Dennis Smith, a retired New York City firefighter who put in 18 years with the department before starting a new career in writing, headed down to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. After his experience there, the writer of 11 books put away the novel he'd been working on and he started a new project — Report From Ground Zero: The Story of the Rescue Efforts at the World Trade Center. Read an excerpt from his book below.
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 places-in 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.