One of the most mind-blowing memories of the 9-11 tragedies is the selfless sense of duty of the rescue workers who responded to the World Trade Center disaster. Hundreds of firemen, policemen and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) risked their own lives in hopes of saving others. Their heroics on that day have been well documented over the past few months. But five months after the disaster, the disappointment still lingers for many of them that they didn’t save more people.
Jeff Birnbaum, president of Broadway Electrical Supply Co., New York, was one of those workers. His natural instinct, honed during 23 years of experience as a fire chief and EMT for Pt. Lookout-Lido Beach on Long Island, N.Y., was to rush to the scene of a disaster to help out.
So when he found out that two airliners had hit the World Trade Center, Birnbaum’s first reaction was to get to the World Trade Center as soon as possible to assist the recovery efforts. He ran from a subway station to his office at Broadway Electrical Supply just north of Manhattan’s Union Square to get an employee who had some medical experience. The two men then left the building for the World Trade Center. Fire trucks were racing down Broadway past his building and he flagged one down and hitched a ride with the crew to the World Trade Center.
“We were down there in three minutes,” he said. “The police had the roads cleared right down to Ground Zero.”
Months after the tragedy, Birnbaum speaks of what he saw next at the World Trade Center on 9-11 with amazing clarity and rich detail. His recollections are aided by what he says seems almost like a “videotape in my head.”
“The sight was amazing. I was just totally awestruck. I reported to the command post, showed my ID and asked if I could be of use. They said ‘Absolutely. Stand off on the side with the other medical people.’ I couldn’t fight any fires because I did not have that kind of gear with me, but would have done it if asked.
“I decided to walk closer to the South Tower. I was about 100 ft from the South Tower looking up when the bodies started coming down. I counted 35. They were just piling up on the Marriott Marquis hotel. They were 10 to 15 thick piling up one after another. You could hear them hitting on the side streets. They were hitting cars, and there were lots of explosions.
“I have seen plenty of death in my life, and burned bodies and so forth, but this was incredible. As I was looking up, I saw a body coming down, hit a lamppost and explode like a paint ball. Its arms and legs got torn off and the head ripped off and bounced right by me.”
Because the World Trade Center command center, which was used by the police, firemen to manage operations at the Twin Tours, was destroyed, Birnbaum and other rescue workers were moved to a make-shift command post near a parking garage at the World Financial Center, on the banks of the Hudson River. People were concerned that terrorists might have been in the building, so the city’s anti-terrorist squad was leading rescue workers into the South Tower to remove dead and injured, and to bring victims down to a site by the river.
All of the workers had to constantly watch for debris and falling bodies from above. In fact, Father Judge, a priest famous amongst New York City’s fire fighters for his close ties to that department, was killed by falling debris just five minutes after blessing Birnbaum and other rescue workers while they were awaiting orders to enter the building. Birnbaum says what he saw next will stay with him for the rest of his life.
“When we got to about 50 ft from the South Tower, we heard the most eerie sound that you would ever hear. A high-pitched noise and a popping noise made everyone stop. We all looked up. At the point, it all let go. The way I see it, it had to be the rivets. The building let go, there was an explosion and the whole top leaned toward us and started coming down.
“I stood there for a second in total awe, and then said, ‘What the F_____?’ I honestly thought it was Hollywood. There were 20 to 30 fire trucks and hundreds of people in the street. Everything was happening in a split second. Then someone in our group yelled, ‘Run! The only place I had to go was into the parking garage in the World Financial Center.
“As I got to the entrance of that garage, I tripped and fell. Five firemen landed on top of me. The minute I hit the ground, the building came down and buried us two stories high. Everything went pitch black, and you couldn’t see. I pushed the firemen off of me. Some of them were alive, some were not. I said, ‘My God, I am going to die.’ At that point, you couldn’t see one inch in front of you because of the dust. The only way to see anything was from the light of my pager.”
Totally white from dust and debris and unable to breathe or see, Birnbaum started crawling over bodies toward a fluorescent emergency light. He figured that if he could see that light, the air must be good in its vicinity. While crawling toward the light, he found a New York City Fire Department battalion chief who was badly cut up. He pulled the fire chief underneath the emergency light and tried to call for help on his cell phone, but there was no service. At that point, Birnbaum prayed to God to take care of his wife and four kids because he thought that he was going to die.
But the dust began to clear and Birnbaum spotted an exit light. The fire chief was able to walk, although he was bleeding badly from his head. With an arm around the chief, Birnbaum felt his way along a wall about 20 ft until he came to a sealed stairwell. They decided to go up the stairs, and Birnbaum helped the chief walk up two flights of stairs to a door that opened up on the World Financial Center, a point not far from the make-shift command post where he had awaited orders about 30 minutes earlier.
The door opened onto a scene that looked like a war zone, Birnbaum said. “All you saw was yellow-and-black smoke, and people lying dead on the ground. Glass was breaking, people were screaming “Help!” and you couldn’t breathe. We had to breathe through our jackets.” Some EMT workers found Birnbaum and the fire chief and helped them into ambulances. Birnbaum does not know what happened to that fire chief and is still trying to find him. “That bothers me,” he says. Birnbaum had a badly bruised hip from when the other fire fighters fell on him, and the EMT workers wanted to take him to a hospital. But he refused, saying he had come to do a job and that he was going to do it. After getting a surgical mask to protect himself from the clouds of dust, he surveyed the scene of utter destruction and confusion, and saw a fire chief that he knew. The fire chief had crawled out of the windshield of his crushed fire truck, and insisted to Birnbaum that he had to find his crew, which had in all likelihood perished when their truck was crushed. Before his friend had walked 30 ft, Birnbaum said the North Tower started to fall.
“We were totally engulfed by the second tower going down,” he says. “It practically blew us off our feet.”
After getting down to the Hudson River, Birnbaum ran into the worker from his company who he had brought from his office, and they helped treat some of the injured.
About 1 p.m., they walked back to Broadway Electrical Supply and closed up shop. Birnbaum walked uptown to Penn Station, where 5,000 people were trying to board trains to leave the city. Birnbaum arrived home after 3 p.m., His wife says she knew that morning that Birnbaum would go to the World Trade Center to help out, but since she had not heard from him that day, she assumed that he was lost in the rescue efforts. When she saw him come through their bedroom door—still coated from head-to-toe in white ash—Birnbaum says she screamed, “Oh my God! Thank God.’”
But his day was not done. After giving her a big hug and getting in the shower to clean off the ash, he went down to his firehouse to be on hand if his company got a call to respond to the disaster. “I manned my firehouse till about 9 p.m. that night,” he said. “I closed it down.”
Two days later, Birnbaum traveled back to the disaster site in a caravan of 15 ambulances, “worked the pile” and was on call at the site for another 48 hours to treat the injured.
Little by little, life is returning to what is the “new normal” for Birnbaum and his fellow employees at the 70-year-old Broadway Electrical Supply. On an unseasonably warm January day, with bright sunlight pouring in office windows that used to frame a view of the Twin Tours gracing the Manhattan skyline directly over Broadway, Jeff Birnbaum described the smell of the disaster that lingered at his company until early November. It was an odor that he describes as a “strange, unique smell” that he still can’t get out of his system. “The smell was like no smell you would ever believe,” he says. “It was of an electrical fire, just not a wood-burning smell.” He still has nightmares and wakes up in cold night sweats, and found it particularly trying when television aired “year-in-review” news stories during the holidays that featured the 9-11 WTC disaster. For the first week after the attacks, Birnbaum says the death, blood, destruction and dead bodies that he saw did not phase him, possibly because he was still in shock. But then, Birnbaum says, he “lost it.” “Crying for no reason. Seeing things on television... the kids with no fathers or no mothers… Looking up and seeing hundreds of people in the windows calling their wives and saying goodbye… “Then I started hearing stories around the fire department. Like a guy working on the 110th floor who was also a fireman. He called his wife and said, ‘If I stay here, I am going to burn. But if I jump, they will find my body and you will get a death certificate, and everything will be fine. If I burn, you may not get a death certificate.’ Then he said goodbye and jumped.”
While Birnbaum went to Nassau County Crisis Management Center for counseling, he says that his experiences will never leave his mind. Most troubling to him is a helpless feeling that he didn’t get to help enough people on 9-11.
“I went down there to help and to treat but I didn’t get to do that… In my mind, with this type of Mass Casualty Incident, (MCI), I expected to treat hundreds, maybe thousands of people, or at least be involved with that.
“Who thought those towers would come down? I thought we would be fighting these fires for a week or two chasing them around the buildings. When the first one came down it was like, ‘Wow!’ But the second one? And for it to come down, and there to be nothing left except for a plume of smoke.
“I asked a priest at the counseling center, ‘Why wasn’t I killed?,’ He said, ‘It’s not your time.’
“To this day, I can’t figure out why I am still here.”