By Dan Baron
On September 10, 2001, I was relieved from my day tour at the fire station at South Street and Wall Street in Manhattan, where Engine Company 4 and Tower Ladder 15 occupy one side of the bottom three floors of a 40-story office building. Many of the firefighters and officers who reported in that night and some from the next day tour—14 in all—perished at the World Trade Center. FDNY tried to provide some support for the families of those killed by allowing stations to remove members from fire duty and dedicate them to assisting lost members’ families.
I was a family liaison for five families that had each lost a firefighter on September 11. Through this experience, I witnessed what the aid and relief sent to New York accomplished. It showed the families that they had the thoughts and prayers of a grateful nation and a compassionate world. It helped toward peace of mind in a situation in which finances should not have to be a concern. It gave support to the members of the department as they set aside their own grief and dedicated themselves to helping their brothers’ families.
FIRE DEPARTMENT CONTACT
Three days after the WTC towers collapsed, one-half of all FDNY members were ordered to return to their homes. The administration hoped that the members might take the opportunity to get some rest for the first time since the incident. Many did return to their families. They got their first hot shower. Maybe they had a meal and visited with their children and spouses. Many, however, after a short stay at home, went calling on the families of their missing friends. This was the first of many visits to homes by thousands of FDNY members—active and retired.
The great majority of families never received any official notification that their husband, son, father, or brother was missing. This lack of official contact or communication from the city and department would become the norm throughout the first several months.
Unsolicited, the citizens of New York, America, and the world worked to fill the needs of and support the WTC victims’ families. Firefighters from around the country offered their support. FDNY members and retirees stepped up to fill whatever roles were needed.
The realization of the scale of loss at the World Trade Center became apparent and spread across America and the world. Individuals and groups, organizations, and whole communities mobilized to come to the aid of the fallen and their families. Relief arrived in every conceivable shape and form and by every means imaginable. Cards arrived by the dozens addressed in such heartfelt ways as, “To the family of a missing hero.” Letters and drawings showed how grateful children were for “the brave firemen that ran in and saved all the people.” These messages also showed how sad the kids were that so many had died. Families received personalized quilts that had obviously taken hundreds of hours to produce. Other handmade gifts like patriotic pins and friendship bracelets were also passed on to them. The families have been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. These acts showed that the families were truly in the thoughts and prayers of so many. Knowing this has meant a great deal to them.
Monetary donations to all of the WTC families set new standards of financial generosity. Actions of assistance began immediately. Before sunset on September 11, charitable accounts had been opened across the nation. Firefighters and their families stood on corners and at intersections and sometimes just answered the fire station door as Americans opened their hearts and gave. The public looked with urgency for vehicles in which to get their donations directly to the families. Local fire department members were hugely successful in delivering a means by which people could entrust funds.
Other civilians gave through national organizations or state- or New York City-run charities. Some people hand-delivered everything from change jars to envelopes containing personal checks. One man entered the fire station one morning, held out two $20 bills, and started crying. Through his sobs, he stated that he had tried to reward his children with their weekly allowance. He went on to say that neither would accept it: “They said to give it to the missing firefighters’ children.” Without speaking another word, he pulled another bill from his wallet and included it. Then he left, still sobbing. Attempts were always made to get names and addresses with cash donations for obvious legal and tax reasons. Sometimes, however, people simply insisted on anonymity.
By far, the most efficient vehicle for the distribution of collections has been the “9/11 Fund,” administered by the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The controversies regarding the International Red Cross and its collection and distribution policies have been well publicized. However, even at the earliest meeting with families, the Red Cross delivered benefits quickly and with generous limits.
FLOW OF INFORMATION
Aid found its way to families, but it was not what they sought most.
They wanted information. From the very first meetings—whether at the station or at home or at the site—they craved any news about a loved one. Families pondered questions about every aspect of the response and the operation, mostly along the same lines: Did their loved ones suffer? Did they know what was happening around them? Many of these questions remain unanswered today, leaving the families burdened with their worst thoughts.
The control of misinformation was a challenge for all concerned from the outset. Efforts were made to not perpetuate rumors or bring families hearsay but rather to get solid information. Members were cautioned not to speculate about recoveries. To their credit, the media were largely respectful and reserved throughout the early months. Except for a few untimely leaks and misprints—which were devastating to those affected—information released was sterile, not gory, and fairly accurate. The press generally kept its distance and waited for invitations to interview the families at gatherings.
Generally, for at least the first six months, information came in small segments. It was delivered to families by individual firefighters or company officers as it was discovered. Timelines of the response were pieced together through contact with members who had survived the collapses. Someone would remember hearing a company give its location and a message. That information would be supported by another company that had passed the missing firefighters. Chiefs tried to recall companies’ assignments and radio reports, since the command boards were all destroyed. The best attempts are being made to get some idea of the actions and locations of members. However, it will be some time until all of the information can be plotted. Even then, it may yield few solid answers, but it will not be for a lack of effort.
THE FIRE STATIONS
The fire stations became the hub of support for the families. Members were assigned to look after families’ needs. This mission became the focus of the entire company. In a short time, the department and the Uniformed Firefighters Association began to channel all forms and offers of support through the fire station and then to the liaisons. Fire stations shuttled information, meals, gifts, and resources to the families. Many companies created their own charitable funds under the pro bono direction of local law firms. Vans were provided where possible to transport family members to counseling and support groups or to the Family Assistance Centers. Many fire stations tried to maintain some presence at the site. This was the best way to provide current information about progress and operations at the site.
Local neighborhoods reached out to support their fire stations. They held fund-raisers. They held candlelight vigils in front of quarters. In some cases, they provided valuable meeting space for counseling and information meetings held for the families of that house or the entire battalion. Members gave thousands of hours in support of their brothers’ families. But they still faced the knowledge that those lost could never be brought back to their loved ones. And so, the inevitable process of documenting life, death, and relationships had to begin.
FAMILY ASSISTANCE CENTER
Pier 94 on Manhattan’s West Side was designated as the site for the Family Assistance Center. City agencies, civic groups, national relief organizations, and the federal government all set up shop in an open space normally used for conventions and galas. This location provided a single clearinghouse for aid and documentation for victims, victims’ relatives, and affected residents and businesses. It was a reservoir of grief and dismay constantly supplied with tears from those in mourning. It was filled for 14 hours each day by people in need of some form of guidance. People signed in to file for a death certificate or seek some childcare assistance. Others interviewed with the Red Cross or other relief groups to receive financial aid. Some just sought to be among others with similar losses. The process to accomplish just two or three of the dozens of necessary steps took six to 10 hours.
Thankfully, a small group of compassionate and dedicated FDNY members—some active, some retired—took on an impossible task: They learned to navigate the constantly evolving path through this maze of cubicles. They investigated the legitimacy and necessity of each station. Then they outlined what each organization’s function was specific to our lost firefighters’ families. They sent out faxes to family liaisons that listed required documents for families to supply. When family members arrived at “the Pier” with a liaison, they were directed to a private FDNY members’ area. There, the entire process was explained to them. An FDNY member was assigned to them and escorted them throughout the entire day. By taking a short intake questionnaire, the “escort” could determine which organization and agencies were necessary for each individual family. Then, they could recommend those groups and lead the way to them. A family who arrived with the proper and complete paperwork could get through the entire process in one long day. The superhuman efforts of this team have, so far, gone unrecognized. “The Pier” eventually served out its primary purpose and closed shortly after the New Year.
FAMILY ASSISTANCE UNIT
The Family Assistance Unit was formed around the time that organizations moved out of Pier 94. Susan Magazine, a September 11 widow (her husband was working at the Trade Center that day), was appointed deputy commissioner in charge of the unit. Since the unit was created, communication to the families has steadily improved. A link was created on the FDNY Web site for daily information about operations at the site as well as meetings and support groups. Contact information for the FDNY Counseling Unit was also provided.
The Counseling Unit’s newsletter “The Link” keeps families apprised of programs and events directed at them. Also, support groups meet five nights per week at seven different locations throughout the city and surrounding counties. The groups are specifically for spouses and children, siblings, and parents who lost a member. New clinicians have been recruited and trained to meet the extraordinary demands. Family members may also seek the help of a local professional, not necessarily associated with the department, by obtaining a referral through the Project Liberty Program.
One simple form of “counseling” was just maintaining a presence with families and being available to listen. Other times it became more complex. One missing firefighter’s father requested a visit to the site. A visiting fire chaplain from Houston, Texas, had become known and was welcomed to the battalion. On short notice, he was asked to come along for support. At the site, the chaplain learned more about the missing firefighter by listening to the stories told by a proud dad. Then they offered two short prayers that they read off a scrap of paper that the chaplain had brought. The father of the missing hero asked to keep the paper holding the words of prayer.
Many families visited the site of the World Trade Center. Some just went once. Some went nearly weekly. Some, like the fathers, brothers, and other relatives on “the job,” were there every day. Whenever families went, day or night, weekday or holiday, they could see firefighters working to recover their loved one. Firefighters volunteered to a detail of one month of 12-hour shifts. In teams of about five, the firefighters searched tirelessly. Each time that a uniformed member of the service was recovered, all present at the site were called to line up and salute out of respect for that member’s sacrifice. Every recovery—uniformed and civilian alike—was treated with the utmost respect and reverence. The desperation that families showed when the number of firefighters working at the site was to be reduced was strong evidence of the importance of the work there. Posters with notes of thanks and pictures of recovered victims and heroes finally laid to rest were hung in conspicuous spots throughout rehab areas.
Memorials and funerals were scheduled sometimes with only a few days’ notice. So many ceremonies were scheduled on some days that resources were used from all of the surrounding counties and New Jersey. These multiple-ceremony days also stretched the FDNY ranks thin for attendance. The families sought a respectful remembrance of their loved one. Firefighters from around the world responded. A glance down the formation of uniforms at any given ceremony would spot shoulder patches from any of the 50 states. Often, Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, Germany, and many other countries were also represented. Comments from the families were proof that they were noticed. They spoke of their pride to know that their family member was part of such a dedicated brotherhood. To have seen so many standing at attention in heat, cold, snow, rain, and wind truly helped families honor a fallen hero on his day.
CLOSING THE SITE
At the time the site was ceremoniously closed, more than 100 FDNY members were still missing. Gradually, as remains recovered throughout the process are identified through DNA, families will continue to bury their dead. “Closure” is not a popular term within the FDNY family. Some fear that it is synonymous with forgetting. And it seemed as though the concept was forced on us from very early on.
As a young widow related, she isn’t even attempting to “move on.” Rather, she’s thankful to simply “move along” each day. She can know that the members of FDNY will never forget. They will be there to help her “move along” or to just sit and remember.
Dan Baron, a nine-year member of the fire service, has spent the past three years with the Fire Department of New York assigned to Engine Company 66 in the Bronx. Previously, he spent six years in the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department. Currently he is detailed to Rescue Company 5 in Staten Island. On September 11, he was on a rotation training program at Engine Company 4 in Manhattan. Baron was a featured speaker at FDIC 2002 and FDIC West 2002.
One firefighter can’t shake the memory of visiting a grieving family that first week after the attack and hearing a boy screaming at his mother: “The sons-of-bitches killed Daddy!”—“The Smoldering Fires of 9/11,” Chris Smith, New York Magazine, March 18, 2002
All that is left of Fire Captain Brian Hickey is the sweat of his brow. But for his wife, Donna Hickey, that is enough. For eight months, Donna Hickey waited for something—anything—of her husband’s to be carried out of the rubble. Last week, her husband’s colleagues presented her with his white captain’s helmet.
The crushed hat, caked with soot and dirt, was found months ago alongside tools from Rescue 3, which Hickey commanded September 11. His perspiration and a few strands of his thinning brown hair found inside the helmet finally provided enough DNA for the city medical examiner to determine in recent days that he was wearing it when he died. “You keep praying, ‘Anything, anything—give me anything.’ ” Donna Hickey said. “God gave me this.”—“Sweat of his heroism helps ID lost captain,” Michele McPhee, New York Daily News, May 20, 2002
“It’s not over, but it’s definitely winding down. You’ve got a great number of people that you want to find, and you’ve got a certain amount of dirt that’s left. And there’s a gap. That gap is going to be a sorrowful one.”—Firefighter Keith J. Dillon. “In Last Piles of Rubble, Fresh Pangs of Loss,” Eric Lipton and James Glanz, The New York Times, March 17, 2002
FEDERATION OF FIRE CHAPLAINS: A VALUABLE RESOURCE
By Dan Baron
On September 11, the Federation of Fire Chaplains responded to the World Trade Center; the Pentagon; Somerset, Pennsylvania; and Los Angeles International Airport (the destination of the hijacked jetliners). Chaplains responded and worked with CISM teams and FEMA teams and filled other needed counseling roles. As they took up positions, they notified the Federation office in Texas, which kept track of areas in need and orchestrated coverage. No chaplains were dispatched without a clear understanding of their position and function. Forty-five Federation chaplains responded to New York; 125 were on standby. Members remain available to New York and the other September 11 locations today.
The first organized response of chaplains came to New York from Massachusetts. The International Association of Fire Fighters requested them because of their work after the Worcester Fire Department lost six firefighters in 1999. The Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains Inc. responded directly to the World Trade Center site and maintained a presence for five weeks.
The Federation of Fire Chaplains, a national organization incorporated in 1978, has more than 670 members and represents all 50 states. All religious denominations are represented, yet it remains strictly nonsectarian.