House on The Rock
John S Picarello
The morning of Tuesday September 11th, 2001 was a beautiful Spring-like morning in New York City. I had gone to work which for me was a morning just like any other, leaving home early to get in ahead of the morning rush hour traffic. My firehouse was located in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, housing Engine Company 278 and the 40th Battalion to which I was assigned.
Sitting around the kitchen table we were all engaged in conversation which was usual for the morning change of tours, when our attention was drawn to the pictures being broadcast by the morning news. We have just learned that a plane had slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (also known as Tower One), it was now approximately 8:46am.
A second alarm was transmitted and then a third alarm shortly thereafter. At 8:54am Battalion 40 was assigned to respond to a staging area on the Brooklyn side of the Battery Tunnel. On this particular tour I was working with Battalion Chief Edward Henry, who at that time had some 40yrs experience on the job.
As we headed down 4th Avenue for the Battery Tunnel we could see the upper floors of the North Tower engulfed in flames and huge billows of smoke rising high into the sky. At first we thought the plane had accidentally hit the North tower as a plane had once hit the Empire State Building many years ago, and we thought nothing more of it until a few minutes later.
It was now just a few minutes past 9:00am and we were approaching the Tunnel when the second plane struck the South Tower. It was at this time that Chief Henry and I looked at each other and said "Terrorists!" We now knew that this was no accident. Immediately all units were ordered to continue responding into the scene. It was a bit difficult getting through the tunnel, as it was jammed with vehicles. Eventually an open lane was established for emergency vehicles coming into the city.
Arriving on the scene, I was in awe at the magnitude of the destruction caused by the airliners. Both towers had sustained heavy damage with several floors now fully involved in fire. The streets were being littered with debris still falling from the towers. I was sick to my stomach as I watched in horror those people leaping from the upper floors. I remember trying to come to grips with the reality of what I was seeing, realizing that this was no movie but was actually happening. I have no words that would adequately describe the scene I was witnessing. My eyes began to fill up as I was praying for those people as they fell, and it seemed to take forever. Some were holding hands, two, and three at a time were coming down. I could only imagine those last moments on those upper floors and the conditions they must have faced before being compelled to make such a decision. I prayed for their families with an understanding I was seeing the final moments of their lives.
Chief Henry had entered the lobby of the Marriott Hotel which is situated at the foot of both towers; I followed a few moments later. The lobby was a staging area where units were receiving their assignments; we were assigned to go to the 75th floor of the North Tower (Tower One). There were many firefighters, police and emergency personnel present in the lobby at this time.
Once receiving our assignments a group of us began to make our way through the lobby toward Tower One. We had only walked a few feet when we heard something like a rumbling sound coming from outside in the distance and coming closer. In a few seconds the floor began to vibrate as the entire lobby began shaking. The rumbling was like a huge freight train as it got closer and sounded as if it were all around us. We all headed for shelter, some of us dove to the floor toward an interior wall and covered up as best we could. I had only run a few steps when everything came violently crashing down around us. The sound was deafening and in a few seconds it was over. Everything was completely dark and quiet with an eerie silence.
I remember landing on top of Safety Battalion Chief Lawrence Stack who was in front of me at the time of the collapse. I had my hands on his back when everything just came crashing down. The ceilings had collapsed on both sides of us. We didn't know it at the time but, the hotel had just taken a direct hit from the collapse of the South Tower (Tower Two). I was on the floor and remember praying. I had just enough time to call on the name of Jesus a second before everything went black.
It seemed like an eternity when in fact it was just a few seconds. When I opened my eyes everything was pitch black. I realized I was not pinned under any debris. To my left just a few feet away there was nothing but twisted steel and rubble from one end of the room to the other. The wall we were leaning against had shifted pinning the edge of Chief Stack’s turnout coat to the ground. He had to slip out of it before he could stand up. To our right there were two firefighters who were trapped from their waist down in what appeared to be a wall of debris. I worked with a few others to help dig them out, they were free in a short time.
As we looked around we could tell we were cut off from the rest of the lobby by a wall of debris. A large area had collapsed just a few feet behind me. We were cut off from the exits in front of us and behind us so we were now trapped in the lobby.
Chief Henry began to call outside on his radio but there was no response. It didn't dawn on me until later the significance of no one responding to our radio transmissions. At this time there were about nine maybe ten of us together with some guests and hotel personnel as well. I did not know what had happened to the other emergency personnel I had seen earlier in the lobby area, many of whom were friends.
At this time we began to look for a way out of the hotel. Although it was still pitch black, I could see some fires burning through the openings in the debris not far from us. We felt a light breeze coming from the front of the lobby and followed it eventually making our way to an area where we found three doors. One door led to a stairway to a lower level which we did not take because we had some people with us with serious injuries. Another door opened to a long corridor which led to an opening on West Street. It's hard to describe what West Street looked like, so much of it appeared to be destroyed, and the debris was deep enough to cover the pavement. It was there I saw the Chief of Department, Chief Peter Ganci, standing in the center of West Street looking up as the debris was still falling. He had come from the Command Post and there was nothing but rubble all around him.
We were at an opening which had a knee wall about four feet high. He began waving to us to make our way out of the building. One firefighter at a time would go over the wall and head outside. As the Chief would wave them on they would run past him to the other side of the street. A couple of firefighters headed out before me; there were still some people with us that were injured and couldn't get over that wall.
Chief Henry had gone to my right looking for another way out before I had arrived at that opening with the others. Chief Ganci motioned to me to come out, at first I was going to stay and help the others but he kept motioning to me to come over to him so I did. He ordered me to go find the Command Post which was being repositioned north of Vesey Street due to the collapse of Tower Two. He was requesting four more ladder companies, a squad company and a rescue company if one was available. They were to report to him as soon as possible. That was the last time I would see him alive.
In front of Tower One I was passing under the walkway that crosses over West Street known as the North Bridge. I stopped for a few seconds to catch my breath and would have sat down a few minutes had it not been for the Chief's order. It was about this time when once again I began to hear a rumbling sound. As I looked up I could see that huge spire atop Tower One begin to sway. As I was looking up over my shoulder Tower One began to collapse, as that rumbling was getting louder the ground started to shake. The Tower began to pancake making very loud crumbling sounds "bap, bap, bap, bap!" ...as each floor would collapse upon the other. I saw flashes of fire and debris being forced away from the building as it began to come down. It appeared to be coming right for me.
The thought crossed my mind "this is not a dream you'll wake up from, this is real you've got to run!" this thought so resonated within me that I felt as though I was being pulled across the street. As I began to run my legs felt like jelly and I had the feeling that I couldn’t run fast enough. The fear that came over me was extreme and lasted only a second or two before my feelings went numb. I was still in my full bunker gear with my air pack on my back and I was already exhausted from the first collapse.
I began feeling a pressure on my back when from the corner of my eye I could see everything beginning to go gray and get darker. Once across West and Vesey streets I dove behind a truck and everything blew past me like a hurricane of debris and thick black smoke. It was like a roar of a tornado as things were falling all over the place, the truck was rocking from the wind and debris hitting it. I just covered my head and prayed. I remember telling God from the 23rd Psalm "You promised that we would walked through the valley of shadow of death...Oh Lord You promised” It seemed like such a long time but again it was probably just a few moments and then everything went black again, and there was another eerie silence; a stillness in the air so quiet I heard nothing. Dead silence. When I opened my eyes I could see nothing, it was like still having my eyes closed; everything around me was pitch black. Looking up I couldn't see the sun, the sky, or anything just darkness for a moment or two.
I took a breath and the air was solid, it was like breathing saw dust. As the smoke began to clear I managed to stumble to my feet and every 2 or 3 steps I would just fall down again. I was coughing and spitting up what seemed like small rocks and dirt, I was trying to clean out my eyes, I couldn’t use my face piece because it was impacted with dirt. The only radio transmission I heard at this time was from Chief Henry checking on me and letting me know he was OK and had gotten out. Later we would discover that only a few of us out of the ten or more trapped together in the lobby had survived the collapse of Tower One.
Once the smoke began to lift I could see the magnitude of the destruction, it was immense. Standing at the corner of West Street and Vesey I could see fires everywhere. Debris more than three or four stories high stretched for blocks. The North Bridge where I had stopped to catch my breath just minutes before was crushed to the ground. It was acting like a Dam holding back tons of debris from rolling across Vesey Street. The scene was too much for my mind to process at one time.
I remained working on the scene until early afternoon when I found an ambulance and I asked to be looked at, I was then taken to a hospital uptown to be treated where I was able to call my wife to let her know I was alright. After some tests I was released and returned to the scene around 4:00pm and worked until I was too exhausted to work; it was now about 8:30pm.
I thought of how God had spared me in the midst of all this destruction and there was not a scratch on me, not a scratch. When I finally arrived home around midnight, I had asked my wife how she managed to deal with the events of that day, knowing I was there and not hearing from me until late in the afternoon. She said that as she prayed, the Lord reminded her of a prophetic word that we had both received at a Pastor's meeting few years earlier. The man giving the word to us turned to her and said I see a truck I don't know what that means but "Elena this is for you, the Lord does not want you to be afraid when your husband goes to work. The devil has tried to take his life before, but he will not be snatched away from you." God will protect him, and He wants you to know that.
My wife said to me, "Imagine how much God cares about how I feel that He would give me that word knowing I would need it to hold on to in the future!" I am grateful and comforted that even in the midst of chaos when we cannot understand what is happening or how things will go for us, God is still in control.
In time I would learn about those who were trapped with us by the collapse of Tower Two and who had survived the collapse of the Tower One. I had lost 24 friends and 343 brothers in the fire department. Among them a long time friend from grammar school, Lieutenant Phillip Petti, who had given his life when returning to the upper floors in the hotel in a rescue attempt as Tower One collapsed. Chief Edward Henry had lost his youngest son; Firefighter Joseph Henry of Ladder 21, he had served less than a year, and Battalion Chief Lawrence Stack was in the process of helping people when he was caught in the collapse of Tower One.
In the year following that tragic day, my family and I would become well acquainted with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress and its impact on people. Facing the reality of our own mortality; emotions such as fear, insecurity and anger would have to be addressed. Together with the support of others God revealed Himself to us in so many ways during that period as The Great Physician.
I witnessed the pain and suffering so many would have to endure in losing loved ones on that day. Seeing this through the seemingly endless funerals and memorials that followed September 2001, I longed for more of the grace of God that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 “... the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
This experience has brought about a profound change in my life and ministry; I could have searched for deeper theological understanding of God’s sovereignty and His Divine providential actions in such tragedies… but my heart cried out more for His healing of the masses instead. I longed for Him to show me how to minister His healing to others that He had so graciously ministered to me.
343 firefighters made the ultimate sacrifice on September 11th 2001
On September 11th 2001 Police, Fire, EMS, Port Authority and a host of others formed the largest combined rescue effort in American history up to that time.
Please remember to pray for the rescue workers who serve in your community