Voices of 9/11, Part 2

Michele Schettino, Riley Norwood, and Joe Higgins


(L-R) Michele Schettino, Riley Norwood (foreground), and Joe Higgins

From the 39th Floor of 2 Chase Plaza to 28th Street Manhattan

Michele Schettino: I was two blocks over at 2 Chase Manhattan Plaza on the 39th floor at a law firm, where I was a paralegal. It was a gorgeous Tuesday and that morning I missed the first train, which is not like me. I went into the office and never even got a chance to take my sneakers off (I was one of those nerdy girls that wore my sneakers on the way to work while walking downtown through the streets.) I dropped my bag in my cubicle and I ran to get my cup of tea and put it on my desk. One of my bosses walked by and we heard a really loud PHEW. It sounded like metal rattling, like thunder or something. I was in the interior of the building because all the lawyers’ offices were on the exterior with the windows. We thought it was the air conditioning kicking over or something because it was warm. Then, I looked down at my desk and the top of my tea was rippling. The next thing I heard was one of the secretaries say, “There is paper and smoke.” We all ran to the conference room on the exterior wall, which faced World Trade. And all we saw was paper, eight and a half by eleven, shards, full pieces, flying past our windows, with streams of smoke. But it was a white smoke. We were like, “What the heck was that?” Then, the phone starting ringing and the radios went off. The reports said that it was a plane crash. A plane had gone into the World Trade Center.

My first response was to go back to my cubicle and call my mother because I figured my dad (Note: Joe Higgins, see part 1) would call her and tell her what to do. Whenever there was an issue or problem, I would call her and she would have already talked to him. She would tell me where to go and what to do. She said, “Daddy just hung up with me. He said it is a plane crash. Tell the people in your office to get out of the office. Go down the stairs, in an orderly fashion, and just get out.” While I was on the phone with her, the second plane hit. This time my building swayed back and forth. Now everyone was screaming and yelling. “It is another hit! There is another plane!” There was more smoke and more debris. My mother told me to go down the stairs, not the elevator, and walk, walk by the water. So 39 flights down, and out.

We had an emergency plan for the building so we all met at this restaurant, an Irish pub called Brady’s, up the block. Once we got there, the TVs were on and we saw what had happened. Also, while we were in the bar, the Pentagon got hit. When I saw this, I was like, it is nuclear war. The world is going to end. I thought I was going to die there in that restaurant, with these people, not my family. The bosses threw over their credit cards and told everyone to get a drink. They asked me what I wanted and I said, “Give me a double shot of straight Jack Daniels.”

Next thing you know, we were all there and we heard this rumble. It was loud, but muffled. One of my friends next to me grabbed my arm. My boss was right in front of me and grabbed my other arm and we all ran into the back of the restaurant. That’s when the first tower collapsed. People came in and they looked like they were covered in papier mâché. They were covered in ash, like I’ve never seen before in my life. There was an African American lady that walked in and you could not tell she was African American. They all asked her what happened and she responded by saying, “It came down, the tower came down and I was outside.”

Now as I was sitting in the back of this restaurant, I started to lose my mind. I know my dad and that he is there. I thought he was gone. They were all trying to calm me down. I was convinced that was it, that I would never see him again. I went into survival mode. No cell phone, no landlines, nothing was working at this point, either. A group of us that lived towards Westchester banned together and started walking in that direction. There was about five of us. When we walked out of the restaurant, the second tower was still standing. I remember just walking and walking through Chinatown. My boss had heels on and was complaining that her feet were bothering her and she did not have her purse. I had mine, because I never had the chance to take it off, so I bought her a $5 pair of those Chinese slippers. I tried calling a bunch of people: my mom; Michael, who was my fiance at the time; and Nana. The phone would just not work. Now, as we were walking north, the second tower collapsed. I finally get my mom on the phone, and she said, “Daddy said keep walking north, just keep walking.” I say back to her, “Ma, you do not understand…the second tower collapsed, he is there.” My mom responded, “No he is not, he is fine, I just spoke to him.” I say to my colleagues, “My mom is in shock. She does not understand that my dad is gone.” My mom again said, “No, no, no! He is fine, he is NOT there. He is at the Manhattan CO, which is in Central Park. Just keep walking, he will come and pick you up.” We kept walking until we couldn’t walk anymore, and that was 28th Street. I called my dad and you can hear the commotion in the background, like all the dispatchers and stuff. My father said, “Stay right where you are! I’ll come get you and whomever you’re with and bring everyone home.” He came, lights and sirens, down a one-way street, the wrong way, picked us up and dropped us off. There was not a soul on the highway from 28th street all the way to Yonkers, where we lived. He brought me home, went upstairs, and packed a bag. He then left and we did not see him for a couple of days. That was it. He went back out and he was gone for days. The next day, I sat home on the couch and cried and cried all day long. Some of our friends were found quickly, and some were days and days and days. There was phone call after phone call. The phone did not stop ringing and every time my mother called, it was to tell me that we lost another person.

Terry Hatton, a very close family friend from the firehouse, was on his way home from work when it happened. He was on his way to meet his wife, Beth, when he turned around and went right back to work. Tim Brown saw Terry was ready to go in, and they met up. Terry kissed Tim on the cheek and said: “I wanted to tell you brother that I love you, because I do not know if we are going to get out of this one alive.” It took a very long time for them to find him in the pile. I believe it was around my parent’s anniversary, which is September 29th. I don’t know what they found of him, but I know it was not much. But, he had his ID and badges and stuff; that’s how they identified him. He was the greatest guy. He was so tall and funny, but had a very dry sense of humor. He was very, very serious and incredibly intelligent. If he were still here with us today, he would be on track to be the whole head of everything. He was just a fun guy, someone you wanted to be around. I grew up around him and attended two medal days where he received a medal. He just had a commanding presence about him, but not in a mean way. He had a sweet tooth and LOVED the cannolis from Ferraro’s in New York. That I remember because he was a strict vegetarian, always working out and stuff, but he loved Italian food. A police, a fire, a military funeral is one of those things in life that is so poignant and beautiful and horribly heartbreaking all at once. Terry’s funeral was filled. When there is a loss, it is a community, so it was not just people who knew Terry. There were people from all across the world and the country that came. That was the hardest loss.

We got married in May of 2002, Michael and I. We lost two full tables of firemen that were supposed to be there. Their wives didn’t come because it was just too hard. Two tables, so about 25 people. It was hard. We were supposed to get married in September, but one of my good friends at the time was getting married the week later in October. I said that I didn’t want to be squished in with everyone else, so I moved it to May. But thank God that I did because it would have probably been cancelled. Terry was supposed to be there. Jerry Barber was supposed to be there. A lot of the guys that were in the elevator with my dad were supposed to be there, too.

Like my dad, I have never been back to the actual site. However, I did go back to work at that building 10 days later. There was a high police presence. I was so scared to be on the subway. It was terrifying. I came off the subway, with a mask on, and I can still smell that smell, if I think about it. It was a horrible smell. It was combination of smoke, burning rubber, and what we now know is people that were just incinerated. That was the most wickedly horrible smell. When I got off the subway, I had a straight shot up the street and all I saw was a huge pile that was smoking. I just stood there, frozen. It was shocking to see what was left. I never went down that street again.

When you’re close with someone who passed away, it’s one thing to lose them, but to actually know when, where, and how they died is another thing. When you think about what they were feeling and thinking, it is just horrible. I was lucky to be grown. Some of these kids never had the chance to meet their parents. I was lucky that my dad was okay. Many have gone their whole lives without knowing their parents.

From the One Who Was Thrown on The Pile

Steve Brunelle: I was working. It was my last day on shift at Station 3 and we were watching TV, just prior to eating breakfast. The breaking news came on saying that there was a commuter plane that had struck the towers in New York. We just watched it from there. At first, we all thought it was just an accident, figuring it may have been fog or something like that. However, as soon as the second plane hit, we all knew something bad was happening to the country. Everyone in the room was in shock. We could not believe it was happening as we watched it.

After both of the towers came down, there were a lot of people missing and firefighters who were killed. It was right then and there that the four of us that were working, John Coughlin Sr., Robert Redente, Rich Tramontano, and myself, decided that at 5:30 when we got off shift, we were going to New York, no matter what. It didn’t make a difference how we were going to get there. I came home at 5:30, grabbed a change of clothes and a couple of other things, said goodbye to my wife, told my son Steven that he was in charge of the house and to take care of everybody, and I left. We went down to the New Haven Train Station and went directly to Penn Station. We went on an Amtrak train and it did not stop at all! There was no one else on the train except for the train personnel and the six of us, the four of us that were on shift, plus Bart Miranda and John Fitzgerald, two volunteer firefighters in EHFD at the time. When we got off the train, there was a MTA police officer and he looked at us and we looked at him. The officer asked us where we were from. We said, “East Haven, Connecticut.” The officer responded, “Where?” Again, we responded, “East Haven.” He said, “Yes, what station?” We said, “Route 80 Station, Station 3.” He said he lived in Thompson Gardens, which is a condo complex in town. He continued on to ask where we were going. We told him that we will go wherever they need us. We did not think we were going to actually get down there. Our plan was just to go to a station and to help cover their other 911 calls. I never dreamed in a million years that we would be down there working on the pile. The MTA police officer went to get a van. We packed all of our stuff in it and got in. Doug Jackson came down on a train right behind us and met us. The officer drove us to St. Vincent Hospital, which is the furthest point that he could go with the van.

When we got out of the van at the hospital, there were stretchers as far as you can see all over the streets waiting for victims to be brought up to the hospital. We were standing there with our gear looking around. Medical personnel asked us where we were going. Again, we responded wherever we are needed. The man said, “I got an ambulance, I can give you a ride. Let me go get my partner.” There were so many of us, so we jumped in two ambulances and were driven down to the site. He dropped us off two blocks from Ground Zero. We signed in at a makeshift registration station. About a half hour later, we met up with guys from a few towns right near us from Connecticut. We walked down the street and around the corner; it was pitch black. There were six, eight, 10 inches of dust on the ground. It looked like a snow storm just happened. We walked all the way down to the firehouse that is right across from the South Tower.

As soon as we got there, a bunch of people were working to free a Port Authority police officer from under all the debris. This man was under so much debris and was pinned by his legs. We made a big assembly line and were passing the debris down as it was taken off of the man. There was a surgical team that kept saying that we only had 10 minutes to get him free or they would have to amputate his legs. They came back five or six times, but we kept saying, “We almost got him out.” The man grabbed onto one of the firefighters and said, “Do not let them take my legs.” That is the only thing I remember him saying. It was about two hours, but we got him out. We passed the man down the line to get him to the ambulance and he was thanking every single person that helped free him. I saw him on one of the talk shows on TV, which was pretty cool.

After this, we ended up working the rest of the night on a hoseline. We used a thermal imaging camera and a camera on the end of cable to look for people under the debris. It was so dark and there was no color at all. Everything was just gray. The next day, at 2 a.m., they brought us down off the pile, put us on an army truck and brought us to Engine 24, Ladder 5, Battalion 2. The fire station was loaded with people. The officer of the house came in off duty and showed us this board with a list of firefighters on it. All of the men on both the engine and the ladder were missing. The officer said, “No one has heard from any of them.” The officer told us to find a place and to get some rest. We went all the way to the roof of the four-story building, and there was no place to be had. We came back down and sat on the curb outside the firehouse. We couldn’t sleep, so we walked back out to the street, and a cop asked us where we were going. We said, “Back to the pile.” The cops said, “Oh hold on, let me get you a ride.” Five minutes later, another army truck pulled up and we got in to go back to the pile. We worked on the pile all night and the whole next day, too.

When we were leaving, the people in New York had no idea who we were, where we were from, or anything. We were brought out on a Hummer and they brought us back to Penn Station. There was only one way out, like a five-lane road. People were lining the street thanking us and saying God bless you and all sort of stuff like that. We walked into Penn Station and it was like Moses parting the Red Sea. As we walked into the train station, people just split and pushed out of the way. We walked into a store to get food, the people in the store said, “Get whatever you want, it’s on us.” When we got on the train, we had our own car. People were even coming up from the back of the train asking, “How bad was it? What did you see? Is it really as bad as people say?” Even when we got back to New Haven, our cars were parked there for a few days. They said. “Don’t worry about the parking fee, we will take care of it.” It really united the whole country, not just New York.

I have a few things that stuck with me to this day. One was the color gray. Just everything was gray. The worst part was when I came home. I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye to my daughter, Ashley–she was mad because I didn’t say goodbye to her. She thought I was going down there and was not coming back. That was what I regret the most. It was tough. We went back a few months after the attack with the kids and it was tough. It is hard. I went back a few years ago and we went to the museum. My hands were clammy and sweating. It was tough to be back there. I can go down there right now and walk every step that we took. I can tell you that we walked right here and walked right there. I can tell you exactly what changed and that there was no road here or whatever. It was hard, but I would not change it. EVER. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

A Life-Changing Decision

P.J. Norwood: I was working at fire headquarters when the attack happened. I remember sitting in the TV room at headquarters watching and being in awe of what was going on. My first thought was that it was a complete accident and that a plane just crashed into the towers. After the first tower was struck, we just continued on with our normal daily tasks around the firehouse. But we also were paying very close attention to the news reports of the rescue mission. I very clearly remember being downstairs on the apparatus floor when all of a sudden, someone was yelling over the PA that the other tower had been struck. I came into the TV room, just in time to see the second plane hit. At that moment, we knew it was something more than just an accident. I remember watching the people jump out of the windows of the towers to try and avoid being burned to death. I also remember the moment when the first tower collapsed and I knew that hundreds of firefighter were killed. After both towers were struck, everyone in the firehouse was glued to the TV. It was like 911 stopped for the day. We did no calls for the entire rest of the day. We were focused on what was coming next for us. We were informed that there were no ambulances available, even if we needed them, because they were all sent south towards New York. We prepared our rescue trucks to transport patients to the hospital, if needed, but no one called us. I also remember gathering in front of the firehouse and lowering the flags to half-mast and noticing how quiet it was.

A group of firefighters from the EHFD decided, during the day, that as soon as shift change was over, they would be leaving between 5:30 and 6 for New York. I had full intentions on going. When I called my wife, she informed me that she would not tell me no, however that she might be pregnant with my daughter. She said that I needed to be thinking about more than just myself. That was the one and only reason that I chose not to join the other seven going to New York. Part of me does regret not going. However, with the information that I now have today, the possible health and mental effects it could have had and the fact that I could not have saved anyone, I know I made the right decision.

Riley Norwood is a junior at Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, Connecticut, and the daughter of East Haven (CT) Deputy Chief/Training Officer P.J. Norwood.

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