A few years ago, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we spoke with Tom McCarthy, the Battalion Chief of the 13th Battalion in Washington Heights. During our lengthy conversation, he opened up publicly, for the first time, about his personal experiences on 9/11, as well as his frustrations with the politicization of the day.
He told us one thing in particular that we think about every year on the anniversary: "Don't forget, on September 11th, 2001, it was just another day. And now it has become '9/11' or 'the events of 9/11.'" He continued: "It has become something big, unmanageable, not easy to understand. On that particular day it was just the worst catastrophe, but it was just one more while dealing with lots of catastrophes. The life it has taken on since has been distorted, or deformed."
Below, an excerpt from his account of the harrowing day; you can read the full interview here.
I started my shift the night of the 10th at 6:00 p.m. and I was scheduled to get off the night of the 11th at 6:00 p.m. You work a 24 hour shift. At about 8:30 in the morning I was sitting in the kitchen listening to the department radio for Brooklyn and a guy named Sal came running and said, "Put on the Manhattan frequency. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center." We switched the dial on the radio and then someone else said, "Put the television on." There were very vague reports that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Somebody had once rented a small plane and trailed out a banner asking a girl to marry him. So the general consensus was that someone was doing something stupid with a small plane and hit the Trade Center.
We all went up to the roof and the side that had been hit was not visible from Red Hook, but you could see the black smoke coming out of it and what looked like silver snowflakes glittering down from the sky. We watched it for several minutes and went back downstairs. While watching it on live television the second plane hit. And at that moment it was almost like a sea change occurred. We all knew this was not an accidental small plane crash. There was something going on. Within a minute or two the engine company and the truck company were both sent to respond. From 8:00-8:30 a.m. change of tours occurs, and we had guys getting off duty and guys coming on duty. But a few guys who were getting off duty wanted to go.
My battalion car was out being repaired, so I wasn't sent, but I got a call from the dispatcher saying he was sending a battalion chief from Staten Island to give me a ride. He was an older man. In fact, he was one of the few people who had survived a collapse in the Waldbaum's supermarket that killed six firemen back in the '70s. My driver and I got in the back of his car and we drove a very short distance to the entrance of the Battery Tunnel in Brooklyn. At the other side we drove up to a street called Albany Crescent at which point we couldn't go any further because of the traffic. The four of us—the other battalion chief, his driver, my driver, and me—walked up to the southwest corner of the Trade Center.
There I met another chief I knew, Arthur Lakiotes, who was trying to establish a command post. He told me to go into the South Tower and take orders from whoever was in charge there. And at that moment, I heard an incredible loud noise and I became aware of everyone looking up. My own eyes went up, and here was the World Trade Center coming down. Pretty much straight down, almost as if you had taken a large curtain in a movie theater and slashed the ropes that held them at the top. The whole thing was just dropping straight down. It wasn't falling like a tree, it wasn't collapsing in a burst of flame or smoke. It was just dropping.
I looked to my left and there was a woman with a TV camera filming it, and everyone was running. I put my arm around her and rushed her along. After a few seconds it got completely gray and then completely black. It was as if you were in the path of a large wave at the beach and you started to run and you knew you're not going to outrun it. My legs were knocked out from underneath me and I was blown across the ground in this black, thick, fuzzy cloud, until I hit a concrete road divider.
I was aware of thousands of pieces of debris flying past me. I was afraid of losing my fire department issued flashlight. It got blown out of my hands and my helmet got blown off my head. I just thought I'm going to...I knew what was happening...I knew the World Trade Center was coming down. And I just thought... I'm going to die.