"I kept seeing the people in the towers"

Six men went out on Engine 279 Sept. 11; only Sean Halper returned.

By Christopher Ketcham

Published September 11, 2002 10:04PM (EDT)

It sometimes takes yelling to figure out the meal in a firehouse -- who wants what, you want steak, you want noodles? -- and tonight the meal was Sean Halper's. Halper told me to meet him at 7 p.m. at the house, Engine 279/Ladder 131, a red-brick building, flag-draped, that sits under a highway near empty warehouses and body shops and junkyards in a neighborhood of broken glass and soot; my neighborhood, Red Hook, Brooklyn.

When I showed up, the firefighters had already made their loud vote, and Sean was gone on the "meal run" with the new men of the 279, driving the old rig, the same rig he drove on Sept. 11. The rig had made it out that day; five of the men who rode it did not.

Jerry Sweeney, a compact guy with thin lips, 10 years with the 131, opened the door, nodded, and went back to the "housewatch," a booth where there's a dispatch line and a computer and a TV with the sound turned down.

"Giants game is on tonight," said Sweeney, taking the phone calls, listening to dispatch, planning his evening around a strange Thursday-night football-season opener, New York Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers. If a call comes in -- fire, car accident, a man sick in the street -- Sweeney opens the P.A., the "bitch-box," with a chirrup that echoes through the building. When firefighters hear this sound, they stop everything. Their faces go blank, their eyes dart.

Dispatch calls in some dead hydrants, just a heads-up; Sweeney notes the location, gets on the phone to his chief. "Won't be able to use those hydrants, under repair," he tells me. On the TV, the Giants game is starting, with some 9/11 hoopla that goes unremarked. Then there are crappy commercials and somebody says something about baseball, the strike averted.

"I've lost interest in baseball," Sweeney said. "Most people are breaking their backs to put food on the table, and these guys are complaining about their $15 million salaries. Now football -- you a fan? If the Giants do well this season that'll pick everyone up."

Out the window the red lights flashed, the 279 turned the corner like a tank, Sweeney hit a button that opened the garage door and a minute later Sean Halper walked in. "Been a year," Halper said, smiling briefly; we shook hands. Halper, 41, looked no older, his face was not changed. He's tall, has a little beer belly; he's handsome in an unassuming way. He was wearing his work-duty clothes, the blue slacks, the FDNY T-shirt, the cap. "Year," I nodded, not knowing what to say, thinking of the last time I saw him, which was in a bar, in the blur of the aftermath.

Seven days after the towers collapsed, Halper had told me his story, at Lillie's Bar, where the men drank until very late. I wrote about him for Salon on Sept. 26:

Sean Halper, who 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 ...

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 ... "

"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.

"Everything" supposedly changed after Sept. 11, but not much has changed here, in the firehouse. The men work their shifts, they eat the same food and sleep in the same beds and make the same money. But in the garage, there was a new rig, Ladder 101's, a replacement from the disaster; the machine sat clean and polished, lots of beautiful chrome. The truck had the names of the dead on its cab: Lt. Anthony Jovic; Firefighter Anthony Rodriguez; Firefighter Christian Regenhard; Firefighter Ronnie Henderson; Firefighter Michael Ragusa.

The men grilled the steaks in the backyard behind the house in blue gauzy smoke. The backyard was a concrete driveway with razor wire on a steel fence, and the grill was a 50-gallon drum cut in half, turned on its side and welded onto steel legs. Mike Kirk, 47, hulking Brooklynite, 13-year fireman, poked the meat and curled his lip and snarled at the smoke. The radio played; Sean was quiet. The steaks started to burn, Mike Kirk picked them off one by one from the grill, Halper held the aluminum platter, a call went up, "Take out the noodles!"

The firemen line up with long knives in the kitchen, chopping down the meat, dicing it off the bones, and when the bones are clean, the firefighters who cooked the noodles or steamed the broccoli gnaw the bones and growl and laugh at their own growling as the others work the assembly line, the meat thrown into bowls and tossed with pepper and gravy and ladled onto heavy plates.

Biscuits come out of the oven; the men gather, banter: they call themselves the Happy Hookers.

"Jerry, you gonna be the wife or the husband tonight?"


"Alright, then suck your wife's di" -

"What's this meal here?"

"Sean's meal."

They gather round the Giants on the wide screen, holler at the television; quarterback gets sacked. They have a betting pool, $3 per man, $30 total. "I say the Giants are gonna finish with eight games this year," says Jerry Sweeney.

The Giants: I thought of another Happy Hooker, Timmy Burke of Ladder 101, just a few blocks from the 279. The day before Sept. 11 was "Monday Night Football." "It was such an innocent night," Burke had told me. "Pizzas and beers and a bunch of guys. The Giants were playing the Denver Broncos. Giants got crushed, they looked bad. We were disappointed, the Giants are gonna suck this year. That was my basic concern on Tuesday morning: hoping the Giants would get better."

Sean Halper's not a football fan. After we eat, he takes me on a tour of the house, past the soda machines, through the warrens of old green lockers, into the bunk room, 14 monk's cots with limp checkered blankets neatly tucked.

"Old hospital beds," says Halper, shrugging. "They do the job." The bathroom has two showers, two toilet stalls, a line of sinks and windows spray-painted black. The windows in the bunk room are painted black too: on a 24-hour shift, the men sleep odd hours; sometimes they're up all night running calls, sleeping in snatches.

We sat in the upstairs lounge, where there are two cots with mattresses stripped of sheets, and there are worn sofa-chairs and a TV and porn mags on a coffee table. This is the firefighter's life; it consists of waiting around and watching television or reading or sleeping or making big meals and in the middle of it all you're called into homes that are burning down. "And the sane people are running away," a firefighter tells me. "This is what we do: no one seemed to register that before Sept. 11."

Halper shows me the stickers on the lockers: "FDNY on Earth & in Heaven One for All All for One" and "Sept. 11: THE GREATEST RESCUE EVER MADE! OVER 20,000 SAVED" and then the private office where the lieutenant has his desk and a cot in a corner. Behind the desk, there is a tiny statue of the Angel of Fire, also called the Lady of the Fire; flames licked the angel's wings. The old timers can tell you about seeing the angel, and they will claim that she is real; they'll tell you, if they trust you, how they were trapped in a burning room and behind them the Lady appeared in white, with her hand outstretched; the flames parted and a tunnel formed in the smoke, and with her hand in theirs she led them, and the moment they were safe, she was gone. It is said she has appeared before many men, but to outsiders she is not spoken of.

About 10 minutes after dinner, the chirrup: "Special Call! 131!" Mike Kirk, who had wandered up from the kitchen, stops and turns, hearing his unit, and with a waggish smile and a wink and his tousled hair and an "Off to work!" he slides down the brass pole and is gone. Sean disappears too: "Wait here," he says, sounding worried. The 279 hadn't been called up, but he wanted the details: What were they chasing? They're fast: within 150 seconds, the men have suited up and Ladder 131 is pouring its lights into the street and blasting its horn.

The 279's rig had been beaten and pocked and pitted on its right side, Halper tells me, but there was not a scratch on the left -- the side facing away from the explosion. He showed me where the department mechanics had shorn off the broken metal and shined the chrome; we circled around the rig as it sat in the garage. He put a hand on the cab and patted it and gave the jutting jaw of the bumper a gentle kick. Even with the soot and the rubble piled against it, in those early hours the rig kept pumping, firing a thousand gallons of water per minute; it was one of only a few that still worked.

"The windows were toast, the ladders were smashed, the lights were gone. It's an original," Halper said, sitting in the cab. He cracked the lights, fired her up, the thing thrummed and hummed; Halper's been driving this rig for nine years. "It was caked -- caked! Dust, ash, asbestos. When you turned on the heaters, the ash blew out. Lots of companies lost their rigs completely. Ours is still going."

"How old's this truck?" I asked.

"Engine," Halper corrects me, quietly; "that's an engine."

Firefighters love their equipment. The ladder unit, Halper explains, is known as the "truck" -- the ladder picks people out of burning windows with its long-armed "bucket." The ladder consists of five firefighters and one officer. On Sept. 11, all six men from Ladder 131 made it home. An "engine," the pumper unit, normally consists of four firefighters and one officer.

"This engine's a 1993," Halper tells me matter-of-factly. "I think it's gonna go soon. They replace 'em every 10 years. So it should be up next. They don't need to replace it, though. Runs just fine," he said, looking it over. Then he sounded sad. "I like this one."

Mike Kirk came back and we sat in the lounge.

"What happened?" said Halper.

"Fuckin turned out somebody had burnt their food, the smoke had dropped down the stairwell of a walk-up," Kirk said. "And they call us."

Kirk paged through a porn mag looking for an article about a fire chief named Richard Picciotto, who survived the collapse. "Aw, all these fucking pictures I gotta go through to find this." Kirk chuckled, then handed me the magazine with its breasts and spread-eagled girls and the story of Picciotto. Picciotto, the article said, was on the seventh floor of the North Tower when the building fell, but somehow made it out, buried alive in a void for four hours -- Jonah in the belly of the beast. Picciotto wrote a book about it, "Last Man Down."

Kirk cursed. He shook his head. "You see this shit on the TV, the towers burning, the planes ramming, and it's like this year didn't happen, like it was yesterday, like it was a minute ago."

"We got a guy who never got over it," Kirk said. "He's done -- done! He's getting out, quitting the department. He was driving the rig when the bodies were splattering and then he went into the building." Halper spoke up. "He was in an area that was fortified from the '93 bombing, in a corner area making a search, and the building collapsed around them, and he was thrown 40 feet in the air. Guess he saw his life flash before his eyes. Maybe he's still ... seeing that, his life flashing ... " He trailed off.

"He's been on medical leave ever since, on all kinds of medications," Kirk said. "Not doing well. He won't come back to the firehouse. He was a firefighter for 10 years. He showed up here about two months ago for the first time, stayed an hour. Part of the therapy they gave him was to put his uniform on, not the full battle-gear, just the work-duty clothes, the pants, the shirt with his name on it -- try to get back to normal. He was always a practical joker. He's changed. Docile now. Maybe it's the medication."

"You know rescuers found 20,000 body parts in the pit?" Kirk went on. "They haven't found anybody from our house. Not one of our guys. We got a family here still holding out hope. Michael Ragusa's. Mikey was still new on Sept. 11, a third-year fireman and young, 28. He played softball on the team, played outfield. Jennifer, his fiancée, used to sit in the dugout and watch the games. Mikey was Mr. Fuckin Fix-it, handyman, fix anything. Neighbors were always coming to him for help. Good guy, he fit in well. He was a small guy, but a strong little guy. Before, when he was at the 250, they gave him this little kid's chair as a joke, fuckin' little tiny chair for a 5-year-old, and when he finally left the 250 to come here, he smashed that chair to pieces: 'Fuck this! I don't need this chair anymore, you guys been bustin' my balls for too long!' So the guys at the 250, they gathered up the pieces and they got some glue and they glued that chair back together and sent it on to us, so that when Mikey got here the chair was waitin' here for him. Mikey Ragusa!" Kirk shook his head and laughed.

"He was the oldest boy in the family, traditional Italian family from Brooklyn. I think he's the only guy left of all the guys who died who hasn't had an official memorial. The family didn't want it, they want a real funeral, they're holding out hope to ID something of him, with the DNA. They're holding out hope. The whole fuckin' thing is brutal."

I asked them about Christian Regenhard, who was 28 years old. Regenhard had spent five years in the Marines before he joined the FDNY in January 2001. He had served just under nine months; he was still on probation, a probie. Regenhard's mother, Sally, has become a crusader since her son's death, trying to convince the public and media to ask hard questions about why so many firefighters died on 9/11. Last month the McKinsey and Co. consulting group released a controversial report on FDNY process that day, and concluded that a variety of department snafus -- radios that didn't work, poor command and control; turf battle between firefighters and the police department -- may have worsened the death toll. Sally Regenhard wants to know if her son died in vain.

Mike Kirk and Sean Halper don't talk about blame. "Yeah, the radios went out -- whaddaya want?" said Kirk. "It was chaos that day. No one's to blame."

I told Sean Halper's story to an old family friend from the neighborhood, a wise old half-Italian, half-Irish plumber with long roots among firemen, who played in firehouses when he was a kid and worked in them when he was an adult and watched many friends, the blue-collar Irish and Italians who still dominate the ranks, become firemen; he lost some of them to fires.

"It takes an awful lot of guts to climb back in that truck, an awful lot of balls to keep driving," the old man said. "What does it mean to come back to the firehouse and find that five of the men on your truck didn't - and that truck is still there? What does it mean when your firehouse is now something between a church and a morgue? That truck - that truck bridges the two: that's the only direct physical contact you have with 9/11. Your friends were instantly suffocated or slowly cooked to death or pulverized to dust. And the truck is still there, staring at you when you walk in the door, those big headlights, the pipes, the chrome - that gorgeous chrome. When you go on a run, the ritual is the same as it was that day: the call, the suiting up, the mounting of the cab, the door closing, the sound of the latch. The same exact sound you heard on 9/11. You hear the boots thumping on the running boards - you're riding on a hearse, you're riding with five ghosts. Every day that truck is there and you're alive. Do you dread the day they'll replace it?"

There was something else the old man said, and it made me angry. We were talking about a placard the firemen of New York City held up at a rally last August. The placard said, "Less praise, more raise."

"The city's doing to the firefighters exactly what they're doing to the trucks," he said. "They're both battered, bent, dinged. They'll put a new coat of paint on 'em, some new chrome, let 'em run a while, then put 'em out to pasture. The new guys are full of piss and vinegar and the old guys, well, they'll keep on doing their job, but the city won't thank 'em for it. The city better wake up and do something for these people."

You can read it in the news: "Despite their status as America's heroes," the Associated Press reported on Sept. 7, "many of New York's firefighters say morale has sunk to the lowest point in memory because of contract disputes and the loss of hundreds of veteran colleagues."

The department lost 343 men on Sept. 11, 4,400 years of accumulated experience. Since then, 747 more have retired, many of them long-time commanders, lieutenants, battalion chiefs. At Engine 279/Ladder 131, four senior men have retired; there was more than 100 years' of firefighting between them.

"They had no fuckin' choice," Mike Kirk tells me. The pension system, Kirk explains, requires that retirees receive benefits equal to half their last year's pay. "And with all the overtime after Sept. 11, they took it. The city could've have tried to keep them, but it didn't." Kirk is angry, disappointed. There was a short-lived plan to fix the pension against a man's highest-paying year of service - many would have stayed on. But that was too expensive for a city $6 billion in debt. All the lavish praise, the arms around their shoulders, the noises in City Hall and Washington; it's become a little grating to the firefighters.

Firefighters are badly-paid; starting salary is about $30,000. After 15 years, Sean Halper makes about $60,000. It's well-known the men take second jobs, the "side-jobs," to pay for schools, college, support extended families. So after their fire shift, they're mechanics, carpenters, truck drivers. After Sept. 11, that second income, so pivotal, was put aside; the men worked at Ground Zero and then they worked overtime, and they did this proudly, not thinking of money, but assuring themselves the city would come through - perhaps now they wouldn't need those second jobs anymore. They've gone for more than two years without a raise and without a contract; no money in the budget for America's "heroes."

"I read an article by a fire-widow," Kirk said. "You know what she wrote? 'I'm well off now. It took my husband dying to not sweat out the bills.' This was a guy who worked all his life in the fire department and then came home and had a minute with his kids and then went off to work that other job, nailing nails. Look at this poor fuckin' woman. Kids. Mortgage. I got a mortgage: after 13 years I gotta refinance 'cause I'm still going from paycheck to paycheck. After 13 years."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A firefighter tells me that driving a rig is like having a Harley between your legs. When a call comes in for the 279, the chirrup, the bee-boop -- "2-7-9! We got someone trouble breathing!" - Halper yells, "C'mon," and I hop in the jumpseats behind the cab and the Harley is throbbing and hurtling and banging its 400 horses over the pot-holed streets; radio squawks, gears thud, horn blasts, lights flame.

"I've been in this thing on a rainy day, blasting down cobblestones, when the rig nearly did a 360 avoiding a car," Halper had told me, and now the force of the turns knocked the firefighters side to side. Across from me in the jump-seat was a guy named Herbert Nieves, 36, a new guy, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, half dressed in battle-gear, the boots, the fireproof pants; up top, he wore a t-shirt that bulged against his arms. For medical calls, the men don't need all their gear, and trained as they are as first responders, they often enough get called on runs the ambulances can't reach in time. Nieves is short but wide as a wall in his shoulders, and carries in his face and in his build more than a passing resemblance to Mike Tyson.

"I wasn't there for 9/11," Nieves tells me. "Back then I was a federal agent, INS, doing border patrol and then immigration here in New York. I was sworn in on Oct. 28, 2001, with 309 probationary firefighters. This was always a childhood dream of mine."

We threaded the streets, came to a housing project known for its crime, the men leapt down and went into a tall building with their first-aid kits, the life-support equipment, the bandages. Halper stayed with the engine.

For months after the attacks, Sean was lost; he came to work, he drove home to his wife in a waking dream. He'd be in the rig driving and would miss a turn, just keep driving, and the firefighters would say, "Uh, Sean, where ya goin'?" People said he wasn't right, they said he'd come back too quickly, that he should take some time off, but Sean wouldn't. People said that he wasn't with them, and he wasn't.

"I don't remember that time very well, the first months," Halper told me later, as we sat alone. "I kept seeing the people in the towers. The thousands of people in those towers, their faces as the buildings came down. A thousand people falling, and the firefighters running up the stairs. I couldn't get rid of that. I took a couple weeks off, and I saw three different counselors. They finally brought a guy down from Worcester, in Massachusetts, who dealt with the warehouse fire up there that killed six firemen. He asked my wife, 'Is he short with you? Is he angry? Does he sleep?' It was good: for me, for my wife. We needed that, to talk."

"When I went to my first fire after September, it was just about a week after. It was a big one, two alarmer, couple of engines, couple of ladders. I didn't feel anything. I thought about that: why wasn't I nervous at that first fire? I still don't know why. Something has happened in my brain - a protective mechanism, something. Something has shut down." We sat in the housewatch; Halper stared out the window. He finally turned to me: "Else I woulda gone nuts. You know?"

The 279 has nothing planned for Sept. 11; no memorial, no speeches. The families don't want it, the firemen don't want it. "We'll be alone with our thoughts," Halper tells me. Mike Ragusa will have a little memorial, nothing official, just friends and family on the front lawn of his house in Bergen Beach, in Brooklyn.

I left that night around 11 pm: men asleep in the bunk room, in the pitch-black; the dishes in the kitchen are done; a fresh-faced probie is in the housewatch; Mike Kirk reads a copy of Swank. There's some yelling: the guys still watching the game. The Giants lost, 16 to 13; a field goal with six seconds left.

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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