Portland firefighter looks back on his time in New York after 9/11
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four planes, killing almost 3,000 people. The attacks reshaped the U. S. and the world in almost unfathomable ways leading to two wars and a new level of surveillance and security. In the days immediately after Sept. 11, people all across the country were in a kind of shock. Many weren’t sure what to do, but four Portland firefighters were decisive.
They quickly made a plan to go to New York. They wanted to help their colleagues on the other side of the country, Neil Martin was one of them. He is now a lieutenant with Portland Fire & Rescue and he joins us to talk about that time.
When did you make the decision to go to New York City?
It was actually really shortly after [I found out about the attack]. That same day as we’re watching the footage, one of the pieces that they were showing was a live news clip and it was our fire friend FDNY Firefighter Billy Quick who had survived the collapse. And he was just kind of relaying his experiences to the interviewer and when I saw that it was like: you know of all the 15,000 firefighters in New York, the one that’s interviewed is our friend. And he was definitely no stranger to a camera. He was one of those personalities that: there was a camera, he was going to be on it. But watching that, my wheels started turning and you know, I’m sure I was feeling like the rest of America: wanting to do something and by then a plan had already been in place by Dwight Englert who was also a Portland firefighter and was Billy’s really good friend. Dwight had already reached out to Lisa Quick, Billy’s wife, and Billy told her that we would probably be calling and if we did just to tell us to come down. For some reason, he just knew were going to call. It was like divine intervention.
How did you even get there? Air travel basically shut down immediately. That was one of the eerie things whether you were in New York or anywhere in the country — just to not have planes overhead.
We went to PDX on the 13th, and airports were still shut down. So the four of us started walking the concourse looking for flights out and as empathetic as everybody was at the airport, they were saying everything’s grounded so they didn’t think we could get out. Then we started formulating another plan of maybe renting a van and driving across country. So we’re kind of doing the math in our heads how long it would take us to get there. And just then, a TWA flight that was grounded at PDX, and it was ordered to go back to La Guardia to free up some air landing space. And so they contacted us and said, ‘Hey, we’re taking this plane, you guys want on it?’
What was that flight like?
It was strange, it was absolutely strange. There was no one on the flight. Everyone was very melancholy, very introspective. The whole flight, we were in deep conversations with the flight crew, flight attendants and pilots and they were relaying to us stories of colleagues that were in the flights that were used for the Pentagon and the World Trade Center attacks. And we were telling them about Billy and our firefighter friends that we know we’re going to be impacted. We were just so glad to find comfort in each other and they were super supportive of us going back and helping you know and we were just super humble that we had that opportunity and like I said it felt like divine intervention because at the time there was nothing flying out.
What did you think you were going to be doing when you had this idea to go to New York? What was your plan for the help you would actually be providing?
To be perfectly honest, it was anything they needed. We really thought we might be picking up kids from ... school, going to funerals, any logistical work that the firefighters might have needed because they were stuck at the stations. They had lost such a huge infrastructure from FDNY. That was so unprecedented. Not only did they lose over 100 pieces of apparatus, but hundreds of their firefighters are missing and also their command staff was missing as well. And so they were quickly scrambling trying to keep the city protected.
What did you end up actually doing?
Well when we got to the station at about 1 a.m., all the firefighters were waiting up for us because Billy had called them and said: “Hey, the Portland boys are coming. Make sure you get ready for them.”
We got to their station, we learned that Billy was picking us up first thing in the morning to go down to The Pile. That’s the name for what we now call Ground Zero, that’s what they called it.
What do you remember about the first time you arrived at the pile?
Watching on TV didn’t do it any justice. I literally felt like an ant trying to cross the street. The scene was so immense. Two buildings 110 stories falling straight down. The rubble pile was still nine stories high. And there were fires everywhere. And it was such a hopeless feeling, when you really saw the destruction, that we were going to be able to find anyone alive.
This was one of those terrible situations where what started as a rescue mission, quickly turned into a recovery one because there weren’t people to save by the time you arrived. Was that terrible knowledge clear?
We did but no one spoke of it.
I do remember one of the firefighters from New York was handing out N95 masks and he said: “Hey, make sure you wear these. Do you see there’s no glass around here? We had to over 200 stories of buildings and they’re all glass and you can’t see any. It atomized.”
And that kind of hit home to us So I start thinking to myself: Well, if glass can atomize, how can human flesh survive that? You know, we thought it, but no one said it.
Can you tell us what would happen when it was clear that the person you found was a firefighter or a police officer?
It was so eerie. That happened a lot and it was never a recognizable body. It was a piece or a part of a uniform or piece of flesh. But you could tell it was a firefighter because they were, they were draped with their turnout uniform or very close to a crushed fire truck or fire engine or ambulance. So if it was found, we made notifications and you could hear a pin drop. Everything got super quiet. They would try and catalog the exact location, wrap it up in a bag and then after the bag we would wrap it in an American flag and we would take it down The Pile in absolute silence as you would salute that member that was going down in that five-gallon bucket. Or if it was big enough, we just kind of handed it down. It was super emotional and very impactful to see that. And very hard.
Something like a quarter of the people living in this country now either weren’t alive on Sept. 11, 2001, or they were too young to have memories of that day. What would you want them to know about what happened or what you experienced?
That these thousands of Americans were lost just from going to work. Hundreds of Americans were lost by trying to help them. And the biggest thing to me was that the New Yorkers were so thankful to see us there from Portland, Oregon. We wanted to represent our city, our department and for everyone back here that was so far removed. If we could make them feel good about having a presence in New York from Portland, that was something that meant a lot to us and that’s why we did that.
Can you tell us what happened to your friend Billy Quick?
He ended up passing away 10 years later from mesothelioma. He had complications from working on Ground Zero for so long. He had to medically retire a few years before that because he was debilitated and he couldn’t breathe. And so not only did he develop his mesothelioma had other health issues, but he really became completely depressed because being a New York firefighter was such a huge identity for him. That’s what he wanted to be since he was a little boy in the Bronx. And so he really lost his identity and he didn’t know who he was anymore. And you know, being so far removed from the 9/11, everyone kind of forgot about it and he felt like he was a forgotten man.
So when Lisa called us to let us know that Billy was not doing well because of the depression, she said: “It feels like he’s given up, he’s not coming out of his room. He won’t go to his dialysis.” So we decided to surprise them and we flew out there and hours after we got there, he passed away in the night. We attempted to do CPR on him and it was too late. So we probably got to visit with him maybe six hours before he passed. And that was kind of the end of that whole chapter when we got to bury Billy.
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