Survivor's Story




I’m Not Dying Here

It’s Labor Day weekend and the talk around the firehouse is not of picnics and travel plans but of another fireman’s funeral. [Michael Gorumba, who died Aug. 28 at a Staten Island fire scene.] I plan on taking my 6-year-old son to show him the strength of our family and how friends can be so tight, maybe thinking in the back of my mind that if I were to die in the line of duty maybe this would make it easier for him to comprehend. The next weekend is when we have our “family” picnic. It is planned on Sunday, Sept. 9. The Claudio-Langone Annual Picnic. In memory of Fred Claudio of Rescue 5 and Mark Langone of Engine 160, both from our house at 1850 Clove Rd. Both passed away not too long ago from cancer while still active firefighters.

This week leading up, much preparation is being done to make it a nice day. Everyone does a little to make the day a success. Over 500 people show up and all our family is there. Wives and kids who see each other at these events talk and play and catch up with the goings on. The guys joke and poke fun at each other like we do every day.

Tuesday, two days later, I show up for work at 1850 Clove Rd. at 7 a.m. and everyone seems to be up. Much of the talk is of the picnic days before and the good time had by all. Around the firehouse table we have coffee as one guy prepares French toast. Just another morning as 10 to 15 guys prepare for the change of tour at 9 a.m. The family is together.

Rescue Co. 5, you see, has its senior men with 15 to 23 years’ experience and our new guys with six to 10 years’ experience. It’s a nice combination, as the old can pass along their experience and knowledge and the young bring their eagerness and willingness to learn. It’s just before 9 a.m. and the alarm goes off for a run to Bayley Seton Hospital. Both companies go as guys don their equipment and head out the door. Just another regular run. The doors close and I stay behind, being assigned to Tactical Support 2, which responds to a variety of major events usually with Rescue 5.
This is no joke As I take a seat the phone rings and it is a member of Rescue 5, off duty, who tells me he just saw a plane hit the Trade Center. I say, “Sure, who you looking to talk to?” and he says “No, really.” The joking isn’t in his voice. So I hang up and call the dispatcher who tells me to head out for the Trade Center.

Driving over the bridge I hear of confirmed fire, people jumping. This won’t be your usual run, I think. They ask for a total of four Rescues to respond. There are only five in the city and I know Rescue 5 will be right behind me. Before entering the tunnel on the Gowanus, I see the second jet hit the Trade Center. A ball of fire erupts and I think, “How are we going to get this out?” People on express buses from Staten Island have a dazed looked as I pass by with a stream of emergency vehicles.

As I exit the tunnel and head onto West Street, I see a jet motor through the back of a car. I think, “Well, at least the driver was lucky,” as the front seemed undamaged. Body parts are everywhere as I try to maneuver my rig around them. As I pull up and park opposite 2 World Trade Center on West Street, the rigs are all pulling up. I see guys I know and say hello as we dart into the building to avoid the falling debris. I report to the chief, who sends four companies to the 70th floor and tells me to report to 1 World Trade Center to the command post there. I team up with an off-duty firefighter from another Rescue and we head off to 1 World Trade Center.

There in the lobby things are a bit crazy. The usually calm Fire Department chaplain Rev. [Michael] Judge is looking a bit nervous. I’ve seen him at numerous disasters and firefighters’ funerals and he never gets rattled. I guess it’s because he always has the Lord with him. [Father Judge was among the first people confirmed killed.] ‘Run, don’t walk’ We head off to the second floor to direct the people out of the building. As we climb the stairs, I pass a cart of beverages left behind and grab two bottled waters, thinking these may come in handy later. We go to stairway C and begin to direct the people out.

“Stay to your right; don’t look up; walk, don’t run; you’re almost out.” Every now and then we ask someone what floor they are from to know how much [of the building] has been evacuated. We carry two people down from the second floor and hand them off to some police officers who carry them out. You can hear people jumping and know conditions must be bad. Two fire companies head up the stairway with hoses. Two guys who worked a short time at 1850 Clove Rd. pass me and we exchange words of pleasantry.
Evacuation continues and most [people] are orderly and smile as I tell them, “One more flight to go.” It was to your right about 200 feet, then to your right 50 feet, then down a staircase to your left, then a right into the lobby. Never forget the way you came in, we are taught. It’s your way out.

I am in staircase C leading people out when a loud thunderous noise like numerous trains approaching a subway station occurs. I close the door to the hallway and we are all in the staircase. Outside the noise is deafening. “No, this thing can’t be collapsing,” I think. “Will rubble soon be coming down the staircase and trap us there?” It lasts for what seems like a minute. Complete darkness.

We stayed in the stairway until I heard people screaming and moaning. I try to open the door but debris is against it. With another person, a police officer who has come down the stairs, we force open the door. People are moaning and yelling. These are some of the same people who I had just told, “Almost there. One more flight to go.”
There is complete darkness, with insulation being blown all over. I turn on my flashlight and direct them to it. “Fireman over here. Come to my light.” I direct the police officer to stay at the door with his flashlight on. I walk out into the blackness and people approach my light. I lead 10 to 15 of them to the staircase again. Two World Trade Center seems to have collapsed, but not into 1 World Trade Center. Just around us, taking out some windows. I tell people to make a human chain and lead them to the exit again. Some police officers are there. I go back to stairway C and still people are filing out. “What floor?” “Seventieth,” a man tells me.

The stream of people seems to have stopped. I can’t find the other guy I was with. All radios are down. The building seems unsafe. We are just eight people or so left — cops, firemen and one civilian who has had it. He can’t walk. We begin to exit and get outside between 1 World Trade Center and the federal building — 7 World Trade Center, I believe. Debris is all around. The way we came in seems blocked. Some say [there’s] another way out. We start walking away from West Street. I notice the broken windows of 7 World Trade Center. “My next way out,” I think. ‘I ain’t going like this’

As we are carrying this guy out, taking turns, it is slowing us up. Then more crumbling in the distance is heard. One World Trade Center seems to be falling. I am blown — knocked or however — into 7 World Trade Center. My knees buckle and I fall. “I ain’t going like this,” I said. I get up and climb into the window and roll into a room. I lose my helmet and light after the noise stops. Again, blackness. My throat is full of debris. I place fingers in my mouth to remove it. Very dry, can’t breathe. I look for water in my pocket and it is gone. I see four other guys in the room as we all pick ourselves up, knowing we just lost some in that courtyard.

I look around and see the disaster. How are we going to get out? Will there be another collapse? I say a prayer and say goodbye to my 6-year-old and to my wife and to my 2-month-old, who may never know me.
One guy says, “Stay here. Help will come.” Another wants to climb out. Another is injured. My thoughts were, “I am not dying in here and anyone would be crazy to come get us.” We survey the room and think of breaching a wall but our tools are gone and we are spent. Breathing is tough and as the wind shifts, smoke from fire fills the room. I climb to another window on other side of the room. It is a corner room. I jump down into debris and three others follow me. We stay under an overhang, not able to see more than 20 feet in front of us. We’re now deciding which way to run.

Slowly smoke is lifting and one of the guys sees a light pole from the street below. We run for it but are about 10 to 15 feet from top of the pole. We’re hoping we can jump to it and slide down. However, it seems like a 40-foot drop. One fireman, probably in his early 20s, jumps and hits debris. “Will he get up?” I think. He does and runs away. Three of us are now deciding. Knowing my 42-year-old body won’t react the same, I say I am staying put. I’m letting the smoke lift, unless I hear another rumbling. I tie a harness around a pole knowing I could grab this and let myself down, taking five to six feet off my fall. Twice, with one leg over the side, I contemplate it. We continue to survey the scene. We can see fire truck No. 10 buried in debris. “Boy, how we could use a ladder now,” I think. And then the sun shone through the clouds of dust and smoke and I could make out the image of a stairway to the street. I yell and we all run for it. Yes, it was partially blocked, but mainly clear. The two other firefighters follow and we yell for the other to follow.

I walk a block or so. Still no one is in sight. I can’t even make out street signs. I walk further when a police officer asks me if I am all right. I tell him no. I’m having a tough time breathing and can’t see from debris and cuts. He brings me in a deli that is deserted and helps me wash off. I rinse out my mouth but still can’t swallow — my throat is lined with particles. I ask him to lead me to an ambulance and he does. I see a Fire Department chief at another command post trying to keep things in order. I tell him I was in the collapse and others are coming out as they place me in an ambulance and take me to Metropolitan Hospital at First Avenue and 97th Street in Manhattan. Compassionate care.

The emergency room is ready and the care I received is phenomenal. Being I was uptown and away from the other chaotic hospitals is to my advantage. The staff and everyone couldn’t have been better, making my three-day stay the best it could have been under the circumstances.
They had called my wife from the ER and she was happy to hear I was alive.
She called the firehouse to let them know I was alive. Not knowing how many were missing, I just kept hoping. Some guys visited. Others called.
Would I be happy to be getting out? Yes and no. Yes, happy to see my wife and boys, but reported missing are 11 of my family from 1850 Clove Rd. How can I face their wives and kids?

Even Rev. Judge has passed away, I heard. Maybe he let the Lord guide me out with the shining light. A family cut in half
But what about the 11 others? Rescue 5, 1850 Clove Rd., will never be the same. Great guys, fantastic family to me, hero firefighters. Always willing and wanting to help others. Our roster of men (our family) nearly cut in half. They are reported only missing, so I keep up some hope. Maybe there’s a large void they are safely in. However, if not, no void could be as large as the one those men and all the others who gave their lives will be leave in our FDNY family.

P.S. I’ve found out that my “Uncle” Joe Driscoll [of Manalapan, N.J.] was on the flight that went down in Pennsylvania. Our only shining light is that we all believe he would have fought [the hijackers], and that is what [officials] presume happened.

P.S. I am writing this because maybe it will help me sleep and so I won’t have to go over it so many times. But I know I will probably relive this every day of my life.

Thank you,
Bill Spade

FDNY R5 – Retired