9/11 firefighter: 'I’m not dying like this'

Book excerpt details NY firefighter’s experience at Ground Zero

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from, "WTC: In Their Own Words," a book from the editors of Firehouse magazine.

Firefighter Joe Falco
Engine 1,
Garment District, Manhattan, now retired

I received a call to come in and work overtime on Monday morning. When I arrived I was told they found several firefighters to work and I wasn’t working the day tour. They said I could work driving the engine Monday night. I hung around and worked Monday night. I had been out for a while and my first tour back was September 6. I was supposed to get early relief Tuesday morning. I was the only one going off duty.

At about 8:30 A.M. we had an EMS run to Penn Station a block away. I heard Battalion 1 radio in that he had a plane into the Trade Center. I drove around the block back to the firehouse. Within seconds of me backing into the firehouse, the tones went off for a run for the engine. I said I’m supposed to go home. The incoming chauffeur was there. I asked him do you want to drive? He said you take it.

I worked my way to the West Side Highway. We parked on the south side of the North Pedestrian Bridge. The guys got off the rig. I was getting dressed. The mask for the chauffeur was out of service. I met the officer inside. He said no mask, go outside and get water. It was hard to leave the building. People were jumping. I saw the chauffeur of Engine 65. I helped him hook up. An engine pulled up and parked right in front of the North Tower. As soon as the engine pulled up, someone jumped from above and landed on the roof of the engine. The rig took off.

I helped put the suction hose on a hydrant at Liberty and West Street. There was a walkway to where the standpipe connection was located. It offered a little bit of protection. We were next to the parking lot at the southeast corner of the complex. A couple of cars were on fire. There was plane debris everywhere. We hooked up to another hydrant and tried to put out a van that was close to the apparatus.

Stuff was falling off the building. People were trying to get out of the hotel. Cops were yelling that there were about 20 people in wheelchairs and they needed stretchers. EMS directed the civilians.

Firefighter Kevin Shea was an extra man on Ladder 35, and had gotten separated from his unit. He asked if we needed help with the car fires. He was on the nozzle with me backing him up. The chauffeur of Engine 65 was looking out. Kevin was trying to put out the car fires when I yelled run. The South Tower was collapsing.

I ran west. This wind comes and knocks my helmet off. My hands go out in front of me like I’m Superman. I’m flying through the air. I said I’m not dying like this. I heard my daughter’s name. I go head over heels rolling into the center divider of the West Side Highway. I go up and over the divider completely into the southbound traffic lanes. I wake up. Everything is black. There is no light, no sound. There is debris everywhere except where I landed. They say you see light when you die. I said, I’m in trouble, because there is no light. I was getting pounded on my back, like you were getting punched by small pebbles that were landing on me. I had about 30 lumps on the top of my head.

I thought I had heard Firefighter Muldowney while I was lying on the ground. “Hey Boy” is what we used to say to each other over the handie-talkie. He was working and was killed. The dust started to clear. I thought I was buried. I reached around me and found I wasn’t buried. Lights from an ambulance were visible in the distance. I thought a piece of the building came down, not the entire building.

I was still sitting near the debris when a firefighter yelled out, anybody here. I yelled back. He asked if I was OK. They came over to see if I was OK. I heard a firefighter yell out that he was trapped in front of an ambulance about 20 feet from me. My leg was hurting me so I couldn’t go. The other firefighters that had left me came back. The firefighter was only wearing a turnout coat. He was bleeding from his head. The debris that was blocking the front of the ambulance was moved and the bleeding firefighter walked away.

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