Blunt Trauma

Firefighters for whom 9-11 never ends

Even if Telesca wanted to sever his connection to the FDNY and memories of 9-11, as McMahon is trying to do, his body will not let him. Doctors are waiting for the nodules in Telesca's lungs to grow large enough for a biopsy. He's tacked a good five minutes onto his five-mile runs. Maybe he's just getting old. But the fear is that he has something serious. The law Governor Pataki recently signed means Telesca's family can qualify for a line-of-duty death benefit if he dies from his lung problems. But like all rescuers' kin, they must prove the ailment was linked to 9-11.

The physical scars aren't the only ones. When Telesca arrived home on the evening of 9-11, his family greeted him on the lawn with tears of relief. But the day itself only began the hard times. Telesca, like many others, drank a lot in the beginning. He flipped a coin one Saturday morning to figure out which of two friends' simultaneous funerals he should attend, put on his uniform, paced the floor, and ultimately just retreated to bed.

He went back to ground zero twice in the week following the attack, not on duty but as a volunteer. "Every time they moved a piece of steel," he says, "I was useless," too jumpy to be of much help. One day, all the workers at the Pile gathered around as a priest gave a benediction. Telesca and a friend stood in the back. Suddenly, air horns went off. Everyone ran right at Telesca and his pal, so they ran too, right into a Suffolk County cop car that then sped away. There were fears, apparently, that another building was coming down. Telesca shakes his head and says, "I never should have gone back."

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.


He dreams of 9-11 a couple times a week and says he never sleeps through the night anymore. He has worried about how to structure his pension to protect his wife in case he dies prematurely. His family has to live with his anger, bitterness, and mood swings. "Let's just say it hasn't been an enjoyable four years for them or me," he says. He regrets ever going to work that day. All he did was become a victim.

But then there's the matter of the 15 people he guided out of the Marriott. Didn't he save them? "I've thought about that numerous times," he says, "and I tell you what, it goes back to my definition of what 'saving' means. I led them to safety. It doesn't mean I saved them." He applies this test to the entire operation at ground zero. "They like to say that we saved 25,000 that day," he says. Certainly, some companies did save people who were injured on the stairs. But Telesca recalls the scene that greeted him when he walked into the concourse under the towers that day: hundreds and hundreds of pairs of women's shoes left behind by their fleeing owners. "Twenty-five thousand people self- evacuated. We saved maybe a hundred people. Maybe."

It'd be nicer to think that the 343 firefighters who died and the others who now can't breathe easily or sleep soundly saved many times their number. But that doesn't work for Telesca. "I'm a firm believer that history should be told as accurately as possible with no bias," he says. "It's just not true. It's just plain not true."

Not everyone feels like that. Bazzicalupo, for one, stresses that he is not bitter. Sure, he's a little upset that the FDNY hasn't done a better job of monitoring his health since he retired. He's suspicious of his doctor's assurance that his lung damage has been arrested. And he's a little puzzled by the firefighters who accepted free vacation trips while he and others labored at ground zero. But he says he doesn't regret spending those days at the Pile. "Am I frightened that this is going to take my life?" He doesn't answer his question. He says he thinks of people who, after a person's death, say that he died as a hero. He asks himself, "Am I thinking in my mind, 'He died for a cause'?"

Later that Friday in June, Joe McMahon gets a phone call telling him his disability pension is approved. He'll be retired effective at nine the next morning and was to turn in his gear the following Monday.

An alarm goes off at one point in the afternoon to remind him to pick up his daughter from school. McMahon has a lot of memory lapses, forgets the years when important things happened, and loses the thread of conversations easily. And his rescuer's instinct is suppressed under a web of anxiety. When he heard an accident on his street recently he froze in place rather than race into action because he dreaded seeing anyone hurt. He's paranoid about unattended packages. He has asked a friend dealing with similar problems if he is ever going to be all right. "Joe, you'll never be all right," the buddy has said. "You'll be a new all right."

McMahon sees good as well as bad in that. He doesn't regret volunteering for the morgue because there was honor in retrieving his brothers. And the endless parade of bodies, gruesome and inhuman as they were in their deaths, awakened something in McMahon. "I never grasped the gravity of humanity and what it meant before 9-11," he says. That's exactly what troubles him now. In between the sterile public recollection of ground zero and the carnage he saw were human lives— he calls them "miracles"—who lived; had dignity, voices, and foibles; and then died helplessly and horribly. Somewhere between his nightmare and the cliché is genuine humanity that was killed and then sort of forgotten, compressed. McMahon is hoping to bridge the gap, and that's why he talks about it now.

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