Fire crew goes on odyssey into void

Search: Twelve firefighters from a Connecticut town near New York embark on a mission of hope to the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Terrorism Strikes America

The Fairfield 12

September 22, 2001|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FAIRFIELD, CONN. - Long before Lt. Doug Chavenello first scaled "The Pile" in Lower Manhattan, he knew how steel behaves when it snaps and what concrete decks do when they fall.

He also knew that structural dynamics have nothing to do with hope, especially the kind that inhabits the hearts of men in rescue helmets when their brothers go down in flames. At times like those, hope becomes obsession.

With more than 300 New York City firefighters buried alive in the collapse of the World Trade Center, his men would not be stopped.

Elbow to elbow with would-be rescuers from four states, Chavenello and 11 other firefighters from this bedroom hamlet in Connecticut dug and hammered and scratched in packed ash, wire, cable, pipe, steel bars and concrete block.

It was not so much what they found that broke their hearts, but what they did not.

What the Fairfield 12 experienced some 36 hours after 9/11/01 constitutes an early oral history that will grow over time as more men and women from "The Pile" bring themselves to speak. They will tell tales of shock and wonderment, of courage and endurance beyond imagination - and of hope beyond all reason.

Many more will never be able to speak, no matter how hard they try, for the futility of their mission will burden them for life.

"None of us wants to hear the word `hero' again," says Chavenello, 41. "There have only been a few true heroes. There's 300 of them buried out there from the Fire Department of New York City. And there's a few hundred more who have been digging for their brothers, almost nonstop, ever since.

"What they are doing will cost them years off their lives. We are not those men."

Rather, they are among the thousands who merely risk their lives in shifts, using vacation days to escape their paying jobs in firehouses throughout New England and beyond, returning again and again to the pile.

And with each journey, their discoveries become ever more unspeakable.

They are the friends and neighbors of at least 52 Connecticut residents from similar suburban towns along Interstate 95 who are known missing - downed in the planes, lost in the compacted rubble of the towers, feared dead in the squashed buildings nearby.

Among the missing is Dana Hannon of FDNY Engine Co. 26, a transplanted Jersey boy who began his career just up the road in Bridgeport before achieving his dream of joining the Manhattan brigade. He was a fishing buddy of Chavenello's then.

Now, lost in the pile.

Peak of frustration

The preceding day and night had been difficult to bear.

Chief Richard Felner was already working the phone in his second-floor office at the Fairfield Fire Department on Reef Road on Tuesday morning when the towers collapsed on a TV screen across the room.

A member of the Manhattan High-Rise Safety Division, a consortium of fire chiefs in the metropolitan area who meet monthly to plan for such disasters, Felner felt his heart sink with the towers.

"You don't even evacuate those things when there's a fire," he says. "You clear two floors above and two floors below, and you go in and put it out. In all the years I've been going to these meetings, no one ever mentioned the possibility of those towers ever collapsing.

"It was never even discussed as a remote possibility in the contingency plans."

Felner had no luck reaching his counterparts in the FDNY command echelon. He couldn't even raise his old friend, Larry Byrnes, a retired battalion chief at Engine Co. 7 on Duane Street.

Finally, he put in a direct call to Engine 10-Ladder 10 Co. - the station house at the foot of Two World Trade Center, on the corner of Liberty and Greenwich Streets. Surely, someone at the vaunted "10-10," the finest tower rescue unit in the world, would know what the hell was going on.

The line was jammed.

"Screw it," the 63-year-old ex-Marine thought.

A few minutes later, Felner scrambled a fleet of trucks and sent them to a dilapidated racetrack in Yonkers, N.Y., that had been turned into a staging area for backup units.

The parking lot offered a panoramic view of the flames and black smoke billowing up from lower Manhattan - narrated by urgent calls for help coming in over the fire channels on their truck scanners. Antsy with adrenaline, the Fairfield companies listened for their numbers to come up.

Cut off from TV and radio, few of them knew that orders to roll would never reach them. Because there was no one left to give the orders. The high command of the FDNY, the decision-makers with the power to bring in outside help, had been all but wiped out.

"It was sickening," recalls Chavenello. "We sat out there - us and probably a half-dozen other professional companies, with dozens of pieces of equipment - stewing in our own juices, listening to this bedlam unfold on our radios. I've never been so frustrated in my life."

That night, the emotionally drained crew drove home in silence.

Assembling the team

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