Tom McCarthy didn't always want to be a firefighter—growing up in Brooklyn, he didn't even have a toy firetruck. But when he wasn't sure what to do with his history degree, he decided to follow his friends who were taking the firefighter exam: "It was a crime of opportunity when I was in my twenties." He fell into the life after that, working for the FDNY for 20 years as he ascended to rank of Battalion Chief of the 32nd Battalion in Red Hook months before 9/11. Today, McCarthy is the Battalion Chief of the 13th Battalion in Washington Heights. But for the ten year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, McCarthy recalls his personal story of the haunting events of September 11th for the first time in public. He also reveals his frustrations with the politicization of the day: "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."
Were you in Red Hook to begin your career? Towards the end. I was in Red Hook on the day of 9/11, but prior to that I had worked in just about every neighborhood in the city. At the time of 9/11, I had 20 years on the job. I had been around.
By then you were a Battalion Chief? I had 20 years at that time. Eight years as a fireman, four as a Lieutenant, five as a Captain, and then at the time of 9/11, over two as a Battalion Chief.
Is that the highest ranking? In terms of civil service it's the second highest ranking. The next level up is Deputy Chief and then you end the civil service aspect of the job and it becomes a question of political appointment to the higher ranks. I got to Red Hook as Battalion Chief five months before 9/11.
Is there much continuity in firehouses? Do you know the people you're working with well? Yes. At this particular time, ten years ago, the Fire Commissioner decided to rotate Battalion Chiefs around the city. I came from a house in the Bronx in April and was sent to Red Hook. As far as continuity, the guys who actually work in the house pretty much stick together from the time they come on the job until they get promoted or retire. I knew them as well as you can get to know someone in a few months, but I didn't have a long history with them.
I imagine being on the job bonds you together pretty quickly. I agree with you. It's sort of like interchangeable parts of a machine. You can drop any fireman in any firehouse and within an hour he'll figure out what has to be done and how to do it.
On September 11th, 2001, were you in the middle of a shift? 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.
The extremely strong wind started to slow down and the amount of debris started to diminish. I thought, 'maybe I'm not going to die'—and at that point I got hit with something that broke my shoulder. The debris stopped and all the noise stopped. Like after an extremely heavy snowstorm, there was a muffled quiet. I had no mask on and I had to suck this stuff down. It was very fuzzy and thick. But after two or three breaths I realized there's enough oxygen to live on. My first immediate responsibility was to the guy who was driving me. You're supposed to keep an eye on him, and I instinctively called out his name. I felt like I was shouting into an empty space, but through all this silence I suddenly heard Eddie calling back to me. As I made my way over to him he said, "I lost my helmet." "I lost mine too!" I said. Shows you what you think of at times like that.
I could see little pinpoints of light. It was people who hadn't lost their flashlights. We started gathering together into little knots and trying to figure out what happened. We all thought the building had collapsed, but we had been told during our entire time with the fire department that these buildings would never collapse. We had complete faith in their construction. Eddie and I fumbled around in the dark, as visibility is getting a little better. One strange thing I remember is that a lot of the cars parked along the streets were on fire. There were maybe four or five cars on fire. And to this day, I still don't have an answer as to why that happened. Guys were forming into knots and nobody had any communication or really any idea what was going on. I saw a fire truck. It was Rescue 2's fire truck. It was parked, covered with debris, its compartment doors were open, and there was a guy I had worked with twenty years ago pulling equipment out of it. He had since retired and was wearing his old style fire gear. I thought it was strange. "What is he doing here? Why was he dressed like that?" Just one more piece of confusion that morning.
Had you been in any communication with guys from your house before the tower went down? No. What happened that day, because my car had been taken out of service and in the car was my air mask, radio, helmet and equipment, I went to the clothing rack and took the equipment of another guy who I knew was off and was about my size. I was wearing Joe Williams coat and Joe Williams pants and I borrowed a spare Chief's helmet from the rack. That's why I was worried about losing the helmet. It wasn't mine. But as far as communication, all I had was with the guys around me.
The wind shifted and I saw—it's become an iconic picture now—about a 45-degree-angled, four or five story remnant of the World Trade Center. And then the wind shifted back and hid that from my view. But that's when I realized, "Oh man, the whole thing is gone. It's down."
Were you panicked at all at this point? No. I don't mean to brag, but I've seen worse fires. Once the air became breathable...Think of jumping into the water. If you jump in and you don't have any oxygen and you don't know how to swim, you might panic. But if you bob to the surface and can get your air supply, you can start to think. That's what happened to me. Later on that day I was very afraid to be near any buildings because I did not know what was coming down next. But no, I wasn't panicking.
Eddie suggested that I have E.M.S. take a look at my shoulder. I took my gear off, they had to cut up the back of my shirt, and they decided it might be dislocated. They put a sling on it and sent me on my way. But while I was sitting in the ambulance there was another loud noise. I asked Eddie what it was and he said the second one had just come down. By this time, rumors were swirling. Someone said these were missile strikes, not airplanes. I was afraid more of them were going to come in. We met someone who told us that someone from our house ladder company 101 had been assigned to the north side of the Trade Center, and we circled around to the World Financial Center—that was all devastated. We came out on the north side and kept looking for the guys from the house. We couldn't find them. By this time my arm was killing me and I went to another ambulance where they told me my shoulder was broken and I had to go to the hospital.
I was in the ambulance with two or three other firemen. I can't remember their names, but one said he was driving Joe Paolillo. I told him, "I haven't seen Joe Paolillo in a while, tell him I said hello!" He looked at me and said, "He's dead. He was in the building." And that's when I started to realize guys were in there when it came down. The three or four of us in the ambulance, riding north towards Bellevue, started to talk and came up with a number. We thought there were going to be 40 or 50 guys killed in this thing. We had no idea of the scope of it. If you follow fire department training rules, I'd say there are not supposed to be anymore than 30 guys inside of a highrise at a fire. If everyone was obeying all the rules, there should have been no more than 60 guys in the two towers, but it turned out there were hundreds.
We got to Bellevue Hospital, and waiting to see the doctor a firefighter I knew came in and she said, "Tom, we've been looking all over for you. You haven't told anyone where you were." I felt like saying I had a few other things going on. Another man said, "Do you want me to get in touch with anybody?" "Call my wife." And he got through to her and let her know I was okay.
After a while, they had volunteer guys come in off duty and another fireman took some guys back to Brooklyn. I got in the car with him and on the way there we saw 7 World Trade Center cave in. It seemed like the whole world was falling apart. He dropped me off at the firehouse and there was nobody there except an old man who had retired many years before. He had been assigned to that firehouse and he came down to see what he could do. Other people started to drift in, primarily relatives of other firefighters. Near twilight, the old man said I had a phone call from Home Depot saying they had all sorts of flashlights if the fire department needs them. I called the Deputy Chief to tell him that and he said—he didn't really know me—but when he found out who I was he said, "All the guys in your house are dead."
We had two companies in the house. One of the trucks had just pulled up and was outside the tower when it fell and it killed them all before they even had a chance to get out of the truck. He said he hadn't heard from the other unit yet, Engine Company 202. Engine Company 202 survived but Ladder Company 101—all seven guys who were on that truck—were killed. At this point there were a number of relatives gathered there in the firehouse and I didn't know what to tell them. One police officer in uniform was the brother of a fireman and he was very patient. There was another older man who was the father-in-law of one of my guys, a retired fireman himself. I wasn't sure that anyone was dead or alive yet and I didn't want to panic anybody, so I kept saying I don't have any information. The father-in-law knew enough to tell me who to call and how to find out. He was losing patience with me. I went back upstairs for some privacy and I called the Deputy Chief again. He said he knew for a fact that 202 survived, but 101 truck was dead. All those guys were dead. Back downstairs, the first person I went to was the police officer in uniform and I told him—the first time I ever had to do anything like this—I told him his brother was dead. His face registered shock, but he said, "I thought he was," and thanked me politely. I went over to the father-in-law of the other guy and he was angry, angry at me and the world, and he got in his car to drive to the site. That was the last I saw of him until that fireman's funeral.
Did you talk to him at the funeral? The funeral was so crowded. Since it was my company, I formed part of the honor guard. I was standing on the steps of the church when they came in and out of the church with the coffin. When they came out he was there. He wore his old, faded fire department dress uniform and his poor daughter... leaning on his arm, crying. His grandchildren, very young, looking lost. I didn't feel it was the right time to talk to him.
Now back on the night of September 11th, sitting in the firehouse, a truck pulled up with the name of a town from Pennsylvania on it. They were there to fill in for us for the next couple of days. The night wore on in the firehouse taking phone calls. One fireman's wife kept calling and I knew they had just had a newborn baby-and jump ahead ten years, this kid threw out a ball at Citi Field earlier this summer. Cannizzaro was his last name—but the poor mother was calling and I had to tell her over the phone that her husband was dead. There was another guy who was supposed to be working in 101 truck. His last name was Norris, and at the last minute he switched with one of the guys in the engine. He came up the stairs as I was going down that night and I was so happy to see him. I thought he was dead. I knew his wife was pregnant and they had a young kid. It was probably the happiest I've ever been to see anybody in my life. The night wore on. Around 9:00 a.m. I decided I had to get out of there and I called up a friend who lived in Brooklyn. He picked me up and drive me home. At about 11:00 a.m., I finally saw my family.
Tom McCarthy playing with son Jack the day after the attacks, his arm still in a sling (Tom McCarthy)
Over the next couple of days it was just trying to register what had happened and who was dead. I couldn't do anything because my arm was in a sling. My wife would come into the yard and say they had released new names and I'd say, "I know him," or "I don't know him." The enormity started to come together when I did a quick count. When I hit the mid-60s I stopped. I had 20 years on the job, been in almost every rank and every time you get promoted you bounce around. I knew a lot of guys. Unfortunately, they were all working.
So there were seven people killed in your house altogether? In the actual house, 32 Battalion, there was Engine 202 and Ladder 101. Seven guys from that house were killed. I used to be able to remember their names. It's been 10 years. I'd have to be prompted to remember. Seven guys in that house. I had done three years at the firehouse on 48th street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan. Somewhere in the low-teens is the number of guys killed there. They had a battalion and two companies and lot of off duty guys. I knew a ton of them. We had formed a group of guys who started together with their promotion test, and unfortunately three of those guys who I studied with were killed. I had just been promoted to Chief two years before with seven other guys and three of them were killed. It was just all sorts of overlapping groups of guys who I knew were killed. And that's it.
You haven't really talked about this much before, have you? You know, I don't talk about it much because it's extremely sad. And I'm mildly angry about the things that happened that day and the things that have happened since. I also think at a certain point... 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." 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. There are people who are making money from this or making claims about what they did that day. It's politicized, radicalized. If you could ever find the doctor that treated me that day at Bellevue, I remember what I told him. I'm not a guy who believes in an eye for an eye. I look away from a fight. I said, "I really hope.... I don't know who is responsible for this, but I really hope a whole bunch of people don't get killed because this has happened." I don't pay strict attention to politics, but a lot of what has happened in the last ten years is being blamed on that day. Whether it's a missile strike somewhere, or unemployment. That's why I don't really talk about it that much. People don't want to hear some old guy's stories. But you asked and I'll tell you.
I know I do. I think a lot of people do. I think it's important to hear accounts of that day, and try to deal with its legacy.. Keep asking questions and I'll keep answering them.
You said you were angry about some of the things that happened that day. Are you referring to the upper management? To the average person, you think the fire department shows up at a fire and bunch of guys run in with hoses and axes. You're not supposed to know all the steps, but the fire department trains you how to handle certain situations. For years they talked about how to handle fires in highrise structures. I took them at their word. One of the things I was told was that when you respond as an extra manpower company you will be issued radios and masks when you get there; it's all going to operate like a Swiss watch. It didn't. When I thought about it later, nobody did what they were supposed to be doing. They just allowed everyone to run into there without a master plan. "Let's get in there and we'll figure it out then." All that training, all those stupid books that I spent years reading in order to pass the promotion tests got thrown out the window. The higher officers jumped in their private cars and raced over to the scene so when the buildings did collapse, of those 343 guys who were killed, enough of them were top ranking officers. We lost the guys who should have been like the generals in the army, sitting far back from the lines and directing operations. They were gone. The so-called experts said these buildings would never collapse. They were wrong. And you had a bunch of firemen who had to figure it all out for themselves. The ones who survived did. I was angry with the leadership. I was angry with the guys who claimed to have knowledge they didn't have. I remember a year later thinking that if this happens again, the same mistakes will be made.
Did you take part at all in the 9/11 commission? When they launched the investigation? I was out on medical leave and I completely turned off the fire department in my brain and avoided any attempts by people to reach out to me. What I did take part in was the recovery effort. But I never wanted to go back to that place again. In March 2002, I was asked to go back there and help with cleanup operations. I was involved with that for a month, picking through debris and uncovering bodies.
How did you feel about how Rudy Giuliani handled it in the immediate aftermath, and how he's handled it since—becoming "America's Mayor," bringing up 9/11 at every speech? You've hit the nail on the head. On that day, he was a good leader. He kept his wits about him. he was blindsided as much as anyone else. But as a true politician, within no time he figured out how to make it work for him. For instance, there were a number of funerals that Rudy Giuliani went to, which was very nice of him, but he would give a speech and after the speech he would ask for a round of applause for someone he knew would get a big one. Let's say it was the widow, or the guy himself, or his six year old son—and he'd get a big standing ovation. But it was like it was for Rudy.
A lot of people have called him exploitative. I would agree. I think George Bush used it for his own... I don't dwell on it.
Giuliani has also gotten a lot of criticism about his press ops. He put his command center at World Trade Center and a lot of people have said that was because the press was close by. You know what? Politicians don't get to where they are without thinking things like that from the time they're running for class president in the 3rd grade. I can't fault him for that. I'm trying to draw a line between good solid thinking and exploitation and there is no clear cut line. Giuliani did two things when those planes hit. He did his job as mayor. And whether he consciously thought it or not, he was thinking how he could turn it to his advantage. If you fault him, you have to fault every politician from top to bottom.
Have you participated in any other post-9/11 events? No, after I did the recovery work down at Ground Zero the only thing I participated in was a moment of silence on the one year anniversary. I gave a quick one minute talk and said I think that's it for me on this. What I do is make travel plans for this time every year. I don't know if I turn my back on it, or run and hide from it. I just avoid it. It's taken on a life of its own. I'm not really sure of the facts, but on 9/11 this year they're not letting cops and firemen into the ceremony.
There has been some controversy because they haven't invited everyone. You are going to have controversy. I was there that day. I did what I had to do. I have no interest in going back. I'm glad they didn't invite me because I'd have to come up with an excuse for why I'm not going. But if I'm going to gripe about something: I've been a Beatles fan for the past fifty years and about two weeks after 9/11 Paul McCartney did a concert at Madison Square Garden and invited all cops and firemen. I was out on medical leave, nobody called me up to tell me I had free tickets to a Paul McCartney show! I've developed a layer of cynicism toward any manufactured events commemorating 9/11. Pick up the paper on 9/12. I don't know who will be front and center, but probably some politician with an American flag behind him.
How do you feel about what they have built there now to replace the towers? There's an old cathedral in the middle of Berlin that was destroyed in WWII, and they've left it there as a bombed out shell. It's a memorial to the horrors of war. It's a very good memorial. It's not a carved statue, it's something that was actually devastated by a war. I thought soon after that they should leave that little bit of the tower that I saw when the wind shifted. But I'm sure what they're building there is going to be beautiful, a nice work of art. Though, when I found out they're going to charge $10 or something... I'm not going.
Do you have any feeling about 9/11 Truthers? People who believe in elaborate conspiracy theories? I remember when President Kennedy was assassinated and for years afterward there were conspiracy theorists who were all proven wrong. There are conspiracy theorists for everything. There's always somebody who knows how to stir the pot.
I've heard from certain historians that there is a fear that the events of 9/11, outside of the publicity storm, will be lost among younger generations. You can't lose something you never had. The younger generation doesn't know the thrill of the 1969 Mets. If it didn't happen when you were around, it doesn't have presence for them. Are the events being lost on the younger generation or has the country and the world learned how to deal with it?
Have you talked to your kids about it? Will you? I don't talk to them about it any more or less than I do with anyone else. They were two and four years old at the time. It has faded from their memory. If they ask about it, I would be as open with them as I have been with you. From my fears, to joy and pride I can take in what happened.
Lastly, what are your plans for Sunday? I'm going to be up on Cape Cod! I get out of town. I don't actively ignore. But I'm like an atheist on Christmas. I hope the lady who sells t-shirts that day makes enough money to put her kids through college, and the politician gets plenty of votes. But I also hope everyone doesn't forget all of the people who got very sick from all of this. I hope they don't forget us when we all start coughing our brains out! Sometimes the politicians could be good. If they want to stand there in front and wave the American flag and help the widows, I wish them the best.