Today marks the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, and is one of those days that always makes me stop and reflect on those we lost and on all the lives affected. On this day last year, I shared a remembrance from Stephen King who I have had the pleasure of getting to know through his role as the Chair on the Technical Committee for NFPA 1971 and NFPA 1851. Prior to that, Steve was the FDNY Chief of Safety, and 9/11/2001 was his last day on the job.
I thought it would be fitting to share Steve's powerful thoughts again today.
9/11/2001 – A Remembrance
As I drove to work on September 11th, 2001, I remember thinking that it was an incredibly beautiful morning. The New York skyline was crystal clear on the horizon even though I was still many miles from the city line. The twin towers stood tall and proud welcoming everyone to the city.
I arrived at my headquarters a little before 8 A.M. I was reporting for duty as the citywide safety chief for a 24 hour shift. From my office windows I could look out directly at the twin towers looming tall in the sky just across the East River. It was so close that I felt that if I leaned out of the window I could almost touch the towers.
It was my first tour back after finishing several weeks of vacation so that I could take care of my wife who was terminally ill. I wanted to continue to stay home with her, but she understood that I had an important job in the FDNY and that I was needed back.
I started the tour the same way firefighters start the job throughout our country. I headed straight to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee and to find my relief so he could brief me on events in the city during the last 24 hours. After debriefing I made my way back to my office which was right down the hall. As soon as I entered the room I saw a massive explosion in the North Tower that seemed to engulf at least ten stories. My heart sunk immediately. In 34 years on the department I had never seen anything like it even though I had worked through the “war years” in the city. I immediately turned to my aide Bobby Crawford and told him “Let’s get going”. Usually when there is a fire or emergency you get notified by a “ticket” to respond. There was no reason to wait for a ticket for this because there was no doubt that we wouldn’t be assigned to this alarm.
Within minutes we were on the Manhattan Bridge with a clear view of the towers the entire way. If I thought that it looked foreboding before, now it was much worse. I could see many workers from the building either leaning as far out the windows as they could to avoid the intense heat and smoke or outright choosing to jump. I remember thinking it was unlike anything I had ever witnessed in my career or even thought was possible. It seemed to me like a terrible nightmare but it was very real and I knew it. There would be no putting this fire out. FDNY had known for years that any fire of this magnitude in a high-rise would be almost impossible to extinguish. Too many floors with too much fire. Fire being fueled by jet fuel.
We arrived at the towers in nine minutes, well before the second plane hit the South Tower. We transmitted our arrival to headquarters, pulling our vehicle dangerously close to the North Tower, too close. Bobby quickly realized that our position put us in immediate danger from falling aircraft and building debris and people who were jumping. He backed the car further away from the tower, placing it under a building undergoing construction. The building had a scaffold offering enough protection to allow us to open the trunk of our car and put on our equipment without being hit. At this time there was so much debris and bodies falling that we had to look up into the air to avoid being hit while trying to run into the tower.
Once inside I reported to the lobby command center and was issued orders to go up the “B” staircase looking to see how the evacuation was unfolding and if there was any signs of panic from the many civilians rushing, rather calmly, to exit the tower. As we slowly made our way up we could see many of the civilians taking the time to pat a firefighter on the shoulder or to whisper “God Bless You”. They couldn’t believe that firefighters were going up. It was a memory that will stay with me always. Bobby and I continued up to the eighth floor where I took a moment to try to give my report to the Command Chief, via our department issued handi-talkies. It was useless. There was too much radio traffic with many transmissions either being unable to transmit or unheard. I decided that we would have to go back down to the command center to relate the status of the evacuation in person. I told Bobby to follow me down. With all the people exiting via the staircase Bobby and I became separated somehow. I didn’t realize that Bobby wasn’t behind me until I reached the command center. I tried almost continuously to make contact with him via the handi-talkie but it never happened. Bobby Crawford never made it out alive.
While it was never discussed directly, I knew that all the chiefs were thinking the same thing. If the fire continued to burn it would eventually cause the steel girders which supported the floors and exterior walls to fail. Steel starts to soften and fail quickly at around 1000 degrees and a fire fueled by jet fuel burns at around 2000 degrees. This was almost certainly going to be my last day alive! There was no way any of us were going to survive this. Those of us at the command post knew that we would not abandon the firefighters that we sending up the stairwells; we were all in this together.
While all this was going on, I couldn’t help but remember the destruction that I witnessed when I responded to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. I remember the many sub floors that were destroyed. These same sub floors gave much needed lateral support to the massive vertical girders which held the towers up. There was genuine concern that these vertical girders would buckle without this lateral support, leading to a collapse of the tower. I vividly recall trying to remind myself to pay attention to all that was going on because no matter how long I continued to work in the department nothing could ever begin to approach the magnitude of the destruction I witnessed that day. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As an aside, I always found it interesting that even though my job required me to take in all major events that occurred within the city, that was the only two times I ever responded to the World Trade Center.
At some point, upon my arrival back at the command post, we received a report that a second aircraft hit the South Tower. This couldn’t just be a terrible accident. We had to be under attack. I remember thinking it couldn’t get any worse. How could any of us survive this?
Shortly after, while assisting at the command post, there was a radio transmission. It stated “Oh my God! The Towers coming down.” With no other information available to me I immediately assumed that this was the North Tower, the tower I was in. Even if I couldn’t believe what I heard transmitted, I could start to hear a deep rumbling coming from above. It sounded like the noise you heard when you waited for the subway train to come into the station. It was getting steadily louder. You could sense the air pressure compressing. I remember thinking there would be no escaping death now! Of course that sound was the South Tower collapsing. The tower that was hit second was coming down first. At that point I didn’t understand what was happening. In my mind and in many of our minds it was our tower coming down. How could it not be? We could hear it and feel it.
They say it took ten or eleven seconds for the South Tower to come down completely. Mere seconds! Yet I distinctly remember seeing before my eyes my complete life unfolding. Everything from my childhood, my school days, time in the Navy, raising our children, my entire life. I could write a 300 page novel about those ten seconds.
Suddenly the noise stopped. I seemed to still be alive unless I was dreaming. I was covered in debris and engulfed in smoke and heavy dust unable to see or barely breathe. Somehow I had shattered my left knee. I wasn’t alone. There were some other voices, not many. It was impossible to see anyone. Our sounds brought us together and we decided if we were to get out it had to be quickly. All of us were having extreme difficulty breathing. Since we couldn’t see we grabbed onto each other’s fire coats and tried to find a way out. Eventually we found it. Once outside I quickly became detached from everyone else. My leg injury was making it impossible to keep up with anyone else. Outside was a world of grey-white. You couldn’t see far at all and definitely couldn’t see up. It was like I was floating in some cloud. Debris was still falling around me. I had to try to get away from the other tower. It was only a matter of time before the second tower would fall.
I had only gotten a short distance away when I could hear the second tower starting to come down. I would be caught in the collapse. Where to go? I saw a subway entrance across the street from me. Could I make it in time? I had to try. As soon as I reached the subway entrance I threw myself down the stairs. There was no time to walk. I was starting to get hit by small debris. The best I could do was sit along the wall immediately adjacent to the staircase. Within seconds I was being covered by debris which came tumbling down the stairs. When it stopped I couldn’t see my legs. Did I really manage to survive both collapses? I just sat there for a while basically giving up, thinking was I really already dead and I just didn’t know it? Finally I started removing the debris from my legs. I really could not get myself up to walk and I don’t quite remember how I ended up in the street. I think I passed out at some point.
The next thing that I recall was someone poking at my shoulder. It was a doctor wearing a white uniform. He arrived with an ambulance. I was very confused at this time. I remember riding in the ambulance with several people working quickly on me trying to ascertain the extent of my injuries. It was chaos to me. I started to go unconscious. I remember feeling like I was floating a couple of feet above myself in the ambulance, looking down at the doctor and nurses working on me. I thought it doesn’t look good at all. I think I came about as close as you could to dying in that ambulance. And I was watching it all. I thought that I had to be already dead.
The next thing I remember was awakening in a hospital emergency room somewhere. A nurse standing over me asked if there was anything that I needed. I told her that I wanted my rosary beads that I always kept in my fire coat. She told me that all of my gear was missing and that while they knew I was a firefighter, they had no idea who I was. I passed out again. I don’t know how long. When I next awoke I found a pair of rosary beads in my hands and two Franciscan priests praying over me. I passed out again. When I awoke next there was a detective in my room waiting to find out who I was. After asking me several questions he asked me if I wanted to phone anybody. At this point I wasn’t sure where I was and certainly had no idea of how much time had passed since I was found in the street. The detective handed me a phone. I remember calling home and my wife answering the phone and bursting out crying the second I said “Hi”. She had been told that I was missing in action and that I probably didn’t survive. She told me days later that it was the worst thing that she ever had to go through in her life.
What I remember most that day was the incredible bravery of all the first responders and their willingness to run into the towers when everyone else was trying desperately to get out. I remember the occupants, while desperately trying to leave the towers, taking time to help those who were having difficulty making their way out.
I will forever remember the many, many friends and colleagues that I lost that day. All of them, heroes!
Stephen J. King
Former Chief of Safety, FDNY
Retired on disability due to injuries sustained on 9/11, his last day of work.