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On this particular Friday in June, the 44-year-old McMahon says he is doing all right. He looks a little tired because he spent a restless night sweating and chasing sleep, but he took an extra anti-anxiety pill this morning, in addition to the three he takes each night. He's a little tense because he's waiting for a phone call to learn whether or not he can retire from the New York City Fire Department on a disability pension. But then he is used to waiting. For years, he waited in dread for his shift as an engine company lieutenant to start and then for it to end with him still alive. On hundreds of nights, he waited until the booze put him to sleep. And over nine months, from 9-11 until the recovery effort ended the following spring, McMahon waited in a morgue to examine human remains.
As a fire marshal, his job was to identify which remains belonged to the 343 firefighters who were killed. Working with a medical examiner and sometimes an anthropologist, he would look for the telltale signs of FDNY equipment in debris found with the body parts: the particular type of ring located on the underside of a helmet rim or the kind of clasp seen only on turnout coats. McMahon saw bones poking out of skin, bones crushed, and bones burned. There was skin the texture of leather, torn skin. Once he saw an entire corpse folded to the size of a large handbag. Sometimes he would clean feces and urine off body parts.
Often he'd try to answer the unanswerable questions that families posed. And always there'd be the notation to make on the list of human remains that had been found. Most weren't found intact. On the clipboard in his home office, his finger traces the record of those days: 0M0111681 bone, 0M0111682 soft tissue, elbow, foot, ilium, shoulder, knee, muscle, bone. Upper trunk with right arm. "Look at this, 'Trunk and lower leg,' " he says. "Do you have any idea what that looks like?"
There are questions at the heart of all that has haunted Joe McMahon for nearly five years, which he asked in a desperate letter last year to a fire department doctor: "What kind of person endures such normalcy of death? What has he to say for himself?"
At the new and popular FDNY memorial on the side of a firehouse at Liberty and Greenwich streets, the bronze firefighters are frozen foreverin the moments New Yorkers remember them livinghosing down the debris, weeping over caskets, and gently bearing flag-draped remains over the Pile. A few blocks north, the New York City Fire Museum has adhered the faces of the dead to a cenotaph in one room, and in another, a screen silently plays images of the grim work at ground zero. Displayed are photos of the makeshift shrines overflowing with candles and flowers, notes and photographs, set up at firehouses in those first days when everybody wanted to hug firefighters, buy them drinks, bake them cookieswhen a story of pure, uncomplicated heroism was exactly what many Americans wanted to hear.
Now the Pile has been sanitized to a work site, and debate rages over how to properly memorialize the people who died. Meanwhile, thousands of firefighters who responded to the towers or worked in their rubble remain among the living. Many have been forced from their jobs because of what happened that day. They are no longer striking heroic poses, or at least no one is taking pictures when they do.
Mike Telesca, a battalion chief who retired after being caught in the wider collapse of the South Tower
photo: Fiona Aboud
Each took something different away from ground zero. Joe McMahon, who was based at a fire marshal's office in Queens at the time, holds on to his list and a bottle of anti-anxiety pills. Frank Bazzicalupo, a firefighter at Ladder 37 in the Bronx on 9-11, keeps an American flag that he wore around his neck as he searched the Pile for survivors. It's in a display case near the couch where he coughed up blood after he fell ill. Mike Telesca, then a chief in the safety battalion, keeps his souvenir in the basement: the beat-up helmet he wore on the day he thought he was going to die.
Telesca's helmet is not just a token surviving one violent moment. It is also a reminder of everything that has happened since. Because he retired on a disability pension primarily for post-traumatic stress, Telesca, who is now 49, was ineligible for the federal victim compensation fund that awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars each to other injured firefighters. He cooperated with the 9-11 Commission's investigators but thinks the final report was a whitewash of mistakes made on the scene. He is not happy. And he isn't alone.