by Tom Dunn, FDNY Firefighter
Monday November 12, 2001 I was working a 24 hour shift this day. I arrived at the firehouse at 8 am and relieved the night tour. I took the control position. The day started as routine as any other, I made the coffee, checked the rig, made sure the company log was up to date, and straightened up around the kitchen. The day tour began to arrive. It would be myself on control, Sweeney on the knob, Ski back up, and Captain Labarbara was our boss. The driver was a detail from Engine 239, Tom Ryan. Me and Ski went up early to start the committee work, which is just basically dumping garbage, making beds and making sure that the quarters are in good shape.
At 9:14 AM American Airlines Flight 587, an A300 Airbus took off from Kennedy International Airport bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. It was carrying 246 passengers and nine crew members. At 9:17 AM Flight 587 crashed five miles from Kennedy in the residential neighborhood of Rockaway, New York, in the borough of Queens.
Ski and I were up making the beds and I think it was Eddie who was still in the house from the night tour that announced over the loud speaker that a plane had just crashed in Rockaway. I remember standing there and just thinking this can not be happening again. It had been only 2 months since the Trade Center and all the old feelings came racing back again. I just thought to myself, "Well, here we go again."
We ran downstairs and all gathered around the TV just like during the Trade Center. It was all too familiar. The TV was showing a picture of a plume of smoke rising over an area that we all knew too well. Eddie and Tom Ryan both have family that live in that area and we have all been there at one time or another for either funerals or bars or friends' houses.
Unlike the Trade Center, where terrorism was the last thing on my mind, I thought for sure this was another attack, seeing as this was Veteran's day. We watched the TV for a couple minutes and discussed how we hoped they would send us so we could do our part. The scenario played out almost the same as the Trade Center. The computer went off and it was for the chief, but this time he was only getting relocated to cover the 49 Battalion's area. Then I started to think, "Oh, man, I hope they don't just relocate us to cover someone else's area," because everyone knows that the hardest thing to do when something big is going on is to sit and watch it on TV.
The red phone began to go off announcing that a second alarm had been transmitted. And then almost immediately it went to a third alarm and the computer went off ENGINE! and the two tone noise that means we have an alarm. We all ran out to housewatch to see if we were going. On the ticket it read that we were the 4th engine in on the 3rd alarm. The run was acknowledged the bell rang and the doors opened. We gathered our gear and got on the rig. We were on the road in seconds flat. I got dressed and checked to make sure I had everything. Helmet, hood, gloves, flashlight all right were they should be and we made our way to Flatbush Ave.
When we got to Flatbush, Engine 249 was also heading to the box and we rode side by side down the Ave, lights and sirens blaring. Eddie, who was working the night tour last night, had jumped on the rig to take in the run with us so that meant he had the door position. I still had the control, and, just like the Trade Center, I wanted to be anything but control because that means you are the last one on the line at a working fire. I asked Eddie if he would mind taking control and if I could take the door and he agreed. I felt better.
After the Trade Center my girlfriend got me a cell phone because everyone was so worried about me all day and had no way to get in touch with me. I got the phone out and began making calls. The first call I made was to my roommate, who is also a firefighter, and I woke him up and told him what had happened and that he should probably contact his firehouse. The second was to my girlfriend and then my brother and parents. Now I felt even better that every one was contacted and I hoped that would take away some of the anxiety they would feel. The trip was shorter than I thought it would be and we headed over the Marine Parkway bridge, and it was the first time we got to see the actual site.
Just like on the TV the plume of smoke was there and we started to get a little anxious. We headed down Rockaway Beach Bled and ended up parking around Beach 133 street. As we exited the rig and put our masks on, there were civilians all over the place all with that crazy look on their faces like, "How could this happen in our neighborhood?" We followed the Cap and headed down the block where the plane had landed when we got about half way down the block visibility became very difficult.
I could see other units already operating and that a couple houses were fully involved, but I really couldn't see any parts of the plane because that was further down the block. Our Cap went to find a chief to see where we were needed and told us to stick together. We assisted stretching line for companies that already had orders while staying together. The Cap came back pretty quickly. The first thing he said to us was be careful, all the lines are still live. And then I noticed that all around us there were overhead wires that were down in the street and we passed this information around to everyone near us. Water was everywhere puddles and streams that were created by the units that were already operating.
We were obviously on the edge of the crash site because visibility was still fairly OK and I could see that one of the houses that had been hit and that was fully involved had a car in the driveway that had a bumper sticker that said, "All gave some, some gave all," and I prayed real quick that it wasn't a firefighter's house. The Cap said that we were going into the rubble up ahead and that we were going to assist with a 2-inch line and that there were bodies everywhere so watch were you stepped. We began walking in and I tried to watch were I was stepping but that became useless because visibility became almost zero and you couldn't really see where you were going.
We managed to stay together and found our way through the rubble to the unit that we were going to assist. Ski and I stayed together and got up right behind the company and held the line to ease the pressure on them. We were in water up over our knees and when we knelt down it was up around our waist. I could tell we were right in the middle of the site because of all the debris that we went through to get to this point and that we were probably still in the street and I thought we were putting water on a house that was burning. Visibility was really bad as we operated for awhile.
It really is amazing how fast this fire was knocked down. I mean you had at least 5 houses that were fully involved and then the remains of the plane that were no doubt still going. After operating for maybe 10 or 15 minutes visibility had improved greatly. I began to see that we were in fact in the street and putting water on a house that was burning, but besides that we were too busy holding the line to really pay attention to anything else. After a couple minutes a firefighter came up behind Ski and myself and said, "Hey, brothers, just so you know you there is a body right behind you". We both looked over and there was a body right behind us. We began to look around and there were bodies everywhere. I looked back towards the route that we took to get to this point and I saw that it was scattered almost every inch with partial bodies and that firefighters were walking around with sheets and covering them. We were, in fact, right in the middle of it and off to my right I could see the remains of the main part of the plane.
The sheets were now everywhere and I tried to focus back on holding the line and when I looked in front of me I saw that every time we moved the line or the motion of our bodies in the water a hand rose and fell back into the water with each movement. We operated for a little while longer and then a chief came by and said that we were to start carrying the bodies out and line them up a couple houses down from where we were. We left the line and gathered sheets and Ski and I went to get a couple backboards from EMS to use as stretchers.
We gathered our equipment and returned to the Cap and the rest of the guys and when we returned PD and FBI agents were yelling that the bodies were not to be moved. Chiefs began yelling that all members that were not presently working a line were to leave the immediate area and fall in at the command post for orders. We waited at the command post and finally got orders to begin searching the area for more bodies. We split up our crew I went with the Cap and Ski, Eddie and Sweeney went the other way. We were to begin searching the back yards and property in the area for plane parts and bodies. I was literally soaked with water, fuel and oil and my boots were killing me because my feet were sliding every time I took a step. We did this for probably an hour and the search turned up negative except for a small part of the plane that the Cap and I found in a backyard.
The civilians were very helpful but were all visibly shaken that these men in their gear were rummaging through their property for bodies and parts of the plane. When it was over, 246 passengers, 9 crew members, and 6 civilians on the ground were all killed.
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Copyright 2001 by Tom Dunn. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission of the author.