"Why can't I die?"

The surviving firemen of Engines 202 and 279 and Ladder 101, which lost more than a dozen men, sit in a garden in Red Hook around a bucket of iced beer.

Published September 26, 2001 7:34PM (EDT)

Sean Halper, who is 40 years old and has wide young eyes, was the only survivor of Engine 279's six-man team that fought the fires on Sept. 11. He remembers driving over body parts when he first arrived, "human but unrecognizable," and then setting up his hoses, and the men setting out into the towers fully loaded, heavy with air-tanks, extra gear, more air-tanks -- loaded. And in the chaos of a dozen ambulances and the dozen ladder trucks and engine trucks, a battalion chief came running. "Put your helmet on!" he yelled and then asked where Halper's lieutenant had gone. Halper pointed to the Marriott Hotel and the smoke. "The chief had a warrior's look to him," recalls Halper. "And he went after them."

The bodies began to fall from the sky, horrible sounds of smacking, of somebody getting hit in the face, but amplified a thousand times. A body fell and killed a firefighter. "I didn't look for more than three seconds," Halper said. "I looked, and I turned away: Between the moment I saw the people falling through the air and the moment I heard them hit was an eternity. I did not see what they looked like after they fell. I watched other people's faces, the horror on people's faces, I watched their heads following the bodies coming down and I put my fingers in my ears."

When the first building fell, "like a deck of cards coming down, one set, two sets, three, folding," Halper turned and ran. "You know Godzilla and King Kong -- the sounds they make, the monsters in the movies? That's how it sounded. And I saw other firefighters running, the guys fully loaded, but that was 60 pounds of gear on their backs, they couldn't run fast enough.

"I knew one of the guys who died very well. Barney. Knew him for 14 years. And my officer that night, he was covering for our lieutenant, who was on vacation leave. I knew the covering lieutenant for 15 minutes.

"I'm a motor pump operator, what we call the chauffeur, the guy who drives the engine truck, which connects and directs the water supply from hydrants. So I do the driving and I hook up the hoses. Why does one guy live and the others die? I lived because I parked the rig where I parked it, and I was doing my job at the rig." He was explaining it to himself, not to me.

On that morning of Sept. 11, a firefighter from Engine Company 279 in Red Hook, in Brooklyn, N.Y., was making eggs for 12 men, but the meal came out wrong. "All wrong, I used the wrong pan," he recalled days later, shaking his head. The flame was too high, his timing was off. "The eggs came out bad," he said. Then, after a long pause, softly: "Beautiful, beautiful men -- the best friends times a hundred. I'm supposed to be in there and I watched a building come down on their heads. And I'm still thinking about that breakfast I messed up."

Firefighters live very intimately: They sleep in the same house and sometimes in the same rooms; they go to the same bars and the same ballgames; they know each other's girls and wives and children. At the supermarket they do their shopping in groups, on call, in full regalia, arguing in their big boots over how much beef to buy. They are acquainted with the minutiae of each other's lives. Every one of them now knows someone who has died; every fireman who is alive is guilty about not being dead. There are some who after a few beers openly ask, "Why can't I die?"

The guilt goes around and around, as only it can do in families. The guilty: the guy who had switched off duty that Tuesday to be with his kids (someone else took his place); guys who were on vacation; guys who manned the trucks and stayed behind and watched the fire teams go in.

The firemen can't sleep, or when they do, their slumber is twilit and spinning. At Lillie's Bar in Red Hook, they sit in the garden around a bucket of iced beer, as they have many nights before. These are the refugees of Engines 202 and 279 and Ladder 101, the "Happy Hookers." They lost more than a dozen men. One of them picks slowly at a banjo. Behind him the garden's tall ailanthus trees sway, and there is a reflecting pool and tiki candles burning oil. Lillie the owner, who is young and blond, gives them free beer, refilling the bucket, making sure there is enough ice.

The bar stays open long after the 4 a.m. close; the firemen don't want to leave. "The toughest part is going home to your wife, that long drive home, you start bawling at the littlest thing."

Outside, Victor the drunk, a skeletal Hispanic man, normally a quiet neighbor, howls at the Yemeni deli man across the street who has just sold him beer. Waking children in the candled, flag-draped homes, he screeches, "Madre! Tu madreeee. Dio!" When he says this last word, a confused pitiable hurt look draws down his face. "Dio? Whasssup weeth Heeeemm, eh?"

The firefighters at Lillie's don't talk this way; they don't wave flags, there is no calling on God or looking for enemies. It is the permanent contrast between those who have seen the destruction firsthand and those who have not. A motorcycle rider swaggering with his helmet, flashy, arrived earlier that night, hugging everyone. "Fuckin' kill 'em, we're gonna fuckin' dust-fuck the fuckers who did this, guys, you hear? USA, baby!" and on and on. He was a little man with a shaved head; you noticed how physically large the men were when he stood next to them. He gave big high-fives. But you could see none of the firemen wanted this; against the gentleness of their grief, he seemed remote and alien and savage. And you noticed none of the firemen cursed the way he did.

By Christopher Ketcham

Christopher Ketcham is a freelance writer living near Moab, Utah. You can find more of his work at ChristopherKetcham.com.

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