(L-R) Joe Higgins and Riley Norwood
By Riley Norwood
The sky was blue and clear, without a cloud, on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the worst foreign attack on the United States since the invasion of Pearl Harbor in 1941, happened. At 8:46 a.m., American Airline Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The impact killed hundreds instantly and left hundreds more trapped in the floors above the collision site. Minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. At that moment, it was clear that the United States was under attack. About an hour later, at 9:59 a.m., the South Tower collapsed and spread debris and dust everywhere for miles. The North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed 102 minutes after being struck by the plane at 10:28 a.m. Immediately after the first plane crashed, thousands of first responders from New York and surrounding states rushed to Ground Zero to begin helping. More than 3,000 people were killed on this day, with 343 of those lives belonging to firefighters. September 11, 2001 was the deadliest day in the history of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY).
Mr. Joseph Higgins was the fire commissioner liaison for the FDNY and was on duty at the time of 9/11 attacks. Higgins joined the FDNY in 1965 and had been on the job for 37 years at the time of the attacks. He witnessed all the horror firsthand and lost many friends in the attack. The memories that he has from this day will be with him for the rest of his life. He served FDNY for 41 years before making the decision to retire in July 2006. Later that year, he moved to Branford, Connecticut, where he now lives happily with his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. Higgins decided to run for office in the Town of Branford. He was elected Second Selectman in 2013 with his running mate, James Cosgrove, and still holds that position today.
Michele Schettino, the daughter of Higgins, was working two blocks over from the World Trade Center as a paralegal at a law firm. She now is happily married to her husband, Michael, and has two young children, Nicholas and Joseph. She also lives in Branford, Connecticut, just down the road from her parents. Schettino recently received her teaching degree and has become a full-time teacher in New Haven.
Steven Brunelle, Sr., was a firefighter-EMT of 18 years in the East Haven Fire Department (EHFD) at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He was working on 9/11 and decided after he got off shift to travel to New York to help the FDNY firefighters. Brunelle has since retired and lives with his wife in East Haven, Connecticut. He has two older children, one of which was recently married, and has recently become a grandfather. In retirement, he still works at the EHFD as the mechanic, fixing all of the trucks and issues around the firehouse.
P.J. Norwood, my dad, was a firefighter-paramedic of seven years in the EHFD at the time of the 9/11 attacks. My dad was working at fire headquarters when the attack on the Twin Towers happened. After much consideration, he decided against going to New York with the other firefighters from EHFD because of the many unknowns and the possibility of his wife being pregnant. He is currently the fourth in command of the EHFD and is the deputy chief training officer.
From the One Who Saw It All
Joe Higgins: I was in my office in Brooklyn at 7 o’clock in the morning. I always came into work early. I had my big cup of coffee. I remember reaching down to get something out of a file cabinet and I heard this horrific scream over the fire department radios. I thought to myself, “What the hell?” Before I could do anything, I heard another scream. I knew it was something big, so I grabbed a hold of my handy talky radio and my fire department beeper and I ran down the hall to the notification center, which was probably 50 feet from me. As I was trying to swipe my access card to get in to see what was going on, I was met at the door by a lieutenant who was in charge of that office at the particular time. He said, “Joe, we have a plane crash in Manhattan.” He was very excited, where I, on the other hand, was not excited because I said to myself Manhattan, plane crash, EHHHHH. You know it’s not your everyday thing, not that I have seen a lot of them. But I said, “Okay, put me down as going.” I was going based on what he told me. He was going based what on the lieutenant from Engine 10, which was located right across the street from the World Trade Center, was telling him. Engine 10 was saying on the radio “PLANE DOWN!!” Screaming and yelling. That was not normal at all. I was running down the hallway, you know with my cup of coffee, of course, to get on the elevator.
Earlier that morning, I had had breakfast with Peter Ganci, Daniel Nigro, a current fire commissioner, and the assistant chief. We discussed what the Fire Bell Club meeting would be about later that night. I got in the elevator and standing to my left is the assistant chief of operations, standing behind him is the assistant chief of fire prevention. There was a total of nine in that elevator, including myself, a captain, and a few other firefighters. When the elevator started to close, I looked across the other side to the other banks of elevators at Chief DePalma, Peter Ganci, God rest his soul, and Nigro. Their elevator door was closing too. Ganci had an unbelievable ability to make you laugh at the worst time. He was a great fire officer. Outstanding! As the doors were closing, I looked across, we looked eye to eye. He looked over waved and flipped me the bird. That was Peter, you got to love the man! Always full of laughter. However, the moral of this story is that I am the only one that came back from that elevator. This was something that I will NEVER EVER in my life forget. It was something that was not controllable, and who knew. I’m breaking bread, having bagels and coffee with these guys, and an hour later, we had towers falling. But we did not know that until we were there, and it was already too late.
I finally got in contact with the notifications department. They told me where the first command post would be located. My job was to go and set up this command post. Once I was there, there were hundreds of people running, you don’t know who half of them are. Peter Callen, another assistant chief, asked me where we were setting up. I told him right there down the street, next to that truck. He immediately went running into the atrium of the building. He was in the building when it collapsed. He is still alive, he is still with it. Go figure.
The next thing I know, I saw apparatus coming from all different directions. The first indication that we were in big doo-doo was when we heard thudding. The sounds of bodies hitting the ground. We continued on. There was nothing we could do. I remember speaking to a captain on 216 Engine, which is Brooklyn, not too far on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. He said to his driver, “Stay here with the rig. We are going in to report to the chief in charge.” The captain and four firefighters left to go meet the chief, leaving behind the driver to watch the rig. When the tower collapsed, it directly hit Engine 216. This captain and four firemen that went into the building are still alive today. The driver, you would think, would still be alive today, but he was killed because everything came down on top of him.
Just before I was going to go to leave and go to the Manhattan dispatch center, I was walking to the end of the block to get into my car. A lady found a badge and was securing it, or was going to, a least until I came along. This badge belonged to a man by the name of Bill Feehan who was caught in the collapse and, for whatever reason, his badge came out of his pocket. He was the first deputy fire commissioner and a longtime member of the job. Bill had worked in the fire patrol in the same fire service that I worked in going back many years. The lady was talking to me and I gave her my business card and showed her my ID. I said, “I am taking that with me.” She looked at me and was ready to go to battle. I had just about had it and told her to go do something else! Soon after the attack was over, I called his son, told him that I needed to see him and we could not talk on the phone. “I want to see you, it is urgent!” He came and when he saw what I had, I thought he was going to collapse in my arms. I gave the badge to his son, John. “Where did you get that?” he asked. It doesn’t matter where I got it from, what matters is who it is going to. Guard it with your life. Today, Bill’s son is a battalion chief in FDNY.
When I left the scene, I called my daughter, Michele, who was working in an office two blacks from the scene. My recommendation for her was go north, run north, don’t look back and stay in touch with her mother. I told her I would find her and pick her up. I came to 3rd Avenue and 28th Street and my daughter was with three or four friends from the law firm and they all piled into my car. I took them all to wherever they needed to be, got them out of harm’s way, and then I went back. I was informed by some members that were still on the scene that both towers had now collapsed. There was major destruction to the subway system, and at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, we had a water main break…the list goes on. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.
A very good friend of ours, Terry Hatton, was a captain of Rescue 1. Terry never turned his back on a fire. He loved the fire service. Terry had the choice to work the night tour and the day or just work day tour and then go home. However, his motto was, “The more fire I see, the better I am going to be.” That was Terry, you had to love him. On the fire apparatus out front, they had a big sign with one word that said “Outstanding,” and that Terry was. Beth, his wife, came home the afternoon of September 10th from the doctor. She was pregnant and they had been trying for a very long time. She did not want to tell her husband that she was pregnant because she knew that he was going to work and would not be able to focus if he knew of that news. Terry was inside one of the buildings and the command post called him asking for his status. Terry answers with “Rescue 1 Captain to Command Post…we are on the 78th floor and are going north.” He was going north and was not coming back down. That was Terry. His daughter was born the following May and her name is Terry, Terry Elizabeth. He never even knew he had a daughter. But, he died doing what he loved and without knowing that he would be a father.
The best man on the job could not tell you what they thought was going on because we really did not know. Terrorism never went through our mind initially. And the rest of it, I guess, is something that I will never see again, thank God. My wife and I lost 79 personal friends out of the 343. When I say personal friends, I mean we have been invited to their kids’ weddings, have been at fire department functions and parades together, and numerous other activities similar to that. I often think about the weather conditions. What if it had been raining? What would have happened? Probably nothing, but your mind goes in nine different directions.
I have never returned to the scene. I was there the day of and two days after and that was it. I can’t go back. I would not see anything now that I could not see then. I have pieces of metal from the tower. I have pieces of glass from the tower that was mounted on a plaque and given to me. I do not regret being there, but I regret that I couldn’t do more. It is something that I would never wish on my worst enemy. If I could have done something to prevent this from happening, I would have done that. If I could have snapped my fingers and brought ten times the amount of help that we had there, both medical personnel and fire personnel, I would have. From that day on, every alarm or box or anything that ladders and engines were sent to, everybody automatically thought it was terrorism. It is an endless tragedy.