The flag this morning flies at half-staff in front of Engine Company 224 in Brooklyn. It’s 08:35 a.m., Wednesday, September 11, 2013, 10 minutes from the exact anniversary of the chaos that enveloped the city. I am with my cousin Al and the other firefighters at his station.
The wind is near still, the air is hazy and thick, the sky is bright.
In the middle of the memorial ceremony the alarm rings for an emergency somewhere in the city. The firehouse doors open and I watch the five-man crew scurry aboard Engine 224, the station’s only fire truck. The backup-man stops stroller traffic on the sidewalk, another fireman is road guard. The time is now 08:45 a.m. The engine clears the bay and firefighters in full gear hop aboard. One is still wearing the creased blue dress uniform shirt he’d had on for the ceremony under his fire retardant jacket. This is the first call on September 11 in the five years since Al has been a member of the company. The engine pulls out, and, like every other alarm that these men race to, there is no guarantee of their return.
On September 11, 2001, the alarm rang and the chauffeur, as the engine’s driver is called, took the Brooklyn Battery tunnel into the city and toward the towers.
I remain at the station and as the engine pulls away the remaining men of the company start coming out to the street in their Class A uniforms. They stand shoulder to shoulder. “08:46 a.m. Flight 11 impacts tower one” comes over the loudspeaker. We observe a moment of silence. The whole neighborhood seems to do the same. For a moment everything is still. Hicks Street comes to attention. People on their stoops stand. People walking along the sidewalk silently hold their place. Cars stop. The sanitation men turn off their truck’s engine. I close my notebook and put my pen in my pocket and stand near the firemen.
The guys ask me if I’d like to share breakfast. We have a good spread, they say. I say yes and thank you, and we walk back inside to the kitchen. The bay is empty. Engine 224 is still out responding to the alarm. There are bagels and bacon, potatoes, and coffee. I’m offered coffee and warned with a smile that it’s no good. I’m given french-vanilla creamer to sweeten it. Al and I get a slice of bacon each and for a moment let our attention drift to the television where the people reading the names of the victims are only just getting to letter C.
08:57 a.m., Engine 224 is back from the alarm.
“09:03 a.m. Flight 175 hits tower two.” The firemen stand silent in formation. A taxi driver stops his car, gets out, and salutes. Traffic is still dense along Hicks Street but no one rushes him. “The next one is 09:37” someone says. In the firehouse, the guys talk about how much time it takes to burn off a 1,000 calorie steak. “An hour and a half,” Rick says. “09:37 a.m. Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon.” We observe a third moment of silence.
Al and I talk about whether people have free will or whether life is predestined. We generally agree. Neither of us can understand, though, the type of individual who could wake up one morning and go off and kill innocence. We talk about Newtown. He tells me about attending the funeral of one of the children killed there. I mention where I was the evening I heard. We talk about evil and whether humans are capable of transcending our limitations. He touches my shoulder. “09:59 a.m. Tower two has fallen.” We wait the four minutes. “10:03 a.m. Flight 93 has crashed in Pennsylvania.”
Al asks me if later, after the last moment of silence, I will head up to Engine 205/Ladder 118 with him. I say yes. Their house is a few blocks north and sometimes Al gets tasked to them. We head back inside to the kitchen.
I notice a yellow Nerf gun–like toy on the couch inside the firehouse. I pick it up. A fancy fly swatter. It shoots salt at flies. It’s a novelty and no one seems to know how it got to the kitchen other than that it just showed up one day. I pump it and salt shoots across the couch onto someone’s blue sweater. By 10:28 a.m. we’ve all made our way back to the front of the station. “10:28 a.m. Tower one fell.” After the quiet we walk the few blocks to Engine 205/Ladder 118’s house in small groups. Al and I walk together. He tells me there’s an image in 205’s kitchen he wants me to see.
Al is the oldest of my paternal cousins. I am the second oldest. We’ve both served but as we walk I am struck by the nobility of the man and his profession.
Outside of Engine 205/Ladder 118 Al introduces me to a few of the guys. Everyone I meet smiles deeply, extends their hands and we shake. Inside the firehouse a memorial has been erected for the eight men who died at the Trade Center. FF Leon Smith, Lt. Robert Regan, FF Scott Davidson, FF Joey Agnello, FF Vernon Cherry, FF Pete Vega, Lt. Robert Wallace, Capt. Martin Egan. In the kitchen Al takes me and two of the new firefighters over to look at the photo he had mentioned earlier. Ladder 118 looks small on the Brooklyn Bridge; in the foreground both towers billow soot. I’m silenced by the enormity of the mission facing the men in the truck: how do you will yourself to go into that? I ask. One of the firefighters shakes his head; another is quiet. I turn to Al for the answer: “That’s the job.”