Northeast Times

9/11 + 10

A re­tired NE Philly fire­fight­er re­mem­bers the day nearly 10 years ago when death and de­struc­tion changed Amer­ica forever.

pho­tos of ground zero, taken on Sept. 12, 2001.

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 bkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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