The thick packet of white paper snapped into a clipboard is labeled “FDNY intake.” It’s a list: pelvis, skull, hair (brownish, 1/2 inch), spine, upper torso, tissue, mandible, and clavicle. Upper extremity, right hand, and teeth. Joe McMahon points to that entry and says, “This is a person ripped apart.”
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 living—hosing 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 cookies—when 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
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.
In the FDNY family, the perfect unity of grieving has cracked with time and the stresses of altered lives. There is resentment over money, over who was compensated for comp time and who wasn’t, who got promotions and who missed out, who took free trips and received media attention and who didn’t. When Battalion Chief Richard Picciotto wrote a book a couple years ago about his experiences on 9-11, his FDNY brothers beat him up in the papers for hogging the spotlight.
Some of those hit by 9-11 blame then mayor Rudy Giuliani’s management or Motorola’s radios, or even the decisions by fire officers who commanded the response, for some of the deaths. At one post–9-11 FDNY function, one chief said another had been a “coward” on that fateful day—the ultimate insult, which is why one of the participants in that exchange refuses to name names.
Some firefighters feel they were forced to retire, like Captain Al Fuentes. Severely injured on 9-11, he still feels he was pushed out of his job. “I didn’t retire. They retired me,” he insists. “My intention was to stay there forever.” Meanwhile, some of the bereaved feel frustrated that the fire depart- ment and its unions have moved on without them. At a February meeting of firefighter families who sued over radio failures that day, Jimmy Boyle, who lost his son Michael, told other grieving kin that the reason their case isn’t getting a lot of sympathy in the department is that “there is the impression that the families are after two bites of the apple,” meaning they want the federal money and a legal settlement—”and that’s in the firehouses too.”
The cloak of heroism that has been thrown over all the action on 9-11 irks many as well, especially the assumption by public officials that firefighters knowingly continued up the stairs in a building they’d been told to evacuate. “They just kept
climbing,” scoffs Rose Aileen Tallon, who lost her brother, “like a bunch of idiots.” Suspicions abound—within the ranks—that some guys inhaled aerosol propellant to get out on a lung disability, although no one disputes that many firefighters have legitimately suffered lung damage. Resentment persists over the city’s order late in 2001 that firefighters abandon the Pile. “The bastards arrested a dozen brothers,” reads a recent comment on the FDNY Rant website. “We had to fight to carry home our dead.”
And for some in the FDNY clan, the doubts go to the very heart of 9-11 mythology: the notion that the firefighters who died saved tens of thousands of lives.
Hours spent toiling at ground zero took their toll on Frank Bazzicalupo’s lungs and career.
Since 1981 the FDNY has had an office dedicated to preventing and investigating accidents during fire operations. The Safety Battalion sends one of its chiefs to every fire that registers a second alarm or greater—as well as to tricky emergencies like hazardous- material incidents or building collapses. When an FDNY member is killed on the job, the Safety Battalion investigates to see if faulty equipment, bad decisions, or flawed policies were to blame.
That’s what put Mike Telesca in Staten Island the last day he was on duty before 9-11. In late August, a 27-year-old rookie firefighter died of a heart attack at a fire scene, and Telesca was looking into it. On the way to the wake, Telesca and aide Bobby Crawford stopped by Rescue 5 to interview men who’d worked at the fire where the rookie died. Crawford had been an aide at the battalion since its inception. For Chief Telesca, Safety—where he’d been for about 30 months—was the latest stop in a career that had begun on a lark. He left Morris Park in the Bronx to study arboriculture, and he later joined a tree company out on Long Island. But in 1977 a co-worker named Mike Warchola became a firefighter and egged on others to take the entrance exam. Eighteen months later Telesca was in a firehouse in Washington Heights. From there to later postings in the Bronx, Telesca developed a reputation for being a little prickly and a stickler for detail. He was a “controversial guy,” as others put it. But he loved the job, and at his Safety post, he missed the fraternity of the firehouse. That night in Staten Island, he was back in it, smoking a stogie, shooting the shit with the boys. By the end of Telesca’s next day on duty, just about everyone else in the room would be dead.
Telesca had Tuesday the 11th off but decided to go in anyway so he could wrap up the report on the dead rookie and get a blood test. It was one year to the day since Telesca had reached into the glove compartment of an FDNY sedan and got stuck with a needle. Some firefighter evidently had diabetes but was keeping it quiet, and when Telesca figured out who it was, he kept mum too. But for a year Telesca had been taking precautions, and while nothing had shown up in his blood, he wanted to keep up the monitoring. So he left early from his family’s house in Eastchester for Safety’s headquarters at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It wasn’t quite the old firehouse, but the Safety office offered its own camaraderie. That morning, the chiefs and aides who were going off or coming on duty had coffee together. Crawford brought in some corn muffins and gave Telesca a shoulder massage amid the chatter. Then Telesca went into his office. It was just before 9 a.m.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Risk, he knew, came with the territory. “This is not a healthy job,” Bazzicalupo notes. Even before 9-11, he had heard of few firefighters who enjoyed long retirements. After all, he adds, heading into a basement with an oil fire burning and taking even a few breaths without your air tank is like smoking a couple packs of cigarettes. That’s a bitter metaphor. Bazzicalupo has heard that, because he never smoked, his lungs were more vulnerable to the Trade Center dust than others’. In any case, a few weeks after 9-11, Bazzica-lupo noticed he was coming back from fires much more winded than he used to be. He had a lung test, and FDNY medical staff told him he’d fought his last fire.
Now life is a series of precautions. Bazzicalupo exercises for up to 45 minutes daily on an elliptical trainer to try to strengthen his lungs, but he drives home as soon as he’s done to take a shower andprevent any germs from settling in—a simple head cold is a real problem. He feels good immediately after the workout, but only for a little while. He has to take a nap most days once he gets home; sometimes he’s zapped the rest of the day. When he had shoulder surgery in 2004, his lungs collapsed, and he once was given nitroglycerin in an emergency room because the doctors thought he was having a heart attack. He has special filter canisters in his air-conditioning and is going to have to have his rugs removed to eliminate dust. He clips health tips out of magazines. He cannot go to ball fields or golf courses because of the grass and can’t help his daughter move into a new apartment or paint his own ceiling. “You always think you’re invincible. There was nothing I couldn’t do,” he says. “I’m, like, not the go-to player anymore.” He’s done his share of volunteer work since retirement—Meals on Wheels and the like. But people don’t come by to ask for help with a home project, like putting on a roof, because they know he can’t.
Bazzicalupo was studying to be an accountant in 1977, when, at age 23, he took a neighbor’s advice and sat for a battery of civil service tests: cop, sanitation worker, firefighter. He picked the last, and it stuck, for the same reason that he now misses the job: the specialized knowledge he acquired as part of the choreographed expertise of a fire company. In his last years on the job, Bazzicalupo was a chauffeur, certified to drive the three types of ladder trucks the department uses: tillers, where a second guy sits on the back; tower ladders, which have the bucket on the end; and the aerials, or rear mounts, known as “the stick.”
Driving was an important job, but everyone else on the truck had one too. “As a trucker, you’re getting there before the hose line,” Bazzicalupo notes, his speech quickening as he describes the men he used to work with, identified not by name but by job. “Nothing can derail the roof guy. He can’t jump up—he has to find an adjoining roof that is higher and jump down. He has to open the bulkhead door on the roof so guys can breathe in the stairwell. He carries the rope, looks over the side to see if anyone is hanging. The outside-vent man has to take the fire escape, get to the fire apartment, get people out.” He will break the window the moment the hose team starts spraying water, in order to release the heat and smoke away from where the engine company is. The “can” man (who carries a fire extinguisher) and the “irons” guy form the inside team. “To knock down a door, the can man swings the ax. The irons guy drops his other tools and uses the Halligan device. Once they get the door open they chock it open with an ax to get the hose team in.” When it all worked, it was beautiful—a dangerous dance of well-learned tasks, the rapid application of knowledge earned through experience, like knowing by the way your ears feel that a room is getting so hot the flames might flash over.
When FDNY officials told Bazzicalupo he wasn’t going to fight fires anymore, they suggested a light-duty assignment: the mail room. The idea was a nonstarter. He was out by August 2002. His buddies from Ladder 37 still call him for events: medal day, outings, breakfast at the firehouse. It’s nice to stay connected, of course. But it’s hard to move on when you stay so close. “I can’t get to the next level,” he says. “My job was my life. I can’t get away from the fire department.”
In a closet upstairs—pressed and hung as if he were going to wear them to a shift later in the day—are Bazzicalupo’s light-blue uniform shirts, medal-laden dress uniform, suspenders, and dress hat. Oddly, the FDNY still mails his new uniform shirts to his old firehouse every year. “No one else can use them,” Bazzicalupo says, chuckling. “They’ve got my name on them.”
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.
“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.”
He stopped drinking, joined two support groups, and got a therapist. He has been sober since September 2005. But he is not free of the pain. Recently, something happened while he was driving on the L.I.E. “It’s called passive suicide,” he says. “I didn’t want to kill myself. But I said, ‘If that truck comes over that divider, I’d be at peace.’ That part of me that’s still Joe said, ‘This is not good.’ I said, ‘I’m afraid of an impulse.’ ” He worried what he might do on the edge of a subway platform or a roof. He was hospitalized for two weeks, and his medication was changed from one antidepressant/anti-
One doctor told McMahon that if something like 9-11 ever happens again, no one should be subjected to even a month of what he experienced. “What I had was a prolonged exposure,” he says. “I think that’s what the problem was.” The toll showed when McMahon tried to come back from medical leave for a light-duty assignment. He was hospitalized within six weeks. “The constant reminder of the fire department,” he says, “is a problem for me.”
McMahon made it to the Engine 6 Christmas party last year for the first time since 9-11, but he simply cannot go to the funerals and memorial services that are part of the department’s life. Even as he’s amassed his collection of old-time firefighting paraphernalia, McMahon has thrown out all his FDNY T-shirts. They are reminders of the morgue. “Yes, you do miss the camaraderie,” he says, waiting for the call from the retirement board. “I’ll miss it, but I won’t miss it. I can’t do it. I cannot do it.”
Leaving the FDNY means abandon-ing a life that cannot be found elsewhere. The job is steeped in tradition and history, inextricably linked to the white male character the department largely retains. While people in office cubicles may wonder about their purpose in life, 99.9 percent-male firehouses don’t face those questions. In a high-tech world, the FDNY still relies onbrawn and courage to fight fires in essentiallythe same way they’ve always been fought—by spraying water on them.
“You lose your identity, you lose your occupation,” says Mike Telesca, reflecting on his exit from the FDNY as he sits on his porch. “The excitement—I miss the excitement. Being with the guys. No matter what kind of bullshit was going on in the job, you put that away. The most important thing was putting out fires.”
Telesca had said in October 2005 that he wasn’t in touch with many firefighter friends, but by January 2006 that changed. He began making weekly visits to a pleasantly decorated suite of offices in Soho where the FDNY’s Counseling Services Unit keeps its Manhattan office. Active firefighters and their families can go to the CSU to get help with different problems. But it has also become a meeting place for retirees whose careers were ended, one way or another, by 9-11. They gather most Tuesdays for group therapy. “I was reluctant at first,” says Telesca, who eventually got Frank Bazzicalupo (who, years earlier, gave skating lessons to Telesca’s kids) to come with him. “But now I like it. It’s just shooting the breeze, so it almost feels like sitting in the firehouse kitchen.”
But it’s not exactly the same thing; the real firehouse is next door. And that’s the big issue the men are dealing with. As Telesca puts it, they’re trying to make peace with “the sudden realization that they are retired.”
One of them is Louis Cacchioli, the guy who helped Telesca up West Street. He made it up to the 24th floor of the north tower on 9-11. Most of the guys he went in with did not make it out, and Cacchioli escaped with a damaged eye and lung injuries. When he learned in January 2002 that he would never return to full duty, he was so shaken up that he forgot what exit to take off the L.I.E. to get home. “It was the saddest day of my life,” Cacchioli said as he sat in the CSU waiting room in May, referring not to 9-11 but to the day he learned he was out of the firehouse. Kevin Fraser, another member of the group, said he cannot walk by a building and not size up how he’d approach it with the company he led as a lieutenant.
“Where can you go and get laughter, get excitement, get camaraderie, get knowledge?” Bazzicalupo says. Sure, there were guys in the firehouse who were not fit for the job, he says, men who needed to have a few drinks before their shift or who chain-smoked between runs. There were fights. There was the time when Bazzicalupo was going through his divorce and wanted to die on the job, because the FDNY was the family that loved him in a way he understood. But these truths just complete the picture; they don’t change it. In a fire company, you could count on things like courage and loyalty. “There was no making enemies in the firehouse,” he says, “because that guy might turn his back.”
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.”
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.
But the insight comes at a price. “I have to carry the burden of what I saw. And I have to carry a lot of secrets that other people don’t know about,” he says. He looks off. “I’m going to die with a lot of secrets, unfortunately.” McMahon knows what people had in their pockets when they died. He knows whose body was found near whose, hinting at connections between lives in their final moments. And he believes that the official versions of how they died were well-intentioned white lies. “Most of the medical examiner’s reports listed ‘blunt trauma’ as the cause of death. And nothing could be further from the truth. Listen, those people were ripped apart,” he says. “The family needed to move on. We needed to have closure. Are we going to say ‘decapitated’? No one wants to say that stuff. ‘Blunt trauma’ is bullshit. That’s understating the loss of humanity that day.”
In his last hours as one of the Bravest, McMahon has one secret he can share. Sometimes, he says, when a firefighter’s next of kin were told that remains had been located, they were not informed of exactly what had been found. So there might have been a single piece—say, a metatarsal fragment, a foot bone about the size of the thumb—in a sealed plastic bag inside a brown paper sack labeled with the number from the list. But the family would show up with a hearse and a gurney, expecting to see some recognizable part of their beloved. “So we’ve got this big gurney,” McMahon recalls. “We’ve got this body bag and this flag, and we’ve got this plastic baggie the size of your thumb. So we’d say, ‘Fuck it,’ put the box in, zip it up.” Then McMahon would blow forcefully into the bag to inflate it. “Pretend it’s heavy,” he’d tell the men carrying the bag to the hearse. “Don’t let them see it weighs three ounces.”
Was it the right thing to do, McMahon wonders. “I sit here right now, and I don’t know,” he says. “Did I hurt people’s feelings? I’ll never know. But I have to live with that for the rest of my life. It was mind-boggling.”