New York's Firefighters
Where, Tony Catapano wondered, did his brothers go?
For 39 years, Catapano has survived his line of work. He is 61, with gray hair and a pension within reach. He is old and they were young. He showed them how to make meatballs and how to find fire hidden in a wall.
Today he walked near the smoldering landscape of rubble and kept thinking he would see them, shining flashlights miraculously from a crevice.
He looked for Tommy Kennedy, Terry McShane, Patrick Byrne, Joe Maffeo, Brian Cannizzaro, Salvatore Calabro and Joe Gullickson.
Tony "Cat" in the firehouse kitchen
Even as the veteran fireman wept, he was calmly defiant. "Missing don't mean anything but missing," he said.
About 400 firefighters were missing and presumed dead, a numbing toll exacted on a tight fraternity. Entire ladder companies and squads were gone, including all five of the elite rescue companies that serve New York City.
Five of the department's most senior officials died, plus a dozen battalion chiefs. Unlike other senior military officers, who are strategically kept from the front, senior fire officers typically enter burning buildings to assess damage and plot a strategy for rescue and fire containment.
But the rank-and-file firefighters -- the Irish and Italian sons of working-class neighborhoods in Long Island and Staten Island, many of them grandsons of New York firemen -- symbolize the deepest loss. Men like the brothers from Red Hook.
Wall Street, where they sacrificed their lives, was a fancier world than they knew. They didn't shop for cuff links or keep portfolios with Goldman Sachs. After nearly four decades with the Fire Department of New York, Tony Catapano made $55,000 a year. Once, ages ago, he splurged and took his wife, Marie, for their anniversary dinner to Windows on the World, on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center.
It was expensive, Catapano remembered, "but the view was spectacular, and sometimes you need that."
The next time Catapano returned to the World Trade Center, he could barely see his hands through the smoke.
"It was snowing dirt," said Catapano, who came in the second wave of firefighters from his 32nd Battalion Tuesday, following the first wave responding to a call that a plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center -- a call that came just as shifts were changing at firehouses across metropolitan New York. Firefighters coming off their night shifts hopped on ladder trucks and engines with the fresh day crews, fattening the deployment.
Arriving early to the scene, as many of the companies from lower Manhattan and Brooklyn did, proved fatal.
"You've got to understand," said Matthew James, the Brooklyn trustee for the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, "all the companies that were there, they're not there anymore."
At 9:15 a.m., 18 minutes after the commercial airliner hit the North Tower, a second airliner hit the South Tower. Surviving office workers who were evacuating reported going down stairwells while firefighters were marching up to help those on the higher floors. One firefighter still on the ground was killed when a person on a burning upper floor jumped and landed on him. The fire department priest who was ministering last rites to this fireman died when a crush of rubble came down on both of them.
At high noon, no one could really see anything. Catapano hocked up thick, black spit. Medics washed out his eyes. He kept looking for names he knew on firefighters' jackets.
Hours later, when Catapano made it back to his firehouse in Red Hook, not all the men were there. The young guys -- the ones who would poke fun at his culinary inventions like "Potpourri Ree-shard" -- left empty beds. Catapano kept thinking they were stuck somewhere or transferred to other firehouses to sleep.
He searched for them when he returned to the wreckage the next day. "Down there," he called it. Or "the site." He spoke with the Brooklyn union trustee James, an Irishman who keeps a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black on a shelf in his office.
"I lost some brothers, Matty," Catapano said, his voice breaking.
"I know, brother, we all did," James said.
None of the firefighters could escape the stink. At the firehouses where they retreated after long shifts last night, their piles of dirty T-shirts, socks and underwear reminded them. They washed and scrubbed, but the smell beat soap and clung inside their noses.
At the divisional headquarters of the Salvation Army in Manhattan, where many out-of-town search and rescue workers camped, the cots were filled with great, heaving bodies that tried to find sleep and peace. But even their blankets carried proof of their mission: that sour smell, like singed hair, lit matchsticks and a child's chemistry set.
Nor could they get away from everything they saw.
At 2 a.m. today, the site was like a stage set for a disaster movie, blasted with light. So many steel beams and girders were still strewn through the wreckage that firefighters resorted to bucket brigades, with long lines of men passing pails of small chunks and dust from the top of one mountain down to the waiting hands. It was almost farcical, but then it wasn't.
"We were digging around and saw a face," said Charles Diggs, with Engine 207 from Brooklyn. "We uncovered a part of her and put her in a body bag."
Their work was a crude archaeology of pickaxes, shovels and Halligan bars. Sniffer dogs trotted out across the foothills of rubble, but because of the breeze and the pancake of metal tonnage, the dogs were thrown off course.
"There's dead in that pile," said a handler from Evansville, Ind., watching from the sidelines. Dogs on rest cooled their paws in buckets of water.
And when the dogs yelped excitedly, it meant there was life. One brindle-colored female set out into the pile of metal and concrete, and 30 feet away from the perimeter she began yelping and running in circles, and all eyes turned toward the dog's horrible joy. But it was the just the wind playing tricks.
Overlooking the rescue efforts was a blasted-out Brooks Brothers. The front of the store had been sheared off, making it open-air. Inside, stacks of folded dress shirts were undisturbed but blanketed in the gray grit.
The streets were littered with crushed vehicles and tons of financial documents. "We are pleased to confirm the following transaction," read one investment statement nearly ground into the sidewalk.
Tony Catapano noticed none of it. His eyes could not stay off the rubble.
Before he returned for another shift this afternoon, his wife told him not to push too hard. But it was no use. "Those guys are a strange bunch, a family, you know," she said. "Tony is not really their brother; he's more like their father."
While Catapano suited up at the firehouse, a father and son brought flowers and a toy fire truck. The pastries and cakes kept coming. But Catapano was edgy to return.
"Be strong, guys," a man on the sidewalk called out to him.
Catapano didn't even hear. He was already mentally back on the rubble. With a four-day beard and red-rimmed eyes, he gunned the car back down to Lower Manhattan.
When he was a boy he dreamed of being a cowboy. Then he worked in a bank, pushing papers around. Then he found his calling as a firefighter, "trying to save people." His son is now on the waiting list to join the New York City Fire Department.