9/11: Carmel Valley resident and former firefighter recalls the search for victims — including his colleagues
By Dan Noonan
ContributorMy phone rang at 5:55 a.m. on a promising September morning. I rolled over, fought through layers of sleep, silently cursed whoever it was calling at that ungodly hour, knowing it had to be family or friends from the East Coast — it was 8:55 in New York.
“This better be good,” I grouched into the phone.
“Put on the TV,” my brother Mike said from Florida.
“Know what time it is?”
“A jet just hit the World Trade Center.”
“What?” I slid from bed, padded to the living room, and switched on the TV. I watched the thick smoke billow from the north tower and calculated the number of firefighters that would be in that building; considered the time of day, the city’s traffic conditions, the weather, first-through fifth-alarm assignments. The incident commander would probably transmit additional alarms. There would be hundreds of firefighters climbing the structure’s stairwells. I imagined that members of my former company would be there — I feared for them. Fighting a typical high-rise fire was dangerous enough, but by the look of it, this promised to be the mother of them all. My wife joined me a few minutes later just as a second jet, United flight 175, hit the south tower.
And then the news commentators and paid military experts began to speculate that the plane crashes were no accident; the United States was being attacked. I used the remote to surf from news station to news station and paused when I heard a talking head say; “. . . the Pentagon was just struck by another plane. We are at war.”
I thought of my girls, still asleep in their beds; one in Torrey Pines High School and the other attended Carmel Valley Middle School.
At 9:59 EST the south tower collapsed and I sprang to my feet, tried to scream, but I couldn’t; my throat was constricted.
“My God,” I said to my wife. “There had to be people in that building.” We watched in stunned silence as, at 10:28 a.m., the north tower collapsed. I reached for the phone, dialed my former firehouse. All phone lines were dead. I tried an 800 number.
“Who’re you calling?” My wife handed me a cup of coffee.
“The airlines.” I pointed to the TV. “I’ve gotta get back to the Firehouse.”
It took me three grueling days to reach Newark Airport.
Another hour before I walked into my former firehouse, Engine 33 & Ladder 9, located on Great Jones Street in Lower Manhattan. My heart sank when I discovered that 10 of our men were among the hundreds of firefighters unaccounted for.
I spent a few days at the World Trade Center site —“the pile”— dealing with the city’s systemic sadness, my own grief, and digging alongside my fellow firefighters for survivors.
We found none.
Like everyone else, I was sickened by the things I saw. Shocked by the sheer volume of lost life. Eventually a desire to seek revenge on those responsible for the cowardly attacks replaced my sadness.
We dug and tunneled through the debris for days and found nothing, with the exception of parts from an airplane wing. I had been to a 1,000 fires working in the Fort Apache section of the South Bronx, yet, I never had tasted any smoke like that on the “pile.” I commented to a Federal Agent next to me about the foul taste. His response was that we were breathing in the pulverized cells of thousands of victims. To this date, some 1,156 victims have yet to be identified, including 121 NYC firefighters.
The day before heading back to my family in San Diego, my mind and body exhausted, my throat raw from inhaling the burning debris, I attended a mass of remembrance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The burial of 343 of my colleagues of FDNY had begun. We were burying 30- 50 a week. I had contributed to my limitations, as all others had. We were all fearful that eventually we would find our entombed comrades and they had written: Day 3 Hanging on, Day Four: Where are you guys etc… The efforts of the FDNY and those who came to assist us where Herculean.
Back to Lindbergh Field and onto Carmel Valley to see my family, have a brew and sit in the yard and see if I could count 343 stars.
Dan Noonan is a longtime resident of Carmel Valley and a former member of the New York City Fire Department.