9/11 stories: We looked up at the towers, then at each other, and went; ‘Oh my God’

The stories of four Irish American FDNY members who were in New York that day

Almost 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, when four planes were hijacked and directed at US targets. 2,606 people perished in the World Trade Center attacks in New York, including 343 firefighters. These are the stories of four Irish-American members of the Fire Department who were there that day.

‘Mychal Judge had a heart as big as New York’

Human rights activist and filmmaker Brendan Fay was a close friend of Fr Mychal Judge, the New York Fire Department’s chaplain, and the first named victim of the attack.

"That morning, there was such a beautiful blue sky. I got home from a run, and picking up coffees I had seen people gather outside an electrical store, and I wondered what they were watching. It soon hit home. The calls from Ireland started right away. And later, we saw that defining image, of my beloved friend, Mychal Judge.

While most were fleeing the horror and the terror of the World Trade Center, Mychal Judge and the other firefighters were making their way towards all that pain and anguish and suffering and tragedy. This was Mychal Judge, this is who he was.

We met shortly after I arrived in New York in the mid-1980s. He was one of a handful of priests who ministered to the gay community during our darkest moments. He’d say mass and provide sacraments for LGBT Catholic groups, and as the Aids crisis worsened, he got a reputation as the priest to call on for hospital visits. Mychal Judge had his own way, he often defied orders from the hierarchy.

We were outsiders, and here he was, saying we were loved, and we belonged, and that he cared. It was when many parishes refused to do funerals for people with Aids, so they’d call Mychal Judge. He understood our feelings as immigrants. I met him, surprisingly, at a sober meeting in 1991, and that’s where our friendship deepened. It became a very close, intimate bond. Sobriety was so important for him. His father died when he was six, and he’d often talk about that at funerals. Not about himself, but to children, how he understood their pain, their loss, particularly at a firefighter’s funeral.

'I remember my phone messages, a month later. People in tears, talking about Mychal, how our dear Mychal was gone'

In our house, here on the wall, there's a picture of him at his 65th birthday, with my husband Tom and I. There were people there, from the Franciscan Friars, his beloved Fire Department, his family and the gay community. Mychal Judge had a heart as big as New York; there was room in it for everybody.

He celebrated immigration and was especially sensitive to those who were undocumented, including the thousands of Irish. Once, someone gave him a free travel ticket to anywhere in the United States. One morning he got a letter from a prisoner in an institution in California, so he chose to fly there to surprise him. He’d a few great phrases: ‘Here comes high levels of madness.’

We had dinner on August 16th, 2001, and went for a long walk. He talked about his pains of the past, his hopes for the future, then he hugged me goodnight, and asked me to give his love to Tom. He had this great way of embracing. That was the last time I saw him. I remember my phone messages, a month later. People in tears, talking about Mychal, how our dear Mychal was gone.

I often go to the corner of Church and Vesey streets, where they carried Mychal’s body to first, before he was left to rest at the church altar. The streets of New York, that was Mychal Judge’s cathedral, and where he found God, on these city streets.

On the day of the attack he needed last rites, so a young cop ran to the church, but couldn't find a priest. Someone said that if he was a Catholic he could perform it. So there he was, this young rookie cop, a few firefighters, and they held him, and prayed. So, forget about the big vast funerals, it was what happened on the corner of Church and Vesey streets, in New York City. Surrounded by the NYPD, the Fire Department, all of whom he loved so much, and who loved him.

That was my friend Mychal Judge. I still miss him, I still think of him." Brendan Fay

My nine-year-old daughter saw the whole thing from her classroom window

Firefighter Lieutenant Girard ‘Gerry’ Owens of Engine 5 on Manhattan’s 14th Street was one of the last to make it out of the North Tower before it collapsed. Now retired, Owens has battled 9/11-related illness since the attack.

"9/11 was my last fire. I'd been hurt, and I retired a year later. I worked in Manhattan, at Engine 5 on 14th Street, not far from where I lived in Brooklyn. Since 9/11 I've had four cancers: stage two sinus, stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma and skin cancer twice. It was all related to 9/11. I thought I was in good shape, but I passed out in the doctor's office once, and woke up in hospital 12 days later. I was told that it was just a matter of time.

When I woke up, all my family were there. They’d been told I wasn’t going to make it. A priest gave me last rites. He asked if I’d anything to say, and I said that I’d been a good son to my mother, what’s more important than that?

My father, he took a lot of grief when we were growing up. It wasn’t easy, being Irish and having a Protestant dad and a Catholic mom in Brooklyn, can you believe that? Even from the priests. I’ve always defended him. He fought for this country, he was in Okinawa, and saw a lot of action, so you’d better tip your hat to him. You know what my father would say when people would say ‘Thank you for your service’? He’d say: ‘It was an honor to serve you’. And what’s a better line than that?

'I went to go back in, and heard the plaza start to crack. I just thought, we'd better get the hell out of here'

I was home when the first plane hit, but I lived just minutes from work, so I knew what was going on. Off the subway, which might have been the last one running, I saw this Emergency Services Unit vehicle, he slowed down and shouted to hop in. The driver was an NYPD sergeant. Rodney Gillis was his name, and we’re talking and flying downtown, going on sidewalks, weaving in and out, with traffic, against traffic, along Broadway, down Church, then we got out of the truck and looked up at the towers, then at each other, and went; ‘Oh my God’.

So, we ran into the North Tower. It’s funny, when we were driving downtown, we were talking about all sorts, you know, retirement, the job, meanwhile we’re on the way to the biggest fire in our lifetime. So, he was ordered to go up, and I’d to go down, to check the elevators, after both buildings had been hit. I never saw him again, I found out later he’d been killed.

I went to the basement, it was pitch black. I could just hear people screaming for help through the elevator shafts. I couldn’t find them, I couldn’t even tell where they were, how far up they were. They were in an elevator stuck between floors, way up, it was so dark. Water just started gushing, and there was this incredible thunder, just this loud rumbling. The building was shaking, and the water and the impact just threw me into the stairwell up against the ceiling. My hand, shoulder and ribs were crushed, and my eye was out.

The North Tower kept shaking, that’s when the South Tower was falling. So I was in the stairwell and met two people who worked there, a man, then a woman. She was very upset, covered in dust, we couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. I just told her I’d get them out. I saw a light up ahead, it was another fireman (John Morabito). He knew the Trade Center better than me.

Once we got out, I told the lady and the man to stay close to the building, not to walk into the plaza, so we were walking out, watching for debris, and, all around people were jumping from high up. I went to go back in, and heard the plaza start to crack. I just thought, we’d better get the hell out of here. There was nobody going in or coming out any more. Someone saw me and put me on the boat over to the hospital in Jersey. It was only later that day I found out what exactly had happened.

I was really worried about the man and woman we came out with. I never knew if they lived or died, but they got in touch, they’re good people. We lost two from our firehouse, Manny Del Valle, and Lieutenant Paul Mitchell, who was temporarily assigned with us. I knew about 175 guys who died, and of course Rodney Gillis, who I’d just met. I often think about him. That morning, he was just so cool and calm.

And my daughter saw the whole thing. She was nine years old, she was at school, watching from her classroom window.”

In your heart, you just knew, nobody’s coming out

Irish-American and Sunnyside, Queens native Veronica Brennan lost her brother, firefighter Michael Emmett Brennan, whose entire company perished on 9/11.

“I was on a business trip in San Francisco, and somebody ran in and told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I said that’s impossible, planes didn’t fly down there. So, we turned on the TV, and we were just in shock.

I tried to get a flight home, but airports were closing. Finding information was so difficult, especially about Michael’s firehouse. The 15 firefighters who were on shift, nobody had heard from them. We knew Michael was working, and at the site. So, I was calling everyone to find out where he was. My brothers were going to and from the firehouse, to see if anyone had heard anything. Then we heard that all 15 guys on Michael’s shift were lost. Their house lost the most. Engine 54 and Ladder 4.

His face just made people happy, he had that grin, and he'd do anything for you

After I got home, a few days later, we were going back and forth between my Mom’s house in Sunnyside and my Dad’s in Manhattan, just waiting, but we knew. You’d see it on TV, but once you were down there, at the site, in your heart, you just knew, nobody’s coming out of there. It was emotional for all, especially my parents, losing their child. When Michael’s remains were eventually discovered, we had a small service with family and some guys from his firehouse.

He’d wanted to be a firefighter since he was a kid, and he took the test at 17. My Mom said: ‘Well, you’re not sitting around waiting for these results, so you’re going to college.’ So he did, and later he was called for the FDNY physical, and that was it. He was 27 when he died. Since then, we don’t go downtown for memorials, that’s just too hard. The firehouse is more personal, we have breakfast together, and right around the corner, is a memorial water fountain, it’s beautiful. Then we go to mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with the other families and the battalion.

It’s funny, my whole career was downtown, but after 9/11 I couldn’t go back there. When I got a new job, it was in midtown, close to his firehouse, so I’d often see their trucks go by. He’d been studying to take the lieutenant test, which was the following month, after having been awarded two citations for bravery. In July 2002, the street we grew up on in Sunnyside, Queens, was renamed Michael Brennan Way.

Michael was larger than life, always clowning around. He was outgoing, loved people, he enjoyed skiing and snowboarding. His face just made people happy, he had that grin, and he’d do anything for you. If he was still with us, he’d have been such a good father and husband, and then all the fun stuff too. I’ve a house upstate, and I’d love to have had a drink with him there, and conversations, it would have been so great. There are nieces and nephews that he didn’t get to meet.

People often say to me, that things get easier as time goes on, but it doesn't really, you just learn to live with it. I could go on forever about Michael. I love him and miss him so much, he's still such a huge part of me, and I think of him every day. It's so hard to believe that it's been 20 years." Veronica Brennan

We lost 57 guys from my division. I’d have known most of them

Retired firefighter and proud son of Kerry and Limerick ancestry, Lieutenant John Sexton of Brooklyn’s Engine 212 lost many friends on 9/11. He was part of the lengthy recovery effort at Ground Zero. He also worked on the ceremonial unit, organising firefighters’ funeral services.

“That morning, I was at the Fire Academy, teaching the young guys how to drive a fire truck. I saw smoke downtown, and thought: ‘Wow, that’s some fire they’ve got’. So, about 40 of us got onto one of the FDNY buses, and sped downtown.

The first tower had fallen, and we were at the site. There was this incredible rumbling, we couldn’t see anything because of the dust and the debris, but the second tower had started collapsing. You know that noise in the subways, when the train is coming in? Magnify that a thousand times. We thought, how could anyone survive this?

We went into a couple of nearby buildings and found a few people who had died. We could tell where they’d worked by their uniforms. People were saying we’d lost over 300 guys, and thousands of civilians. One friend I’d worked with, Billy Butler, I knew him very well, and then I worked with his son Tommy, both firefighters. Poor Billy, I met him again after he’d come down trying to find his son, but Tommy didn’t make it.

My friend Andy Desperito too. He and I went way back. The day after (9/11) I asked another firefighter about Andy, who I’d been trying to get in touch with. He just shook his head and cried. Andy didn’t make it either. I’d known him since we were teenagers, and we’d still work out together.

We lost 57 guys from my division that day. I’d have known most of them. After 9/11, I was assigned to the ceremonial unit, which helped bury the guys, and acted as an honor guard at funerals. I’d arrange eulogies, and deal with funeral directors.

One of the first funerals I was involved with was in Staten Island. After they played Taps, I remember this little boy, in the front row, turning to his mom, asking: ‘Where’s Daddy?’ That was one of the hardest things I’ve seen. That kid would be 23 or 24 now.

I’ve probably got about 140 Mass cards at home, I’d always be given one after a service. I was often asked by funeral directors if I wanted to work at that when I retired, but I’d seen enough.”

Michael Fitzpatrick is a Dublin-born journalist and playwright in New York City. mikefitznyc@gmail.com

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