September 11, 2001, 8:48 a.m.
For decades to come people will ask of each other, where were you . . . ?
I am sitting with Arnold Burns, the chairman of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, talking about the needs of youth. I have known this former deputy attorney general of the United States for twenty-five years, and because I am on the board of a Boys & Girls Club in the South Bronx, I am also a member of his board of advisers. We happened to run into each other the way New Yorkers often meet, in unlikely placesin our case, sitting in a laboratory anteroom, waiting to have our blood drawn for annual exams. Suddenly, a nurse enters and exclaims that a plane has crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
I look at my watch.
It is 8:48 a.m.
In Manhattan most people arrive at their offices ten or fifteen minutes early. Many have carried little white bags from local coffee shops, and are just now taking seats at their desks, anticipating the day's work. How many people are already in the World Trade Center? It must be thousands and thousands. What a terrible accident this threatens to be.
I picture the firefighters now responding to the alarm. I know what they are thinking. They are thinking of conditions. For every fire, however, the conditions can never be truly imagined until you arrive on the scene. I remember that from all the alarms I have responded to in my own life. Thousands. Each time there is the anticipation. I never knew what would meet us at the alarm location, never knew what had to be done, just as these firefighters now do not know. A report of a plane's going into a building is just the first part of the story.
I am a retired New York City firefighter, and an honorary assistant chief of department. Engine Co. 82 and Ladder 31 in the South Bronx, where I worked from 1967 through 1973, were then among the busiest fire companies in the city. I am on the board of directors of several fire-related not-for-profits, and I am chairman of a foundation that seeks to improve the health and safety of firefighters. I have never lost contact with my friends in the fire service since my retirement in 1981, and I feel still very much a part of "the brotherhood." Indeed, once a member of its ranks, I don't believe one ever leaves them. Friends call me "brother" all the time.
At 9:03 I arrive home to find my wife, Katina, staring in shock at the television. Another plane has just gone into the south tower.
The second crash leaves no doubt that we have been attacked, so many thoughts begin to flow through my mind. This is no accident. As every American must be doing at this moment, I wonder: Who would do this? Who could pull off something this horrendous? This is not as simple an act as parking a truck loaded with 7000 pounds of fertilizing chemicals in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City. No, this could only have been the result of the carefully plotted efforts of a group, and it would have to have been supported by a government or some organization with very big money. And people would have to have been willing to effect their own deaths. Like the kamikazes. But where were the kamikazes today? Just one place that I know of. Only the terrorists of the Middle East would do this. They had tried before, in February 1993, and now they have come back to try again.
"I will give it a little time," I say, "and then I have to go down there."
I know the drill, for I have been to similar emergencies. I can picture what the scene will be like at the crash site. It is a major disaster, and will be crowded with professionalsfirefighters, cops, emergency medical technicians, nurses, and doctors. During the first hour of operations fire department personnel will be rushing from place to place. To an outsider it might seem like pandemonium, but it will be controlled and orchestrated by people who know fully what they are doing.
Copyright 2002 Dennis Smith. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Viking.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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