Blunt Trauma

Firefighters for whom 9-11 never ends

Later in the day, when Telesca was released from the hospital, he called a local firehouse for a ride. The company— Telesca's first post as a rookie fireman—came by in its engine. "I took my first run on this rig," he told the young firefighter who sat next to him. "And this is my last run." Over his career, Telesca had been badly burned in a fire, had fallen through a roof, and was decorated for gallantry. But 9-11 was the first time he remembered being scared. He knew he was done.

Crawford was dead. Stack, Feehan, and Ganci were also gone. Downey was last seen reaching into the rubble to save someone when the second tower came down on him. The men Telesca had chatted with at Rescue 5 were dead. His tree-fixing buddy, Mike Warchola, lost his life on his last day on the job. The guy whose needle had apparently stuck Telesca was dead too.

Down at ground zero, Frank Bazzicalupo was looking for them in the Pile.

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.


Frankie Bazz, as Bazzicalupo is often called, has a house in White Plains that's as clean as a laboratory. About the only clutter is in the basement, where a stack of plaques and other framed mementos of his 24 years in the FDNY has been accumulating for a while.

The thing is, there are already so many keepsakes hanging on the walls and propped on the tables, like his original leather helmet, pictures of the Ladder 37 truck that he drove, a memorial poster to the 343 lost, and his badge (No. 9703), which the department retired when Bazzi-calupo did. There's also a picture of Bazzicalupo dashing across the ice with the FDNY hockey team, for which he played center on the first and second lines. At one time, he played on two hockey squads simultaneously. It kept him trim. At 52, he can still fit into the uniform he wore as a rookie firefighter. His hockey days are done, however. Bazzicalupo gets a little winded as he heads back up the single flight of stairs to his living room.

"It's something with the air exchange," he explains. His lungs don't exhale properly, so sometimes he wheezes and sometimes the air comes out suddenly in a burp. "Eventually it could lead to emphysema," he adds. That worries his two college-age daughters. "So what are you doing with it?" he says. "You're masking it. You're not telling them about it. Lying to them about it. Saying you're going to visit an old work buddy when you go to the doctors. I've been hiding it." He takes three medications through the day, including one that he inhales for 15 minutes at a time. It makes his heart race.

Back in the living room, Bazzicalupo points out the flag he wore draped around his neck at ground zero, displayed in a five-foot-tall glass case with other reminders. He notes the four wristbands dedicated to dead firefighters he had broken into the job, one of whom had switched to a special rescue company—thanks to Bazzicalupo's recommendation—two days before his death. There are prayer cards and pins, wings from an American Airlines flight attendant, video documentaries like Why the Towers Fell, and a scattering of books. There's a check for $50 that someone gave him for dinner. "You look at it, you say, 'You know, I've got to get some closure to this,' " he says. But that's difficult. Nearby, the couch also reminds him of his time at the Pile and what he breathed there. When the illness hit, Bazzicalupo spent days lying there. "The imprint of my body is in that couch," he says.

A lot of ground zero rescuers are getting sick only now, but for Bazzicalupo it came fast. He was in the middle of a 24-hour shift at his Bronx firehouse when the planes hit, and his company was on the Pile by noon looking for survivors. Catching an hour of sleep here and there, he stayed at the site for about 60 hours straight and came back for 10 more the following day. "I said, 'I'm staying. I know too many guys down there,' " he says. "The first week you had hope. The first day you said, 'We're gonna dig. We're gonna listen for somebody.' " The people he found, however, weren't making sounds. "There were people on the catwalk. There were firemen below rigs. There were firemen below the catwalk," he recalls. The bodies of firefighters were easier to recover because their thick protective clothing encapsulated the remains.

As he talks, Bazzicalupo puts his fist to his sternum. It's another chest pain. Beyond the first week after 9-11, he and other firefighters returned to the Pile occasionally on a rotation, riding in silently on buses from Shea Stadium. Bazzicalupo knew all along that ground zero was not a healthy place to be. Firefighters' air tanks were just too heavy to use. When he first arrived, a cop gave him a paper mask, and then EMTs handed out surgical masks, but these got clogged fast. The rescuers received more sophisticated respirators later, but Bazzicalupo wasn't convinced at the time that the types of filters that were distributed protected him.

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