Into the Bowels of Hell

Maureen B. McArdle Schulman, Firefighter, Engine 35, FDNY

In presenting my account of September 11th 2001, I first want to say that I in no way mean to take any attention away from those who gave their lives for the citizens of New York City. I also want to state that I never have been prouder to call myself an American. This country was founded on freedoms and we as Americans will do anything to preserve those freedoms. The acceptance of people's differences is what makes this country great. It was a long time after September 11 before I could look at an American flag without crying.

One last comment: I felt at times during September 11th that the World Trade Center had become the bowels of hell. It seemed complete chaos, as though God had abandoned us. Then I heard Deputy Chief Nicholas Visconti's calm voice, and I knew there was still a God. I now consider the remains of The World Trade Center a sacred burial ground that holds the hearts and souls of some of the greatest people God has ever created: New York City's true heroes.

At 8:15 am on September 11, I was getting ready to leave Engine 35, my firehouse for the last 19 years, to go on a detail to work at Engine 91, which is on East 111th Street in Manhattan. At 8:45 am the first plane hit Tower 1; one of the members of my company announced it over the loud speaker in the firehouse. We weren't sure how big the plane was at that point, and had no idea it was intentional. It seemed like someone had really screwed up a beautiful day with a flying lesson.

Traffic on 124th St was backed up to 3rd Avenue. A yellow cab was stuck in traffic next to my parked minivan, and I told the cab driver that I was in a rush -- that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. The cab driver and his passengers looked at me like I was nuts, but they let me into the traffic without hesitation.

En route to Engine 91, I listened to the radio with amazement. An eyewitness was explaining what the scene looked like after the plane hit. Then he said another plane was getting awfully close to the World Trade Center, that it was a jet, and then -- in a very excited voice -- that the plane had hit Tower 2.

I arrived at Engine 91 to the sound of the dispatcher declaring a 5th alarm; Engine 91 was responding. I immediately put my gear on and got into the fire engine. I just happened to have my cell phone on me, and I stuck it in my turnout coat pocket. While responding, I called my husband and told him where I was going. He knew what the situation was; he was watching it on the news.

We cut through Central Park. It amazed me that people were jogging and riding bikes without a clue about what was going on. On the south side of the park we picked up more police and fire vehicles, and became a caravan. They had cleared a lane for us on the West Side highway, and we got to the World Trade Center very quickly.

We arrived at West Street and parked our fire engine facing the towers, two blocks from the scene. We got off the engine, put on our gear, and grabbed rolls of 2-1/2 inch hose. I was also assigned the standpipe kit. The hose was not very comfortable to carry, and I had to stop several times to adjust the hose roll on my shoulder.

Our lieutenant reported into the command center, which was at the mouth of a parking garage. I kept thinking to myself: is this the garage "they" blew up in 1993? I saw my captain with his arm in a sling, and asked him why he was there. He told me all vacations and medical leaves had been rescinded, and that all members were called into duty and were to report to the scene.

There had to be 75 to 100 firefighters waiting at the command center for assignments into one of the towers. Some companies came out, and others went in to relieve them. Suddenly, someone yelled that something was falling from one of the towers. It turned out to be one of the 150 people who either decided to jump or were blown out of Tower 1. It was a horrific scene; we stared, in disbelief or maybe in shock. A few of us turned away and stared at the wall, but we could still hear the bodies hit. I felt like I was intruding on a sacrament. I guess that was when it hit me how serious this whole situation was. How horrible could it have been up there, if it made people jump knowing they were going to die?

My lieutenant was called up to the command table and Engine 91, "El Barrio's Bravest," was given an assignment. We were assigned to Tower 2, Subbasement 6, to check the fire pumps. I called my husband and left a message on his answering machine, to tell him what our assignment was.

Our crew reported to the command table, and were told we needed forcible entry tools. My captain from Engine 35, Captain Ryan, and the chauffeur of Engine 91, Firefighter Connor, volunteered to go back to Engine 91, which was to the left of the command center, and get its forcible entry tools. At the same time a firefighter ran over to the command table and told them that a firefighter had been hit by a jumper and needed last rites. Several members went off to the right to help the dying firefighter.

Suddenly, you could see a ring of fire at the top of Tower 2, and the whole building started puffing and jumping. We were all mesmerized by the sight; finally, someone yelled, "Run!" and we came out of our trance. I turned around; everyone was running into the garage. I moved that direction with the hose roll still on my shoulder and the standpipe kit in my hand, and made it into the garage.

The building came down. Everyone was running ahead of me; I stayed behind, afraid I would be crushed and even more afraid I would lose my sense of direction. At the same time, I was wondering if there would be a secondary explosion in the garage or if the entrance to the garage would collapse, trapping us. Finally, I dropped the hose roll and the standpipe kit. I couldn't breathe: the air was thick with dust and we don't know what else. It was dark all around us. I put my face piece on; it was full of dust, too. All the dust went into my mouth and my eyes. My eyes were on fire.

I wasn't sure if the garage had collapsed. Finally, people started talking; someone asked if anyone was hurt. We felt around to see if anyone was on the ground and hurt badly enough that they couldn't answer. We all seemed to be okay. Someone claimed to know the way out, so we all held onto each other and followed him out. It was pitch black: I didn't know we were outside until I saw a tree I had been standing next to earlier. The air was thick, and it was difficult to breathe.

I still had my facepiece on. The man next to me started having an asthma attack, and asked for my facepiece, so I shared it with him until we could get him into a police van that had air conditioning. I went back into the garage and yelled for the rest of Engine 91; Lieutenant Casey and Firefighter Sheehan found me, and we headed back to the engine. The crew was still missing a very important member, a man whose son is suffering from cancer. We had to find him. Lieutenant Casey ordered us to stay at the rig while he looked for the missing man.

The sun finally reappeared as the dark cloud lifted. I needed to contact my family to let them know I was okay; after several tries, I got a signal on my cell phone and called my husband and told him I was okay. I must have sounded extremely upset, because he kept telling me to calm down. I told him to call our daughter at college to let her know I was okay. I hung up with him and called my parents: I needed to know where my older brother, Kevin, from Squad 41, and my younger brother, Christopher, from Ladder 152, were. My father notified me they were both on the recall. I was never so relieved in my life. We were one of the lucky families: many families lost several members. Four of my parent's six children are civil servants. My sister-in-law is a police officer, as is my husband. We knew we were lucky to all be accounted for.

We headed back to Ground Zero but were turned back: we were told Tower1 was ready to implode. We were told there were fighter jets ready to shoot down four more planes that had been hijacked and were missing. We were told of bomb scares in other buildings, and a sniper in army fatigues with an automatic rifle shooting people. We smelled a natural gas leak. We ran from one side of the street to another. Finally, we were all ordered to the pier. Things finally quieted down, the gas leaks were shut off, there were still jets overhead, and no sniper ever materialized.

I went back to Engine 91 to survey the damage from Tower 2's implosion. Two inches of dust had settled inside the fire engine, but the rig was still running. Firefighter Sheehan and I decided to move the fire engine another block farther from the site. We did that, and then waited there for Lt. Casey to return to us with Firefighter Hoppy, our missing member.

All of a sudden, we could see that Tower 1 had a ring of fire around the roof; the building started puffing and jumping. I said to Sheehan "That's how the first tower looked right before it imploded!" We watched as the building collapsed. We could see all the debris and smoke coming down the street at us. I ran to the back step of Engine 91 and got into the fetal position, hoping the rig would protect me from the debris. Sheehan ran and got under another fire engine.

We were both safe. We took in a lot of dust, which we found out several days later contained asbestos. When the dust cloud finally lifted, Lt. Casey returned with Firefighter Hoppy. We stayed at the rig together. I let everyone use my cell phone to let their families know they were okay.

It was a bizarre feeling to stand there alive, knowing hundreds of our fellow firefighters were trapped in the debris. A half-hour earlier, I had stood in front of the towers listening to everyone give their positions: what attack stairs were being used, and what rescue stairs were being used. Now, there was complete silence. There were no radio transmissions, no PASS alarms going off. I felt useless. I felt like we had abandoned our members.

Engine 91's crew started drifting away as we each saw people we knew. I walked down to Ground Zero and ran into a member of my engine company. He couldn't believe I was alive. It turned out my company thought I was dead because, after Tower 2 came down, they had heard a firefighter calling for help over the radio. He was trapped under his rig and was running out of air. I guess the firefighter was very nervous and was speaking in a very high voice, so they thought it was me.

They also heard the dispatcher trying to contact the command center, to no avail. The dispatcher asked if anyone could respond to a roll call. There was no answer.

I ran into the rest of my company. Some of them were using a hand line that was stretched into the remains of Tower 1; others were searching the rubble for survivors. We walked around looking for survivors. We found none; just a lot of partially burnt papers. I kept thinking to myself, "Where are all the body parts?" My lieutenant asked me to get a search rope and flashlight off of one of the crushed fire trucks. I found a flashlight on the ground and a search rope in a compartment on a truck.

No one seemed to be in charge. The upper echelon of the fire department had been killed when Tower 2 came down: the people I had been standing next to before I ran into the parking garage.

At the same time, World Trade Center 7 was on fire: twelve stories of uncontrollable flames. There was no water pressure, and we could not put any water on the fire. Eventually two fire boats arrived to help boost the water pressure, but no one could get near the building. It seemed to be in imminent danger of collapsing, and all members were ordered out of the area. It ended up being more than five hours before Building 7 collapsed.

My lieutenant made a command decision, and we went back to our fire engine where we hung out together, waiting for orders. We wanted to help search for our missing members: again, we felt as though we had abandoned them.

Recalled members started to show up at the scene, by the busload. At the same time firefighters and emergency workers were coming from all over the tri-state area. Ground Zero was getting more and more crowded.

The surrounding area became a tourist attraction. People were walking up West Street with children in strollers, pointing at what used to be, a place where 343 firefighters were last seen alive. A place where hours before, we had been running from bomb scares, gas leaks, supposed snipers and hijacked planes. Now we were part of the tourist attraction. News reporters were all over the place. They kept asking questions; you'd look up, and there would be a camera in your face. I walked away every time someone asked a question or pointed a camera at me.

I spent the rest of the day doing absolutely nothing. I never felt so useless in my life.

Eventually we all started walking around again, and I headed towards Ground Zero. I needed to see other firefighters; hoped to see someone who knew something about the people who were missing. At a command center, I recognized a captain who, like the other guy had been, was shocked to see me because he had thought I was among the missing. I made some other stops and visited other people I knew, then headed back to the engine. It was 8 p.m. by now, and the lieutenant decided it was time to go back to the firehouse, so we left.

We picked up many members of the department on the way back to Harlem. Since no transportation had been provided, everyone was on their own, and members were walking in full gear back to their own quarters. We dropped them off at all their various firehouses.

When we arrived back in quarters, the firehouse was packed. Three extra fire rigs were there, including a relocated engine company from Queens with all its members on recall. We were notified that we were now on 24-hour shifts with 24 hours off. Our crew was due back at Ground Zero at 9 a.m. for recovery operations. I took a shower and tried to clean myself up. My eyes were still on fire, but it's hard to complain about your eyes when you know dozens of firefighters are missing and possibly dead.

Battalion Chief O'Keefe called all the members who had been at the World Trade Center into his office. He told us: "Go home and be with your families: they need you." We were told to come back Thursday morning. I didn't want to leave; I wanted to stay and be with my co-workers, and I was too tired to drive home. But there was no room, not even an empty chair. So my best friend, Firefighter Brendan Lowrey from Engine 35, drove me to get my car at Engine 91, where I was met by the crew with hugs and kisses.

I got in my car and drove the 42 miles home. I don't know if it was foggy out, or if it was the smoke from the World Trade Center, or if I just couldn't see because my eyes were so bad. I arrived at home at 1: 45 a.m. and went to bed.

The next day I couldn't tear myself away from CNN. I cried all day. I didn't want to be around anyone. I was ashamed that I had done nothing to help our missing firefighters. I spoke to friends and family on the phone, but that was my only contact with anyone except for my immediate family.

I later found out how many firefighters I knew were missing. With each name, more tears flowed. So many young children left without fathers. I also realized that I had been seconds away from dying. When Tower 2 was imploding I was standing at the command table. Everyone who ran to the right was killed. Anyone who ran to the left was okay. All of us who ran into the garage were saved. Everyone at the command center died.

I have tried very hard not to let September 11th affect my life. I do not want to give the "evil ones" that kind of power over me. I try to go on with my life, but somehow I feel I cannot heal unless I admit that September 11th has in fact changed my life. I am just not ready to admit it yet.

This article first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Firework, the print newsletter of Women in the Fire Service, Inc. It is copyright © 2002 Maureen B. McArdle Schulman and may not be reprinted without written permission from the author.




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