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 fire-fighters, police officers 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
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 firefighter and EMT for Point
Lookout-Lido 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 Steve
Scigliano, an employee who had some medical experience. Scigliano and
Birnbaum 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.”
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.
decided to walk closer to the South Tower. I was about 100 feet 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
Because the World Trade Center command center,
which was used by the police and firemen to manage operations at the
Twin Tours, was destroyed, Birnbaum and other rescue workers were moved
to a makeshift 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 antiterrorist 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 the workers had to watch for debris and
falling bodies from above. 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 feet 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.
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.”
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 feet 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 makeshift
command post where he had awaited orders about 30 minutes earlier.
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.”
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.
had a badly bruised hip from when the other fire fighters fell on him.
The EMT workers wanted to take him to a hospital. He refused, saying he
had come to do a job and that he was going to do it. After getting a
surgical mask for protection 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 feet, 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.”
getting down to the Hudson River, Birnbaum ran into Steve Scigliano,
the worker who he had brought from his office, and they helped treat
some of the injured.
About 1 p.m., Scigliano and Birnbaum
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,
Linda, 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.
she saw him come through their bedroom door — still coated from
head-to-toe in white ash — Birnbaum says she screamed, “Oh my 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
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 Towers 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 World Trade Center disaster.
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 good-bye …
“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 good-bye and jumped.”
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
“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.”