Irish-American Eddie Boles is a lieutenant in the New York Fire Department’s Ladder 55 in the south Bronx. He was on a day off when two planes hit the Twin Towers but was immediately called to respond. This is what he saw.
TUESDAY WAS MY day off but it was Democratic primary day for the city’s mayoral election so we were doing some political action on behalf of a candidate.
I got down to my fire house – Ladder 34 on the upper west side of Manhattan – early and went for a run. I don’t normally run across the George Washington Bridge but on that day I did because it was such a glorious day in Manhattan.
I got back, I showered and then went down to the kitchen which in our firehouse and others is like a real Irish kitchen. There’s the shift change so people are coming on, people are getting off, they’re having a cup of coffee and just catching up. People were milling around and I just happened to glance at the TV and I saw the first plane had hit.
I thought it was traffic helicopter at first but over the radio there were reports of a “major incident” down at the World Trade Centre and fire companies were responding. At that point we had no knowledge that it was commercial plane but when the second plane hit we knew it was some sort of terrorism.
I think our collective initial reaction that this incident was bigger than anything we’d ever dealt with before even though we didn’t even know extent of it until we got down there. There was a total recall which means every firefighter in the New York Fire Department was called in from home to go to their firehouse to be prepared to be deployed in anyway needed.
We started gathering all our equipment and eventually myself and others piled into one truck and we headed down there. On the way we stopped at a distributor to get as much water as possible. We had no idea what was there or how long we would be there, but we figured we were going to need water.
We got to Lower 42nd Street and as you got closer and closer to the Trade Centre you just saw hundreds, maybe thousands of people walking away and it reminded me of the TV footage I watched as a kid of refugees in Vietnam. These were refugees walking away from the Trade Centre and as you got closer and closer there was more and more people, just covered in soot and dust.
We reached Chambers Street a few blocks away from the Trade Centre just after the second tower came down and the dust plume from that had cleared. Believe it or not, I never experienced any chaos. We just got organised. We commandeered a local college and set up a communications post. That was important because communications were so poor. We got that set up and we took chairs out so firefighters could put their gear down.
Then I phoned my in-laws to let them know I was okay. I hadn’t seen or spoken to my wife, kids or any of my family since the planes hit. My immediate instinct was just to get down there.
We waited around for what seemed like hours. We’re an aggressive unit, very proactive so we wanted to get down to the rubble to start saving people, that’s what we do. But the chiefs were holding people back, two towers had gone down and they didn’t want anymore of our guys getting hurt.
Eventually Tower 7 at the World Trade Centre came down to and it was after that that we headed down to the rubble pile.
When we got there it was horrific. It was just steel and concrete, the pile was probably ten stories high and when I think back now every floor was a whole acre, that’s how big the building and the area of it was. In an office building you have chairs, tables, electrical equipment, bathrooms, all sorts of fittings and there there was nothing. It was all pulverized into dust.
Then there was all these nooks and crannies and crevices. These were big holes and we were thinking there had to people in there who were alive but the guys I was working with found nobody, which to this day is mind boggling.
At 2am, we stopped and headed back to the firehouse on pick-ups trucks. We sank a bottle of Irish whiskey and we slept for a little bit, just dozing off. We were up early on the morning of 12 September and were getting reports of colleagues who were killed when the towers came down. In total we lost 343 guys that day, dozens of them were close friends of mine.
When we got down there on the Wednesday, you could smell the death, it’s very eerie and very distinctive and once it got stronger you figured you were close to finding someone but we found no-one.
One of my most vivid memories is of the number of construction workers, all unionized guys, who came down to help us that day and the days after that. Then we started getting heavy machinery, and cranes and stuff to cut the steel away. This army of construction workers were a big help because initially we were crawling on our hands and knees using the little tools we had.
But we worked in concert together to get done what we had to get done.
‘We were knackered’
In the days that followed things became more organised and by Friday they had set up task forces so as that people who weren’t on normal duty at the firehouse were down at the Trade Centre helping out there. We were working 16 hour days down at the Trade Centre, maybe with one day off a week or three days on and one day off.
It was hard to switch off, to come home and be with your family. To coin an Irish phrase, we were knackered and we were frustrated. It is in our instinct to rescue people, to help people and to find no one in the wreckage was very frustrating.
After about two weeks of working on and off down at the Trade Centre and at the firehouse I got a call from a friend of mine in personnel who wanted me to head down to Pier 98 in Manhattan to help set up a family assistance unit so as that the families could get access to the various agencies providing help – the Red Cross, social services, people like that.
When we got down there there was really nothing but within a week we had a fully operational unit to help out families, not just of the firefighters we lost but of people who worked in FDNY who had lost family members, people like the Meehan family who had a brother, a good GAA player, who worked in the Trade Centre and died that day.
We also helped a lot of families of those in the Port Authority Police Department, they lost 10 per cent of their guys that day. We had an idea of how to reach out when people lose someone in the line of duty.
I did this for two months, I suppose you’d say it takes its toll physically and emotionally but I was still alive. If you break it down, we’re in the service business, that’s what we do for a living, we help other people. It was just part of our obligation and you get some gratification from it as you would when you put a fire out or you help a cardiac victim.
On our days off we were going to funerals. Sometimes, maybe two or three a day. It felt like we were in this bubble where we had no idea what was going on around us. I ran into a friend later who lost his fiancée in the towers and I had no idea because I was dealing with the losses we’d suffered inside the fire department.
We were going to funerals until around the Spring of 2002 by which time the fire department’s involvement at Ground Zero came to an end as the clean up continued. Due to the losses I was moved to down to a firehouse in midtown Manhattan for a couple of months and then got promoted to a lieutenant in July of 2002.
Life returned to normal but it was a new normal. The new normal was where a lot of things changed.
There was a much greater awareness of terrorism in how we operated, how we approached things and how we were trained. For example there was that car bomb down in midtown Manhattan in May 2010 which was spotted by two of our officers and immediately the area was cordoned off and the bomb squad were called in.
And then there are the losses on the day which are forever in our hearts and souls. We’ll never get over that. Even now we’ve got guys getting sick from the effects of the day. I’d say we had close to 50 guys who we’ve lost because of World Trade Centre-related illnesses and I get calls every week on people becoming ill because of the toxic soup we breathed in.
‘It gets easier’
My attitude nowadays is trying to live for the now and not worry so much about the future. If you have an opportunity to do something, you should do it.
My father, who is from Sligo and is 84 in December, played Gaelic football when he was younger and as part of our relationship with firefighters in Dublin this trip is being planned for the All Ireland Final. I wasn’t going to go but my dad said he was so I said “If you’re going, we’re going”.
It’s things like that, opportunities like that you don’t let pass by you anymore. So we’ll be there at Croke Park on the 18th.
I know guys who stood a couple of feet away from guys who died on 9/11 and they survived. When you’re time’s up, your time’s up but you never know when that’s going to be.
This anniversary is significant because it’s ten years but I’ll do the same things I do every year. I’ll head down to the firehouse in the morning and then mass. Then there’ll be a service at Engine 10 Ladder 10 which is right by the World Trade Centre. There’s this wall of memories which details the events of the day and this beautiful brass monument. There’ll be a pipe and drum band playing, no crowds, no media, just us. It’s very intimate and that’s just what we’ll do.
I just can’t believe it’s been ten years already.
Eddie Boles is a lieutenant in the New York Fire Department’s Ladder 55 in the south Bronx. He is also treasurer of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. He is a first generation Irish-American and is married with four children.
As told to Hugh O’Connell.