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The 78th Floor

On this anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States, I wanted to share a true story with you about some of the heroes that day.  There were many of them - cops, medical personnel, firefighters, and civilians all who deserve proper recognition for the courage they displayed on that tragic day.  It is a tale of bravery that is beyond comprehension to most.  An account of a group of firefighters – heroes who spend their entire careers a ladder rung away from death.



            Through the technology of live television, I watched the disaster of September 11, 2001 unfold at the World Trade Center in New York.  I saw the flames and smoke spew from the upper levels of both towers, and felt helpless.  My immediate fear was for the victims trapped in the buildings – followed by a belief that New York's Bravest would get there in time to save the day. But this wasn't a movie – it was live and it was  happening right now.

             I was still glued to the TV at 9:59 in the morning when the South Tower fell.  An hour and 14 minutes had passed since the New York firefighters received the first alarm.  My fear exploded into disbelief as I watched any hope of saving those people crash when the tower crumbled 120 stories to the earth below.  My head ached when I thought about the brave heroes who were in the structure when it fell.  I wondered how many were in the building when the once mighty steel girders weakened from the intense heat.

           In the weeks and months that followed, opinions and comments began to surface that firefighters were ineffective and in disarray that day.   According to an article in the New York Times, city officials "believed that no firefighters had gone higher than the 50th floor!"  For months, family members of victims who worked in the upper floors of the South Tower were left to wonder whether their loved ones died alone.

            Then in early 2002, a tape was found among the rubble.  It was a tape of lost voices – an account of the brave firefighters who ascended the towering inferno to face the horror on the 78th floor.  In fact, one Battalion Chief made it to the 80th floor to begin assessing the emergency needs there.  Among the rescuers who challenged the South Tower and scaled to the site of the wreckage were the firefighters from Ladder 15. 

            Located on South Street, the firefighters of Ladder 15 share a home with those of Engine 4.  They are charged with providing fire protection to one of the oldest sections of Manhattan.  Nineteen years ago today, they were among the first to arrive at the scene when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the 96th floor of North Tower of the World Trade Center.  They were queued up along with five other engine and ladder companies waiting their turn to ascend the North Tower when United Flight 175 crashed into the 81st floor of the South Tower.  The jet crashed at a sharp angle that spread the damage from the 78th to 84th floors.  It was on the 78th floor where scores of people were waiting in the lobby for the express elevator to take them to the higher floors. 

      According to an account in USA Today, a survivor stated, "The area was packed worse than lunch or rush hour."  Some reports estimate that as many as 200 people lost their lives when the initial explosion hit the lobby.

            The firefighters of Ladder 15 were diverted to the South Tower where they found one elevator working to the 40th floor.  From there, they would have to take the stairs to continue their climb to the fire ravaged levels. 

            The tape confirmed that in 56 minutes these heroes ascended 38 flights of stairs, carrying and wearing more than 80 pounds of equipment.  On the way up they battled fires, floods from broken pipes, and exhaustion.  People coming down the stairs were asked, "What floor did you come from?"  When they replied "78", the firefighters knew they could make it to that level.

           According to the transcripts of the tape, at 9:37 a.m. a Fire Department Lieutenant told one of the firefighters to stay on the 40th floor with the working elevator because "10 to 15 people are coming down to you" to be evacuated.  While those victims made their way down to the 40th floor, the firefighters continued to evacuate others.  By 9:50 a.m., 10 victims were scrambling to get inside the elevator with their rescuer on the 40th floor.  The firefighters continued evacuating other victims to a safe area on the 70th floor, well below the immediate danger of the fire.  Calls for more help went out as the smoke cleared on the 78th floor and the firefighters saw the devastation.  One radio transmission reported "numerous 10-45 code ones" (civilian deaths).

            At 9:57 a.m, some 38 floors below, the firefighter manning the elevator and 10 victims he was helping to evacuate became trapped.  The brave hero radioed to his Ladder-15 comrades that they were stuck in the elevator and he was "chopping through the wall to get out."  Two minutes later, the building collapsed and the radios went silent.  Among the dead were eight firefighters from Ladder-15.

            Of all the emergency services personal that died on September 11, 2001 New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was quoted as saying "Those that responded showed a courage, a professionalism and devotion to duty that the rest of us can only imagine.  We must ensure that future generations will be able to read their names, know what they did, appreciate their heroism, be inspired by their sacrifice and ensure that they are designated as role models."

I couldn't agree more.





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