This is dedicated to my dad, Steve Minehan – a Boston firefighter and a true hero, killed in the line of duty. 1950-1994
I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was a clear, beautiful Tuesday in September. I was on Moon Island for the Boston Fire Academy training program. It’s one of several small islands in Boston Harbor, near Quincy. Close, but far away.
We had just returned from our five-mile morning run, and I remember our drillmaster yelling out to us from upstairs, “The Twin Towers have been attacked.” It was like he realised right away this was not an accident, or a careless pilot error. He brought us into one of the classrooms and turned on the TV – one of those big boxy types, an older model, like the AV kids used to wheel through the school hallways occasionally. We all sat and watched in utter disbelief, which then quickly turned to horror as we watched the second plane hit on live TV. We sat mesmerized for most of the morning, watching the scenes unfold, the constant reporting.
When the towers collapsed, our drillmaster came in and solemnly explained that hundreds of firefighters had likely died just now. It’s one part of the job everyone knows about, but tries not worry about. But this brought home the reality. He gave us an out: if any of us chose to leave, knowing what we would potentially have to sacrifice in our careers, he would understand.
No one left.
He then ordered us to take our gear home with us. He told us to be prepared to be ordered to work, even though we were only 4 weeks into our training. We didn’t know what we would be facing yet in the aftermath, especially with all the fallen brothers in Manhattan. While New York and Boston will forever be rivals, on that day, we were nothing but in complete solidarity.
The rest of that day seems like a blur, everything just blends together.
Being on Moon Island across from the airport, we typically heard planes coming and going almost constantly throughout the day. What struck us for the next few days was the sheer silence of the harbor as the airport was shuttered. When they resumed flights later that week, I distinctly remember everyone on the island stopping mid-evolution (‘evolution’ meaning whatever drill we were assigned that moment) and stared up at the sky, like that plane was the first one anyone had ever seen. It was surreal.
On Friday a handful of us took the train down to New York. We worked our way into various firehouses and onto the pile as volunteers. I remember the smell, something a lot of people wouldn’t be aware of, unless they were there. But other survivors from that day mention it too. The acrid smell was incredibly unique. It just added to the atmosphere: it was heavy and dense. It felt like even the air itself was mourning.
We worked on the pile alongside firefighters from all over the world, pulling up and out anything that we could. In the two days I was there, we recovered 11 firefighters, and I can’t even count how many civilians.
It felt like we were all in a really sad movie. No one really spoke, it was that intense, other than the occasional “hi” or “bye”. Typically, when firemen get together it becomes a networking event, lots of ball busting and joking. But I couldn’t tell you the name of one man or woman I worked beside, because there was no small talk, no chitchat. Just solemn, eerie silence and a mammoth job to do.
After those few days, I came back to Boston and finished the Academy. In the weeks and months that followed, I attended close to 150 funerals in and around New York for fallen victims. Sometimes we would go to two or three funerals a day. It was rough. That’s where the camaraderie and networking occurred. We all helped each other grieve and process the huge losses. Over the course of that experience, I made friends that I still talk to weekly.
Some firehouses lost entire work groups. Thousands of years of combined fireground experience, lost in just three hours. One interesting statistic I learned from a guy on FDNY was that on the 10th of September 2001, over 85% of the New York City Fire Department had over 10 years of experience. On September 10th 2005, 85% of the New York City Fire Department had less than 10 years’ experience. Obviously, I knew that firefighters died doing their jobs. But to lose so many, so fast? That was incredibly difficult to process.
I had never been to NYC until after September 11. I never saw the Towers in person. My first experience was that massive hole in the ground, and that pile of debris. It’s something that’s burned into my brain. It’s so hard to fathom that it’s been 20 years.