters were already slogging through the mess and very shorthanded.
“Of course, it was (because of) everybody who died, but especially because the number of firefighters who died,” Gaughan said. “I still think about it, the way they died, trying to get up the stairs.
“Where I worked, we had high-rise projects. We made it up maybe thirteen or fourteen stories and I know how hard that was with all the equipment. It took (the 9/11 responders) a lot of courage and an awful lot of stamina. They had no idea it was going to collapse.”
For better or for worse, the work at Ground Zero was still classified as a “rescue” mission when Gaughan and Farrell made it there — as opposed to a “recovery” effort or a cleanup job.
“There were groups of ten to fifteen people all digging in certain spots,” Gaughan said. “We fell into a group of New York City firefighters from Staten Island. There was a chief directing. We dug all day long. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any living people. But fortunately, we didn’t recover any bodies, either. The area was so vast.”
The debris was a blend of pulverized concrete and glass with mangled metal, along with a blanket of paperwork that apparently had scattered about the sky and then floated dozens of stories to Earth.
“There was everything imaginable,” Gaughan said.
Some members of the crew excavated and sifted through the chunks and powder, while others carried it elsewhere to form new piles that would eventually be shipped by truck and barge for permanent disposal.
“It was moving it from one pile to another pile, really. Every so often, you’d see a group of firefighters carry a body out in a bag,” Gaughan said. “It was like being in the Army.”
According to widely reported counts, there were 2,606 deaths in the World Trade Center or on the surrounding ground, including 343 New York City firefighters, 23 New York City police and 37 Port Authority police, 15 EMTs and three New York court officers.
Gaughan and Farrell stayed and worked for about 24 hours before both had to return to Philadelphia and their full-time assignments.
During their stay, they crossed paths with other Philly firefighters, including two from Ladder 1, along with many from New York, whose spirit in the face of shock and despair left a lasting impression.
“I just wanted to lend a hand and be up there with the New York firefighters,” Gaughan said. “It could’ve been Ground Zero in Philadelphia. There was a bond right from the beginning and it was (about) focus and help.
“And even in the most dire circumstances, you had some silly chatter going on, like you could’ve sat around all day crying, but it wouldn’t have helped any.” ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org