Seventeen years on the job, I still remember my first day like it was yesterday. I’m often transcended back to that clear September day when the world stopped turning. In fact, sometimes when I’m rushing to pull on my bunker gear, I recall how my fumbling hands hurried to fix my probie patch to my helmet or how I stood on the side of the road pulling on my gear before racing to catch the Staten Island Ferry to take me to the burning towers.
I had graduated from the academy three days earlier and was assigned to a firehouse in Brooklyn for training. On my way to work, I dropped my three-year-old daughter at nursery school as I did every day. For some odd reason, she didn’t want to go and started to cry when we pulled in front of the school. Drying her eyes, I held her small hand in mine as I walked her into her class and assured her she would be fine. I promised she’d have fun and before she knew it, mommy would be there to pick her up. Her tears subsided as I kissed her goodbye and told her I’d see her later. Reluctantly, she released my hand and walked into the class. I lingered in the doorway watching as the teacher helped her find her seat and when I was sure she was okay when I finally caught a glimpse of the smile that melted my heart every single time, I forced myself to step away from the door.
I made my way back toward my car, glanced at the clock on the dashboard and turned on the radio as I pulled away from the curb. That’s when I heard the dreaded news that a plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center five minutes earlier. I called my wife who was seven months pregnant with our second child and she told me the news was instructing anyone who graduated from the academy that week to report to the ferry terminal.
“I’ve gotta go,” I remember saying with conviction. There was no hesitation or brief pause where I reflected on the decision and there certainly was no doubt of where I belonged or what I had to do. I was fueled by instinct, adrenaline and the oath I took.
“Be careful, Jimmy,” my wife pleaded.
“We need you.”
I knew I had a family to care for; a wife who loved me, a little girl who needed her dad and a new baby to meet but, I wasn’t just a husband and father anymore. I was a first responder. It was my duty to save lives, and I was fully aware that as a result, I might one day have to sacrifice mine.
My wife knew that too.
Still, we silently prayed the day hadn’t come and hoped I’d make my way back home safe. With a quick I love you and the sign of the cross, I ended the call. On the side of the road, I ripped the tags off my gear and scrambled to put it on. I parked my car near the ferry terminal and followed the sea of uniforms jetting to the boat. It was then I learned that another plane had hit the south tower.
The ferry was at its capacity, so I was ordered to wait for the next one but, a Lieutenant from Brooklyn snuck me aboard at the last moment. It wasn’t until I boarded the ferry that I stepped onto the deck and caught my first glimpse of hell. Clouds of black smoke crawled into the blue sky as two pillars of freedom stood terrorized, burning uncontrollably. It was a sight I knew would change the world we lived in, a sight that angered all of mankind but for a New Yorker, it was more than that.
It was torture.
I can tell you for certain there are no adequate words to describe how it felt to watch those buildings burn, knowing people were trapped inside. Innocent people just like you and I who woke up that morning and went to work. People, like me who were proud to call that skyline home.
They were someone’s son.
They were our brothers and sisters and they were victims of a brutally horrific attack.
The dire need to save lives pulsed through my veins as the boat docked and my boots pounded the streets of lower Manhattan. Nameless faces ran past me trying to escape death as I raced toward it. I asked the man upstairs to grant me the ability to hear the cries for help and the strength to save just one life. I prayed he allowed me to fulfill my duty and should it end with me losing my life, I asked him to guard over my family.
Upon arriving at One World Trade, I was ordered to assist in evacuating the north tower. I want to tell you I moved efficiently and without falter but at first, I stood frozen amidst the chaos watching people jump from the floors above. Those floors would later be called a virtual tomb and me, well, I’d go on to hear those words and forever remember those bodies as they fell to their death.
Eventually, I found my way inside the lobby of the north tower. I was on my own without a band of brothers behind me and no tools when I noticed a group of firemen huddled around dispersing equipment. I grabbed a Halligan bar and was about to follow them toward the staircase when my eyes darted to the elevators. Something made me walk over to them and the first one I took notice of appeared to be stuck on the fifth floor.
Wearing close to fifty pounds of gear and the Halligan bar in my hand, I ran for the stairs, climbing them two at a time until I reached the fifth floor. I knew I had the key to the city in my hand and could pry anything open with the adze. I only hoped once I had the doors to the elevator opened, I’d be able to rescue those trapped inside.
Banging on the metal doors, I was greeted with a response of strangled cries begging me to free them from the terror they were experiencing and immediately went to work. Relying on the tool and my faith in God, I used the skills I was taught to pry open the doors. As my gaze swept over the seven people inside the elevator, I knew without a doubt, I’d always recall those faces.
One by one, they filed off the elevator and started for the stairs. No one appeared to be physically injured but before the last man could exit an explosion roared to life, shaking the ground. At the time I didn’t realize it was the south tower collapsing. All I knew was the car was slipping and a man about my age was going to get stuck between floors if I didn’t act quickly.
“Go,” he shouted as I leaned into the well of the elevator and extended my hand. Another rumble sounded and the whole building seemed to shift as I latched onto his hand and spread my legs as wide as I could. Wedging one boot against the wall for leverage, I used all my upper body strength to fight against the impact of the fallen tower and hoisted him up. He shrieked in agony as I gave one final tug. Losing my footing, I fell backward but somehow still managed to pull the stranger from the elevator.
“Are you okay?” I asked, rolling him off me. My eyes swept over him, assessing him for injuries.
“I can’t move my leg,” he groaned. “I think I twisted my ankle when the elevator started to move,” he continued to explain.
Before I could check his leg, I was blinded by a flashlight. The firemen pointing it at me, ordered me to head for the stairs revealing the south tower had collapsed. I turned my attention back to the guy laying on the floor and met his frightened gaze.
“It’s okay,” he rasped. “Go.”
Without a second thought, I lifted him into my arms and threw him over my shoulder.
“What are you doing?” he questioned.
I remember thinking there were a million ways I could answer his question but, in the end, there was only one valid response.
“My job,” I replied, looking him in the eye.
“Thank you,” he whispered as I drew in a deep breath and took off.
Moving through the chaos, I carried him down the five flights of stairs as fast as I could. My body ached, but I pushed through, hurrying through the lobby. Reaching the front doors, I stepped outside and was immediately engulfed by the thick cloud of dust. Debris and remnants of what once was the south tower threatened to both choke and blind me. My eyes strained for focus as I crossed the street in search of a paramedic or an ambulance. However, I never found either because a moment later the world paused once more as the north tower began to fall.
With the man slung over my shoulder and death chasing me, I ran as fast and as far as I could. A block or so down, I spotted an old church. Making my way inside, I stared up at the crucifix and asked for a pardon. Not for me but for the man I rescued from the elevator. Then, I laid him down and told him not to move. Glancing around the historic chapel, I wasn’t sure it would hold through the impact but, it was our only shot.
“What’s your name?”
“Jimmy,” I replied as I hunkered down beside him and waited for the tremors to subside.
“You got a last name Jimmy?” he asked, hissing through the pain.
“Casale.” I paused for a moment before turning to face him. “You good?”
“Yeah, I just figured I should know the name of the man who saved my life,” he replied. Unable to find my words, I nodded. My eyes sliced to the crucifix hanging above the altar and I prayed it wasn’t a wasted effort that this little church would prevail.
“How long have you been a fireman?” he asked, drawing my attention away from the man who sacrificed his life for the sake of his people.
“Today is my first day,” I admitted.
“Well, if it matters any, you’re doing one hell of a job,” he whispered.
It was a compliment that any other day would’ve made a man proud but that day, no one wanted praise.
“What about you?” I questioned hoarsely. “What’s your name?”
“It’s good to meet you, brother,” I said, laying a hand on his shoulder.
Those were the last words we spoke to one another and five minutes later when I was sure the dust had settled some, I left Christopher Edwards in that little church. I found a paramedic and instructed him that there was a man in the church who needed medical attention and then I went back to what had become Ground Zero. For the next thirty hours, I stood amongst the debris, searching for signs of life.
When I finally arrived home, I was covered in white dust and the scent of death clung to my being. You can never truly understand how bad it smells until it’s in your face. The days that followed were just as grueling, just as morbid. The firehouse switched our schedules, appointing us to twenty-four-hour tours. Eight of those hours we reported to Ground Zero to help with the recovery. We stood in line for hours, removing debris with five-gallon buckets and only stopped if we recovered a body. That went on for two weeks until we realized the odds of us finding any more bodies were slim to none and the city brought in cranes to assist in the cleanup.
I often thought about Christopher Edwards and what happened to him afterward but, another year would go by before I ever saw or heard of him again and sixteen more before I understood why he remained in my life.
Seventeen years have passed and I’m just now learning, God had a plan for the two of us.
A plan that began the day the world stopped.