Author Justin Watral
I can’t believe that it has been fifteen years since the attacks on the World Trade Center. It seems like a lifetime ago. As the site has been almost rebuilt with the new One World Trade Center (visited earlier in my walk last Thanksgiving) and two visits to the 9/11 Memorial Museum and numerous visits to the site, I think back on my eleven years on the Hasbrouck Heights Fire Department and the path I have lead to this point.
I think that the department has really grounded me in many ways and made me more disciplined. I have been able to help my community in ways that baking items for bake sales and selling Christmas trees never did even though these raised a lot of money for their respective causes. I think I have become a better person and a more aware person since joining the department. I really do think you are born a fireman. It just comes out a time when you recognize it. It was like a calling for me and I found what I was looking for in my life and I would never change it for the world.
Am I the best fire fighter or the most dedicated? That is up for debate after every call. I do know one thing, I have been able to help the people in my community in so many ways and when I hear from perfect strangers in my town or surrounding towns “I remember you. You came to my house and helped so-in-so in my family. Thank you so much for that.”, it makes me feel like a better person.
When I wrote “Firehouse 101” (part of a trilogy of books that take place in New York City, the other two being “Love Triangles” and “Dinner at Midnight”), I was at a different stage of my life and honestly if I had to write the book today, I could not do it. The book helped me grapple with what I saw and heard from other guys on the department when I got home to New Jersey from the island of Guam where I was living at the time.
How did a ‘preppie’ like me join the fire department? I was writing several articles on 9/11 for the local paper when I got home (basically because would write for free and I volunteered) and I interviewed so many fire fighters in my town on their role on 9/11 that I got sucked in. After a three hour interview with our now former chief and a long service fire fighter that had me on the edge of my seat the whole time with the stories they told me of that horrible day, the chief turned to me and said, “Have you ever considered becoming a fire fighter?”
I really thought about it when I got home and said to myself “Why would anyone think ‘Preppie Me’ would make a good fireman?” Then it really got me thinking of a lot of times I had met firemen along the way in my life and how impressed I was by them. It stayed with me for a long time and then I was helping out with the town’s tree lighting ceremony about a year later and the fireman I interviewed was standing in line behind me for a hot chocolate and I asked how he like the article I wrote. Then out of the blue I asked “Are you still looking for more firemen to join the department?” He then took me over to meet the chief I had interviewed and I asked about joining the department. Two months later I interviewed with my company and five months after that on June 12, 2005, I became a member of Engine One of the Hasbrouck Heights Fire Department and eleven years later I am still going strong as an Exempt fire fighter, member of the Bergen County Fireman’s Home Association, Department Secretary, Company Secretary, Head of our company’s annual barbecue and chicken parm dinner and still writing articles on the department. I really do think they saw something in me that day that I did not see in myself.
As much as my brothers can drive me crazy at times, there is no other place I would rather be and when push comes to shove, they are there for me. The one true time I saw the ‘Brotherhood’ shine was when my father died and on the night of the wake, they came out for me. The fireman, who I wrote the article about, Fire Fighter Tom Rubino, who will be retiring from the department this year and is our acting Fire Chaplin, read a beautiful speech about my father, whom everyone on the department had known for years at that point and had admired his bravery and hard work after his stroke to get better. It made it even more touching that it was him that read the speech after that night so many years ago.
The Brothers of Engine One christen their new/old bell for Engine One
The members of not just my company but other companies as well came out to support me and my father at a very tough time in my life and I will never forget that kindness. It is really a feeling that someone who is not a fire fighter will ever experience. There really is something to being a fire fighter and being part of a community in the fire service.
So on this anniversary of 9/11, I leave you with a section of the book when Alex Livingston, a scion of the famous Livingston family of the Hudson Valley, interviews the fire chief from Firehouse 101 in Brooklyn, New York and his tale of the 9/11 attacks. It tells the story of fire fighter Ryan Callahan, who survived that attacks that day and watched his best friend die next to him.
To all the families and friends who lost loved ones that day, my heart goes out to you. It still is not easy for any of us on the fire service no matter when we joined. I hope one day you can read my novel “Firehouse 101”. It might help you grapple with your pain. If you want to read a funny but touching article on me, read The Gazette newspaper article in 2006 on my life a year later in the fire service “So, yous want to be a Fireman?”
Excerpt from the interview with Carmen Giovanni (who I wanted it to be played in the movie version by musician and actor Huey Lewis)
What exactly happened to Ryan that day?” Alex asked. “At the school or on September 11th?” Carmen replied. “Both,” Alex said now fascinated by it all. He wanted to get the story straight once and for all. “I can only tell you what the men told me. When they got the call on September 11th, this house was the second one to respond from Brooklyn. They were going over the bridge when they saw the second plane hit the towers. The house sent seven men down plus two others who were off duty. Some stayed to man the house, while the others went down to the site. We were going through a shift change, not unlike my own house at the time, so there were lots of men milling around that morning. They got the call early and being so close to lower Manhattan they went. Hilly was never one to wait. One of the men told me that on the ride down, Hilly had said, “When we put this one out, I personally want to catch those rat bastards that did this to our city.”
“What about Ryan that day?” Alex said wanting to get back on the subject. “From what I heard he barely said a word. He was in another world by that point. Others were chatting on and on about what type of plane must have hit when the second plane hit the other tower. Then they were all quiet. Those men saw too much that day,” Carmen added. He paused for a second, looked at Alex and gave him a sorrowful look like he was waiting for a reaction. Alex sat wide eyed and continued to write.
“From what the men told me, Hilly went into the Tower Two to see what they could do and where they should go first. Since there was so much chaos, Hilly took control and helped escorting people out of the building and away from danger. They say he was pretty calm. From what I knew of the guy, he would have had everyone double step and yell at them if they didn’t do it. So he and the rest of the men helped there. From what I heard, they then got a call to help on the upper floors, so Hilly took four of the men with him and told Ryan and Patrick to stay behind to help get the infirmed or injured out of the building. That’s why Ryan and Patrick were alive that day.
The picture of Ryan and Patrick was taken ten minutes before the first tower came down. It had literally knocked their helmets off. All Ryan could remember when he came out of the coma in the hospital was that he and Patrick had gone back to the lobby to help get more people out of he building. They had been helping an older man and the next thing he knew, he woke up in the hospital a few weeks later. Carmen was calm as he explained the story to Alex.
Alex could not believe what he was hearing. It was like a TV movie. So that was the story, that’s what really happened that day. No wonder Ryan wanted to forget it, what a horrifying experience. “So what happened at the hospital when he woke up?” Alex asked.
Carmen thought about this for a minute. Should he continue on? Who was this for anyway? Carmen decided to continue thinking that Alex was a concerned friend. In actuality, Alex was trying to get an idea of the magnitude of what happened that day to one person. He wanted to know what Leslie, Ryan, and Roger were not telling him. Alex felt that he had never been that nice to Ryan the whole time he lived in New York. He began to realize that he felt sorry for himself as Ryan had for himself and what concerned Ryan was much worse.
“One of the men told me that they could not believe that Ryan made it out with just a sprained ankle and a few minor cuts. It was the way he fell. The base of a fountain protected him. Even I couldn’t believe it but that’s where they found him. He and Patrick were still alive. The man they were helping was literally crushed by the beam they found on top of him,” Carmen added. “How did they find them?” Alex asked. Some firemen from a downtown house found them and got them the hell out of there,” Carmen continued, “no one could believe that they survived the first collapse. There was no help for Patrick though; he died after they got to the hospital. The impact was more severe that it appeared, he was suffering from internal bleeding. He died before his parents even knew that he had made it to the hospital. Mr. And Mrs. Callahan had to help the two of them home.” Alex had known that the two families were very close and Patrick and Ryan knew each other since they were practically born. Carmen was not sure how much Alex knew of Ryan.
“His old girlfriend told me about that,” Alex said, “it must be horrible for any parent to bury a child under any conditions but after what had happened on September 11th, it must have been even more traumatizing, especially when it seemed like there was a chance he survived. No one should have had to die such a terrible death.”
Alex had not noticed that during the interview. Carmen’s face turned red them almost to almost purple, like he was holding his breath. Alex was worried and said, “Carmen are you okay? Do you need some water or something?” Carmen looked away then looked back at Alex. He looked him straight in the eye and started a speech that Alex would not ever dream of interrupting.
“You’re right, Alex. No one should have had to die such a horrible way because no one should have had to die that day!” Carmen shouted. “We had so many good men die that day that should not have and why? I’ll tell you why. No one was watching the signs, no one shared information. Everyone letting their egos get in the way. No one had a back up plan, no one understood the big picture. We all went in blind because no one knew. And the city, Jesus Christ, I still can’t believe it. You’d think we would have learned from the bombings in ’93, but we didn’t. We got smug. We thought they couldn’t possibly do it again. They wouldn’t even try. And we warned the city government! We said we needed new equipment but did they listen, NO!!! It was too expensive, we have no money, we have to cut the budget and wait until next year. Jesus Christ, here it is nine years later and we still don’t have it! What the fuck are they waiting for to get hit next? The Brooklyn Bridge? The Empire State Building? I would like to know what the hell they are waiting for. My own brother and I can’t even talk to each other on radio. The police can’t talk to the firemen in this city and that is so fuckin’ ridiculous!” Carmen said now screaming at the top of his lungs. Carmen took a book off his desk and threw it at the wall. He was really pissed!
Then he continued, “Nothing in this god-damned city will ever change. They will spend money on parades and on memorials and then turn around and not want to buy new radios for us because it is too expensive! Well tell me this; would the person who said it would be too expensive to buy us new radios like to explain to over two thousand family members and to over a hundred and fifty widows of fire fighters that there was no money for them? I would like to meet them myself and explain it to them!” Carmen was in a near frenzy.
“I even yelled at that stupid brother of mine to knock some sense into some of his friends in the police department to get the ball rolling. This is such a load of bullshit! When did we let out egos get in the way such that departments won’t even help each other? Do you know how many firemen are former policemen? This is our wake up call to talk to one another and be better organized. If we don’t, I won’t blame the federal government because it won’t be the government’s fault but our own pride and stupidity! We don’t need anymore god damn parades praising us. We need good working conditions. Our firehouses can’t be falling apart and rat infested, we need new equipment to do our jobs and we need better salaries so our men and women can live closer to the city they serve. Do you know that some of our men have to live at home because they can’t make it on the starting salary? Christ, that’s pathetic! Our men aren’t being subsidized by Mommy and Daddy to live on the Upper East Side!” Carmen gave Alex the conclusion to his speech when he swept everything off his desk and yelled at the top of his lungs, “NO ONE HAD TO DIE THAT DAY!!!!”
To read more of ‘Firehouse 101’, see my ad on Google Books or buy the novel through the internet through IUniverse.com. Google Books, Amazon Books, Barnes &Nobel.com or any internet site selling the book by Googling it.