Firefighters, police toil through grief

Many are shellshocked as they wait to learn fate of countless co-workers

`You are our heroes'

Terrorism Strikes America

New York City

September 13, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- At Hook and Ladder Company 3 of Battalion 6 on East 13th Street, Mike Moran's tired, sad, bloodshot, blue eyes only begin to tell the story.

Two-fifths of the firefighter's 25-member company was unaccounted for yesterday, presumed buried under the rubble that used to be the World Trade Center. The battalion chief and his aide at the firehouse also were missing. And Moran's 41-year-old brother, John, a fire battalion chief for the special operations command: also missing.

"I'm still numb," said Moran, 37, in a soft, almost shellshocked monotone. Having worked through the night in shifts, he was to return home to Queens to rest, but like the others in his company, he was frustrated he couldn't do more. "You want to get put to work, especially when you know your brother, they can't find him, he's missing."

With a staggering 200 to 300 firefighters missing yesterday, the scene at this Greenwich Village fire station was familiar at neighborhood firehouses throughout the city. Firefighters standing around or slumped in folding chairs with sad faces and empty stares, all of them waiting. Waiting to go back to the site. Waiting to hear if another surviving firefighter had been found. Only a handful were found yesterday.

"All the big chiefs are missing," Moran said. "Some of them have been found dead. I don't know who."

Among those confirmed dead are the department's chief, Peter J. Ganci; William M. Feehan, first deputy fire commissioner; and a Fire Department chaplain, the Rev. Mychal Judge. Ganci's son, a firefighter, was among those working amid the rubble yesterday, aiding in a slow, difficult, desperate rescue effort.

"When this is through, every station, every department within the department, will know tragedy, unfortunately," said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, a Fire Department chaplain, whose local fire station near his Brooklyn Heights home was missing eight firefighters.

"It's devastating," said David Billig, spokesman for the Fire Department.

For police officers, too, their work continued as they had to contend with the grief of having lost as many as 70 members of the force. Firefighters and police officers were in the same position as civilians yesterday, having frantically tried to reach colleagues Tuesday, awaiting word of their friends' fates yesterday.

"Everybody knows someone, somehow that was affected by this," said 15-year police veteran Maggie Lange, taking a short break at East Bay Diner and Cafe on East 29th Street and First Avenue. The diner is near the city medical examiner's office, where hundreds of relatives and friends of the missing converged yesterday.

A friend of Lange's on the force was missing yesterday, one member of an entire emergency services unit that she said was unaccounted for. A former partner of Lange's narrowly escaped from the first building collapse, crawling for three blocks as she choked on soot: "She inhaled so much smoke and dust," Lange said, "she actually reached in [her mouth] and gagged herself so she could breathe."

Yesterday, firefighters were still in danger, at the forefront of a rescue effort that put them near and at times inside tottering buildings, including the remains of the south tower of the trade center, which collapsed yesterday.

"Everybody's come together. We always come together in times of disaster," Billig said. "Everybody's just working as hard as they can to try and find these people."

The work, Billig and firefighters said, is excruciatingly slow.

"They have so many volunteers, they need you for short periods of heavy labor," Moran said. "You take a beating from the smoke, because everything's still smoldering. They don't seem to be able to get enough water anywhere ... because they keep having to disconnect hoses to [make way] for heavy equipment."

Back at Hook and Ladder Company 3, a nearly tearful Emilie Unterweger leaves two dozen pink roses. Unterweger, 23, is one of many in the neighborhood who have left flowers, food and well-wishes for the firefighters, including a handwritten note taped to the firehouse wall: "You are our heroes. Our prayers are with your co-workers. Thank you for your courage."

Inside, Kevin Horan waits, but he won't be going back to the rescue site with the others.

"I feel useless as useless can feel," said Horan, 47, who retired from Moran's company a little over a year ago, after 17 years, to take what everyone thought would be a safer job: fire safety director at the World Trade Center. He was on duty when the jets hit.

From his front desk post in Tower 2, Horan saw a falling jumper hit and kill a firefighter. By the time his building collapsed, he was sprinting away, finding shelter under a truck. Suffering only a lacerated arm and a gash on his forehead, he dug himself out and looked in vain for his old firefighter friends.

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