Honor Team 1 (3)

Honor Team 1 (3)





"Being brave means that you stand up and do something despite being afraid! That's what makes a Hero!" 
"Thank you so much for your touching email. I'm very happy and honored to join you guys this year for this noble event. So many of you give so much to this plight and it is all just so moving. I appreciate all the work you have done, both with the event and for raising money for firefighters with your organization FirefighterAid." 
- Jim Smagala



"It was a clear day much like any other, cool and crisp, as me and the Chief made our way to FDNY headquarters in downtown Brooklyn. The "Chief" was Assistant Chief of Department-Joseph Callan, and he was the guy in charge of the entire city whenever there was a large fire in one of the five boroughs. I was his Aide at the time, handling all communications between us and the FDNY, and any other agencies that we were operating with, including: FEMA, OEM, the NYPD and the Mayor's office. We strolled down the hall with our coffees in hand on our way to Chief of Department-Peter Ganci's office to go over the day's events. No sooner did we enter his office when we heard, and saw, the first plane hit the World Trade Center out of his office window.

Immediately, we all marched down to our department vehicles and flew over the Brooklyn Bridge to the scene. We were there in a matter of minutes. The first thing I remember when I opened the door of our vehicle was the intense heat, and smell of jet fuel permeating the air. Suddenly there came a loud, thunderous noise overhead, and with nothing but this quick warning, the second plane crashed into the South Tower just above our heads. We all fell away in instinctive cover, our hands to our heads, and then looked up in utter horror at the scene that was unfolding in front of us. We quickly regrouped and as I followed Chief Callan into the lobby of the North Tower I was pulled aside by Chief of Department Ganci who told me that I was to inform Chief Callan that he was in charge of the North Tower and I was to inform Chief Donald Burns that he was in charge of the South. As I caught up to these men, I had no idea that those would be the last words Chief Ganci would ever speak to me, or that those would be the last words I would ever speak to Chief Burns.

BANG, BANG. Loud gunshot type noises kept coming from just outside the tower lobby. Strange noises but, there was barely time to give it much thought. Companies were reporting in left and right now, and I remember feeling a chill run up my spine when I heard Engine Company 226 check in at the South Tower on my citywide radio. Engine 226 was my Brother Stan's company. I didn't know if he was working or not at the time, but I had an eerie feeling that he was, and I also had an eerie feeling that I was going to die this day.

Being an Aide to the Assistant Chief of Department meant that I wasn't required to wear bunker gear very often, in fact I had never worn it up to that point. We stayed outside the fire buildings mostly, usually setting up a command post away from the smoke and the flames. It was a job I had only been doing for about a year. The Chief motioned for me through the crowd of emergency responders and when I reached him he simply said, "Go get our gear". I immediately responded and made my way past the crowds of scurrying people toward the west exit. BANG, BANG, BANG. The noises grew louder and louder as I stepped outside and made my way to our vehicle to grab our gear. Between me and the vehicle however, were piles of clothes strewn about the sidewalk, as though some jealous wife had just emptied her husband's dresser out the second story window. How strange, but no time to think about that. It wasn't until I returned from our vehicle with the bunker gear that I understood the clothing. People were hanging out the windows 80+ stories high. Above the plane crash and the flames were terrified, panic stricken people, desperate people. Have you ever been in a fire where the flames were so close they were licking your butt? What do people in these situations do? I'll tell you exactly what they do, they jump. I saw them jumping, scared for their lives, convinced their only hope was to somehow survive the impact. BANG, BANG, and two more lives are taken, leaving only piles of clothing behind as their bodies explode on impact. 

I made my way back into the tower lobby deftly avoiding the human projectiles I was now aware of overhead. This is where I ran into Chief Ray Downey. The head of the FDNY Special Operations Command, Chief Downey was the most respected and decorated Chief on the job, regarded by many as the best, and more importantly my friend. I had grown up with his kids and he had been instrumental in my becoming a New York City Firefighter. We had talked many times before. There were no words now though. We looked each other square in the eye and that was it. Just a look. The look of men on a journey, a journey they know they won't return from, yet they charge forward stoically, regardless. It would be the last time I would see him alive as well.

Suddenly, a loud roar grew closer and closer followed by a rush of debris into the North Tower lobby that overtook us like a wave at the beach. Total darkness and then dead silence. The South Tower had fallen and its debris was deposited atop us in the lobby of the North Tower.

I dreamt of my childhood, about playing baseball at Town Field, going swimming in our family pool and about the time I fell off my bike and got a concussion. I dreamt of my wedding day, my kids' births and of all the times we shared on family vacations together. I dreamt of everything that had ever happened to me up to that point in my life. All chronologically and in such vivid detail, as though I had miraculously lived my life all over again. All in the matter of a split second. Then I awoke, having never been asleep. Awakened to the fact that I was indeed alive. Two feelings then swept over me. The first was God touching me, somehow plucking me out of the rubble with his thumb and forefinger, shaking the dirt off my butt and putting me back on my path. The second was the strange sense that my brother and I had traded places. I having survived, and he having surrendered. Sacrificing his life for mine to save my kids from losing a father. As it turned out my brother had indeed perished in that very moment. I had felt it. I didn't know it at the time, but somehow I did. Just 36 years old, he left behind his pregnant wife and their soon to be only child, Alexa (now 15 years old), who like many other children born after 9/11 never got the chance to meet her father. His remains have never been recovered. He has no true grave site. He is instead, buried in the bottomless tomb that lies beneath ground zero, having given his life for the benefit of others including, and more exclusively, myself.

After banding together a small group of us exited the building carrying Father Judge’s lifeless body with us. As I looked toward the remains of the South Tower, I was unsure of exactly what I was seeing at the time. Had the South tower really fallen?  I didn’t have much time to think about it though, as I only got as far as the corner of the North Tower when I heard another eerie rumbling coming from directly above me. As I looked up I saw the North Tower crumbling down toward me. I ran instinctively, and again, as before in the lobby, a wave of debris would overcome me. It would drive me to the ground, blow me down the street, and cover me in cement and dust. Again, I thought my life was over. Again, I would escape death. In pitch darkness, unable to breath, I would make my way to a fire engine and grab an air tank. It was now quiet, desolate, and pitch dark, as though the sun had been blotted out from the sky and we had reached the end of the world. I would survive the end of the world as well.

There is much more to the story but, like so many bodies, it is buried at the bottom of the World Trade Center. I survived but, I would sustain many injuries, both physical and psychological, some immediate, and some lying-in-wait to surface in the years to come.

I would undergo 3 surgeries following 9/11 and retire a year later. Like many others after 9/11,  I wallowed in misery for many years thereafter, I struggled to make sense of a senseless world, where people would do something like this.  I didn’t know what to do after I left the fire department and I watched many of my friends and brethren go down some very dark paths. I watched as they floundered in life, many succumbing to the craziness that consumed them afterwards. I looked at them and knew I couldn’t do that to myself , my wife or my kids, so I sought the help of a therapist and with her help and the support of my wife Denise and my family I worked through my fears in time. I decided that I still had something to give. I wasn’t helping people anymore but I knew I still wanted to. So at 48 years old I went back to college fulltime. That was 4 ½ years ago, and 2 days from now, at 52 years old, I am proud to say that I will be graduating and beginning a new career as a Physician Assistant where I can again concentrate my efforts towards helping people.

It was a long and arduous road and it took a lot of courage and bravery to live through 9/11, but it took even more to get on with my life after it. You know, I coached a lot of kids in my day, and I’ve heard a few say over the years that they were scared to do certain things, or afraid of certain situations when the pressure was on, that they’re not as “brave” as me, “you’re a hero”. And I say no,no,no being brave doesn’t mean that your unafraid. BEING BRAVE MEANS THAT YOU STAND UP AND DO SOMETHING DESPITE BEING AFRAID!  THAT’S WHAT MAKES A HERO!

So I say to you all, that if we can all learn one thing from the events of 9/11, it is that it is alright to be afraid. I promise you that all those people involved in the World Trade Center that day were afraid, including me, but fear does something to you when your staring in its face, it makes you ACT. Face up to your fears. We’re all afraid of something, even those that pretend not to be. IT’S OK TO BE AFRAID, but STAND UP AND DO SOMETHING, CHALLENGE YOURSELF, CHALLENGE SOMEONE ELSE, MAKE A DIFFERENCE, DESPITE BEING AFRAID! THAT IS WHAT BRAVERY IS ALL ABOUT!  

God bless the brave men and women that protect this country every day, god bless the brave families that have gone on in the face of tragedy, and god bless the brave men and women who lost their lives on 9/11. Thank you."