Ten years ago, Sept. 11 began like any other for eight members of the North Branford Fire Department Company 1. Most headed to work and, like many of us, were then stunned as a plane flew into the World Trade Center.
“Like everybody, we had thought it was just accidental, but when the second one hit, we knew it wasn’t,” said Captain John Florio. “I think everybody here, probably everyone in the fire service, knew that one way or another, they might be going down there.”
Soon after, firefighter John Conway called Florio and said, “Cappy, when are we leaving?”
Getting to Ground Zero
Because all transportation was at a standstill, the group could not head out right away. Florio also wanted to be sure to go through the proper channels to ensure their help was needed and know how to best serve the situation.
Once he found out that the New York Fire Department was accepting help, Florio and eight others–Lieutenant Bob Colangelo, foreman Mark Candelli, EMT Frank Garitta, firefighters John Conway, John O'Brien, Rich Lennon and Mike Bernick, along with Neil Florio from Foxon Volunteer Company 3 in East Haven–boarded the first train they could in New Haven just more than 24 hours after the first plane had struck.
There were also 24 firefighters from New Haven and then 24 Bridgeport firefighters also boarded the train. The group arrived in Grand Central Terminal to a “hero’s welcome,” according to Florio, as people stopped and applauded as the firefighters made their way to the shuttle, which brought them to a staging area at Chelsea Pier.
Florio, along with the captains from New Haven and Bridgeport, officially signed in and then had to make their way toward Station 1010, which was partially blown apart as it was located at Ground Zero.
The group was told there was a fire station at 19th and 3rd and they may be able to help get them to Ground Zero. When they arrived after a long walk, those manning the station had no way of getting them there so they started walking again in their turnout gear.
They hadn’t walked far when an ambulance pulled up asking if they needed a ride so they piled in with their gear. Florio recalls the feat of squeezing the group into the ambulance with a chuckle.
The ambulance crew took them as far as the barricades and they were unsure if they were letting anyone past. A group of people was gathered at the barricades and Florio led his team toward a police officer.
“He pushed the people aside, moved the barricade and says, ‘Thanks for coming guys.’ We said to him, ‘How much farther?’ and he said, ‘Just keep walking until you see the hole in the ground.’ I think that hit home right there,” said Florio. “We kept walking and that’s exactly what we saw–a three-story pile of rubble that was two 110-story buildings. I think all of us sort of hesitated for a minute.”
Florio explained that it was not just the towers that were destroyed, but all of the surrounding buildings as well. Windows were blown out, I-beams were jutting out and the fronts of buildings were gone.
“The carnage was unreal,” said Conway. “Being glued to the TV for the 24 hours before that didn’t do any justice until we literally walked up on it. It was absolutely horrid.”
Getting to Work
The group was welcomed at Station 1010, told to stow their gear and go to work. They were given five-gallon buckets to clear the debris and rubble. The firefighters worked alongside doctors, nurses and soldiers filling the pails.
Once the pails were filled, they had to sort the debris, putting victims’ personal effects on one tarp, body parts on another and police and fire personnel’s effects on a third.
“You got up on that pile and you were looking at 24x36 inch box beams that were twisted like pretzels,” said Conway. “Concrete–no such thing. Not a telephone, not a door, not a desk, not a doorknob–nothing. Everything was just pulverized.”
The group did find some objects that survived including a dollar bill that a NYC firefighter handed to Candelli.
“I tried to give it back–he gave it back to me,” said Candelli. “I still have it.”
After working a short time, an evacuation horn blew as the other buildings in the area were being monitored to be sure they were stable and movement was detected.
“You saw this massive evacuation of hundreds of people,” said Florio. “I remember seeing a nurse go down and this big marine never even broke stride, picked her up with one hand, threw her over his shoulder and kept running.”
They were pushed back to blocks away and there they saw the landing gear. It was starting to get dark when they went back to work on “the pile”, seeing many police officers ending their shifts and joining them in digging.
A retired battalion chief took charge of the North Branford crew. As they worked on the pile, which was still burning in places under their feet, they were directed to dig different sites by sound equipment and dogs.
When a steel beam got in their way, they called the steel workers who would “just burn the beam out of the way," said Florio. "It was their [ironworkers] building, too. Some of their fathers had worked on it.”
“All we could do was cut and move,” said Conway.
After being directed to dig in a spot, the group dug until they found the top of an ambulance. A crew came to open the top, but the victims were dead.
Across the pile, other workers thought they heard something and were yelling for a torch. The North Branford crew worked together to bring the equipment across the pile.
“I looked over and saw these guys climbing this pile of steel with the torch bottles and torch setup on their back–I couldn’t be more proud of these guys and the way they worked,” said Florio. “They went down there to do a job and they did it.”
The battalion chief told the North Branford crew to take a break as it was now getting late and “we’d been working pretty good and we were hungry and hot and tired and dirty," said Florio.
Coming off of the pile, the group met some of the “unsung heroes” of the day. There were groups of college kids serving meals from four- and five-star restaurants in New York; people from Home Depot and Lowe’s who sent 18-wheelers full of tools to the scene; college students who walked around the pile handing out bottles of water; nuns washing the dirt and dust out of people’s eyes; and people who brought fresh socks.
Florio sat down next to his brother to have their eyes cleaned out and looked up at the nun to see that she was his cousin.
“I hadn’t seen her in so many years and I said what are the chances, we’d all be here at the same time,” he said. “And the new socks, without a doubt, was a little piece of heaven right there. A lot of people don’t know about the other people who helped out–nobody hears about those volunteers and private organizations who were down there helping the rescuers.”
They sat in ankle- to knee-deep powder while they ate and then, in order to get through some areas, they had to walk through buildings, including the Winter Garden Atrium, which was “destroyed,” according to Florio.
As they were walking through, they saw a home furnishings store–Platypus–where the windows and doors were shattered. The group laughed as they reminisced about going into the store to get some rest.
“We thought there must be bedroom furniture here, but someone was already sleeping in the bed,” said Florio. “So we find the outdoor furniture section and we’re in lounge chairs under palm trees and grass umbrellas next to a rattan bar.”
Florio decided they’d rest for an hour and just 45 minutes later, the group was ready to get back to work. They were instructed to dig an area to the street so they began digging and uncovered a ladder truck.
“We dug that truck out,” said Florio “Then it was about time for North Branford to step aside and let FDNY collect their own.”
Now 8 a.m., the North Branford group came off the pile again and came across another unsung hero–a girl with a wagon full of Quarter-Pounders and orange juice.
“A Quarter-Pounder never tasted so good,” said Conway.
As they ate their breakfast, hundreds of firefighters from Chicago came marching down the street. The Chicago firefighters greeted the North Branford group and with fresh reinforcements now streaming in, Florio knew his group had done its job.
“We worked it and there were all kinds of guys pouring in that morning,” said Florio. “They said the president was coming and we looked at each other and said ‘We think our time here is done, it’s time for us to go home.’ We went down to do what we had to do.”
With their part of the job done and the heavy equipment started to arrive, North Branford’s firefighters now had to make their way home so they started walking–again. Even though they were now headed home, Florio said the group then faced one of the most difficult parts of their day–walking through the area where the families were waiting.
“There were pictures everywhere and people did ask and that was the worst part of the whole thing,” said Florio. “How do you walk through all those people if you don’t have an answer for them?”
After moving through that area, a Con-Edison van offered them a lift to Grand Central. They gladly accepted and the conductor sat them in a private car in the front of the train.
But when they reached Norwalk, all trains were halted due to a bomb threat at Grand Central. A man saw the group discussing how to get home and they accepted another ride. His wife pulled up in a brand new minivan.
“We were absolutely filthy,” said Florio. “He said, ‘Hey honey, we’ve got to take somebody home,’ and we come walking up in our gear and she didn’t bat an eye. Around West Haven, we asked them where they were from and they said Fairfield. They’d driven past where they live to bring us home and we really appreciated that.”
That weekend, Co. 1 took to the streets, holding a fundraiser in front of the fire station that backed up traffic to the police station and raised almost $40,000.
Over the past 10 years, the group has never discussed their experiences at Ground Zero. Gathering at Co. 1 on Sept. 8, six of the nine who made the trip shared their story.
“This is probably the first time in 10 years we’ve all been in the same room discussing this,” said Conway. “It’s not that there’s not a lot to talk about because there is–the things we’ve seen, the things we’ve done–we all know. This is the first time in years it’s been brought up. You just start thinking about some of the things you’ve witnessed and you’ve seen and you don’t ever want to see it again, but you know if it happens again, we’ll be there.”
No one feels like 10 years has passed and Florio takes a moment to remember those lost–not just firefighter and other emergency responders, but the every day people who had no idea that their regular day could bring such danger.
“Firefighters pick a dangerous profession–those guys in New York are the best and every day they know they might not be coming home, but the guy who went to work that morning, those people getting on that airplane, they didn’t know that,” said Florio. “That’s where you really feel it. That’s the real story.”
Though none of them have been to Ground Zero, several have visited New York City since then, including their ‘brothers’ at the fire departments they worked at 10 years ago and the new Platypus, the store where they found some respite that night.
“We talked about going to the museum this weekend, but decided this weekend is for the families,” said Florio. “But we’ll go there someday.”
Though they do not often speak about their service that day, there are other ways they remember 9/11. Conway has participated in a motorcycle ride that began in Shanksville, where Flight 93 crashed and a 17-ton boulder sits in memory of those lost.
“There are days when it seems like it was so very long ago and days like today when it seems like it was yesterday,” said Conway.