Blunt Trauma

Firefighters for whom 9-11 never ends

A few moments later, looking at the flames across the water from his office in Brooklyn, Telesca knew the fire department was going to lose people. The blaze was simply too big and too high. He and other Safety Battalion officers and aides raced over the Manhattan Bridge. As they pulled up near the WTC and began getting into their gear, an FBI agent told them that a third plane was in the area. Dozens of fire companies were pulling up to the site, some loaded with extra firefighters who were not on duty but wanted to help. The on-duty citywide safety chief and the overall commander of the safety battalion were already there. Telesca wondered what his job was. He asked Larry Stack, a more senior chief who rode in with him, what they were supposed to do. "The only thing we're concerned about," Stack answered, "is the structural stability of the buildings."

Telesca says Stack didn't like what he saw when they entered the lobby of the north tower. There were cracks in the marble, a sign that the building was under tremen- dous stress. So they headed for the fire department command post on West Street, walking back through the concourse and entering the Marriott hotel lobby. They had just walked in when another chief, Brian O'Flaherty, heard a boom. "That doesn't sound good," he said.

Telesca agreed. There was a split second of silence, then a different noise. "It's pancaking!" O'Flaherty yelled, and ran. Telesca hesitated, then realized O'Flaherty was right. He scanned the room and found a column to use for cover. As he reached it, debris whacked the helmet off his head. The sound grew louder and louder, and debris shot down into his scalp. Telesca passed out. When he came to, he was vomiting corn muffin and dust. He felt heat and began looking for the glow of a fire. Then he heard screams. "That's when I knew," he recalls, "I wasn't the only one still alive."

Retired Lieutenant Joe McMahon, with daughter Madison, was a fire marshal on 9-11 and sorted human remains for  nine months.
photo: Fiona Aboud
Retired Lieutenant Joe McMahon, with daughter Madison, was a fire marshal on 9-11 and sorted human remains for nine months.


As the south tower crumbled, its debris ripped the Marriott in two. Over the next few minutes, survivors emerged from the lobby's rubble. One civilian had torn his Achilles tendon and wanted help getting out. "You're going to have to walk on it," Telesca told him. "It's gonna hurt like fucking hell, but you're going to have to walk on it." One firefighter was sending Maydays over his radio, but Telesca knew that was worthless. Whatever had just happened, no one was coming for them.

Telesca mistakenly believed that he was in the south tower and that a complete collapse was imminent. He and a security guard began searching for a way out, but their first attempts only found doors jammed with debris or leading into utility rooms that offered no sure escape. Finally, across the lobby, they located a way to a parking garage, through which daylight was visible. Telesca called for everyone to follow him and walked through the garage to an entry ramp, where the group of 15 or so people waited with him for debris to stop falling so they could leave. The lingering was too much for Telesca; he had to get out of there. So he started off alone across the field of debris, slowly picking his way over the larger pieces. Behind him he heard the calls of "Fireman! Fireman!" from the people behind. At first he ignored them. Then he looked back and gestured for them to follow, shouting, "Let's go!"

As he made it to West Street, Telesca ran into Chief of Department Peter Ganci (the overall commander of the FDNY) and Bill Feehan, the elderly first deputy commissioner. Telesca says the two men were caked with dust, walking arm in arm, mouths agape. Telesca grabbed Ganci's arm, shouting, "Pete, we've got to cut our losses and give up the north tower!" Ganci snapped back, "I know, Mike!" Then special operations chief Ray Downey, a legendary rescue expert, came on the scene. Former fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen told the 9-11 Commission that earlier on 9-11 Downey had said, "These buildings can collapse." According to Telesca, Downey told the other chiefs on West Street that the north tower was "not coming down," because it had been struck at a less vulnerable spot than the tower that had already fallen.

Telesca had no radio and no idea what had transpired during the time he'd been trapped in the Marriott. Eventually he staggered up West Street, still vomiting, with dust impacted in his ears. A firefighter, Louis Cacchioli, and a cop helped him along. Then the second collapse happened. Telesca remembers little of it—just that same, successive thumping sound and the feeling of being dropped on the ground as everyone took cover. (Cacchioli was captured by a Daily News photographer assisting Telesca, whom he didn't know at the time. After some searching by Cacchioli, the men were reunited more than two years later.)

When the dust settled, Telesca was twice strapped into ambulance stretchers and twice extricated himself. He wanted out. He refused to go to St. Vincent's, terrified that emergency rooms would be hit next, so he walked to the last ambulance in the row and asked to be taken to Columbia-Presbyterian. But first he wanted to call his wife. A guy claiming to be an FDNY chaplain jumped on the ambulance and said his cell phone was working, but would not let Telesca talk. When the guy dialed Telesca's wife and said, "This is an FDNY chaplain," she dropped the phone. Eventually, someone told her that her husband wasn't dead.

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