Blunt Trauma

Firefighters for whom 9-11 never ends

Doctors have found something in Joe McMahon's lungs as well, small nodules that could become a worry someday. But that's not what concerns him now. McMahon's real troubles aren't hidden. They're on display in his home office.

The little room looks normal at first: There are push-up stands, a couple of dumbbells, uniform shirts, and mementos from his time in the Marines and his six years as a federal marshal before McMahon, a firefighter's son, joined the FDNY in 1990. But then you notice the bookcases and shelves. There is an antique fire department parade belt that says "Springfield," an old fire bucket, a leather hose from around 1860, a golden nozzle, and postcards of horse-drawn engines. There are old-fashioned fire toys and multiple copies of firefighting histories. That's just some of his collection. And none of it was there before McMahon went to ground zero. He has binged on eBay.

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.


"What happened to me after 9-11," he says, "is I started collecting pre-1900 firefighting equipment, books, literature. But this is insane because it's costing me a lot of money. I'm trying to get back to before 9-11. I wanted to go so far, apparently, I went back to when they used horses. I want to pretend that it didn't happen."

The office sits on the first floor of McMahon's tidy Bayside home. There's an in-ground pool in the backyard, which McMahon's wife insisted he put in after 9-11. She knew he loved the water, having spent much of his childhood living in Breezy Point, and after the disaster, she figured, well, why wait to do the things you love? On a table in the dining room is a picture of McMahon with his little girl, now five, in a frame that says, "A father is a hero of life's daily adventures."

Madison was nine months old the day McMahon, a member of the Coast Guard Reserve, came racing home from Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, grabbed his gun and raid jacket, and sped off to Lower Manhattan. He was on military leave for annual reserve duty when the planes hit, and he begged his Coast Guard commander to let him go to the scene. He knew that his old company, Engine 6 (where he started his FDNY career and worked for nine years before becoming a fire marshal in 1999), would be there. When McMahon finally arrived at ground zero, however, he realized the missing firefighters wouldn't be found alive. So he volunteered at the morgue to help find what was left of his brothers.

At first, McMahon says, he handled the job well. He had a Marine's discipline and was a trained investigator. It was not unusual to see dead bodies in his FDNY work. The difference was, in those cases, death came and went. It was not recalled through bumper stickers, T-shirts, decals, posters, documentaries, shrines, and benefit concerts. The moment of death was not replayed endlessly on the news or rehashed in countless conversations. And usually death came in small doses, not by the thousands. Eventually, the sheer accumulation of terrible sights (McMahon also handled bodies from the November 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Queens) and his inability to escape them began to weigh on him. First, his family was a comfort and a distraction. But by December 2001, that wasn't enough.

"I would literally drink until I fell asleep," he says. "They said it's because I was trying to suppress what I'd seen. I couldn't go to sleep until I drank everything in the house. It would be dangerous if I brought home a case of beer. It went from one beer to passing out." McMahon had battled alcoholism before and been sober since 1992. When he started drinking again in late 2001, it was far worse than his earlier struggles with booze. There are portions even of 9-11 itself that are blacked out in his memory because of the drinking.

When the recovery effort wrapped up in May 2002, McMahon was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to an engine company. Right away, he knew something was wrong. Before he'd go on duty, his breathing got shallow and rapid, his heart raced, and his palms got sweaty. At first McMahon thought he was just nervous about his new responsibility of leading men into fires. But it went on and on. He'd start to get anxious a half-hour before his shift, then an hour. Then two hours, then the night before, then two days before.

"For the last four years, that's how I've been going to work," he says. "I had this impending sense of doom, that something was going to collapse on the guys—that it's going to be my last tour. At the end of every tour, I felt alive. I felt like I had escaped death. Every single night I was drinking myself to sleep."

Last fall, a story about corpses found after Hurricane Katrina triggered a mounting series of flashbacks. McMahon began to suspect that he had PTSD. He approached the fire department's counseling unit—which had helped him when he quit drinking in 1992—but found no offerings that fit his needs. So he sent a letter to the chief FDNY medical officer: "There is just too much pain and grief to forget or to get over. I will never get over these experiences. It is just too much for one person."

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