LP Magazine

by Symptom Advice on September 10, 2011

Ten Years. Ten long years. Ten slow years. Ten years of being thankful to still be alive. Ten years of watching my friends slowly die off of illness related to their work in the toxic plume in the wreckage of the collapsed World Trade Center (WTC). Ten years of lobbying our government to do the right thing and embrace the medical issues that “The Heroes” are now riddled with. Ten years of families still waiting for DNA to connect thousands of bodily remains so that they can bury or inter some piece of their lost family member as opposed to having nothing or no place to go. Ten years.

On September 10, 2001, I was a happy, healthy new York City firefighter looking forward to the next morning and what excitement the day would bring. as we all know “that day” turned out to be a day that would change the face of the world, fracture its security, and redefine “terrorism” as a worldly concern for the U.S. as opposed to it happening everywhere but here. The world’s most televised event happening right in front of us. either standing on West Street or standing in front of your television, we witnessed horror at a level unimaginable to the American people. Firefighters and police officers running in while everyone else was trying to get out. Regular folk refusing to leave his or her fellow friends or coworkers to find their own way down. Acts of selflessness that define bravery and humanity amidst the greatest travesty and disregard for human life that anyone could think of.

The Big One

That morning as I drove across the Brooklyn Bridge, I knew what my destiny in life was. I was going to what we called, “The Big one.” I and my comrades knew that this would indeed be our last day. It was the first thing I said as we turned off the approach and were mid-span on the bridge. The officer in charge sitting across from me, a two- time Vietnam vet, cancer survivor, and 30-year veteran of the Fire Department of new York (FDNY) sat quiet and simply muttered, “This is very bad, Bobby.” I on the other hand was a bit more expressive in my words, “Holy shit, Ed! look at that! We’re gonna die.” He agreed, and we both knew that people were in dire need of rescue. to put it simple, there were twenty floors of fire over a thousand feet in the air, and we were in deep shit from the onset. People were flying out the windows from above, exploding in the street, and there was nothing we could do to stop it. as we pulled up to the foot of the WTC property on Liberty Street, everyone’s attention was suddenly drawn to a loud sound coming from the south. I looked straight up to catch a glimpse of the tail section of United flight 175 sinking into Tower 2. “This is the end of the world,” I thought. Ed and I were immediately swept into a stampeding swarm of people running for their lives.

The rest of the morning went as we all know—thousands dead, an American icon of building construction and freedom now in a smoking pile with bodies everywhere. Hell had come to earth and taken up residence in lower Manhattan. little did any of us working there realize, we all took this hell home with us…both physically and emotionally.

Many are now ill and tragically many have also died from their exposure to what then EPA Director Christine Todd Whitman called “air that is safe to breathe.” Lung cancer, heart disease, sarcoidosis, colon cancer, brain cancer, and the list goes on. Many, including myself, have an extremely diminished lung capacity, a condition called RADS or Reactive Airway Disease. It kind of feels like you were under water too long; like you’re inhaling glass shards. Sinus conditions, numerous bouts with chronic bronchitis, sleep apnea, and skin conditions. The numbers of “exposed” are in the thousands and most of us have that thought in the back of our heads, “Wonder when it’s going to be me.” no drama. no nonsense, it’s something we are now living with and will undoubtedly shorten our time on this planet and our time with family and friends.

Best Laid Plans

My plans were to be in the fire business for thirty years and retire as a captain with a group of young men that I would lead into battle and be respected for my compassion, leadership, and experience. I was in the process of transferring to Special Operations Company, which is kind of the like getting asked to play for the Yankees even though I’m a Mets fan. Something wasn’t right. I wasn’t sleeping, and to be honest I haven’t slept a solid night in ten years now. I was drinking coffee by the gallon, and I was having some pretty wicked dreams and flashbacks of people jumping from those windows. I was dreaming of my dead friends talking to me, begging me to come and get them out of “The Pile.” I was waking up soaking wet and in a panic. I tried to ignore these symptoms and just go back to work. I went to a bunch of fires, and I was most definitely on edge. I was not looking forward to going to work as I had. in fact I was actually fearing it. when I’d drive home following the end of my tour, I’d be saying, “Okay, Bobby, you lived another day.” that was not normal by any means. Eventually these daily conflicts had consumed my life, and it was time to acknowledge them. I reached out to the FDNY Counseling Unit to simply get a few weeks off so I could recharge my batteries. to the contrary and to my surprise, those “two weeks” became the rest of my life. I was eventually diagnosed with Acute Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “What? me? PTSD? that only happens to those Vietnam guys.”

I soon learned that many of us were suffering from the same emotional injuries that combat vets suffer from. Now looking back I understand that we were in a battle that morning; a battle that became known as the first battle in “The War on Terror.” We didn’t carry rifles or wear camouflage. We wore fire helmets and fire gear. We were injured and some of us died. under all that gear though, we were human just like everyone else. We feel pain and regardless of how much you are taught in the fraternal aspect of the fire service to “not feel,” these feelings get inside of you, and they simply don’t go away. just the opposite; they stay inside of you and bounce around like a razor blade that chews you up.

Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve been told I was a “very good fireman.” I was told I was “one of the toughest guys” people had met with my ability to embrace death, blood, guts, sadness, and pain. It is what we strive for in the fire business—being that “go to guy” who gets it done. I did, and I did it well. however, having to adjust to the fact that I had become a “victim” of this attack and that I had to now care for the caregiver was not easy, and I still struggle with it ten years later. I’ve been in some form of cognitive therapy for seven years now. I retired from the FDNY in October of 2006, and my expectation of being that cranky old captain with thirty years of service? unfortunately that will remain a dream.

Never Forget

Ten years later, I am now addressing all walks of life with regard to our emotions and that we take a lot home with us. Cops, firemen, nurses, teachers, security agencies, you name it, I’m spending some time with them to expand their awareness to “emotional injury.” I’ve written articles for a number of emergency services magazines and websites. I recently finished my first book titled, Beyond Surviving, and most recently began recording podcasts and a radio forum called, “It’s okay Not to be Okay” with a renowned clinical psychologist, Dr. Mark Lerner.

I had a choice to make at a point in my “recovery.” I had to do something with what happened to me. I felt the need to teach others that we are all human and that we all feel. Most of all, I had to pass on the message that life is “one day at a time” and that we are allowed to heal. Firemen, cops, and military; we all have a tough time embracing that one. when they meet me or read an article, they can’t say, “That guy has no clue what we go through. Who is he to tell me about my emotions?” I worked for the best fire department on this planet. I worked in the busiest neighborhood and in a respected company. all validating marks that can’t be dismissed. I’ve been there and done it. Thankfully, they acknowledge that for their own well being and embrace taking care of themselves so they can continue to take care of others.

Take a moment this September 11th and those that follow to watch an American flag blow in the breeze. be thankful that you live in a country that allows you to read whatever book or magazine you want, watch whatever TV channel you choose, and either walk into or pass by the house of worship of your choice. Thank a veteran for their service and realize that tomorrow has no guarantees. Make the difference today.

NEVER FORGET. 343 37 23

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