Patrick Connolly (CBA, ’91) whose fire-fighting career had started only a week earlier, was off-duty when he saw flames shooting from the north tower of the World Trade Center. But he immediately suited up and headed into the face of danger. In the hours following the terrorist attacks, Connolly’s email in-box filled with messages from concerned friends. Here are excerpts from the messages he returned to them, chronicling his experiences at “Ground Zero” and expressing gratitude for his friends, family and fellow New Yorkers. Message from Pat: By your receipt of this email, you will all know that I am safe and sound and in my home. That, in and of itself, is a miracle. I honestly thought that I was going to die today at the World Trade Center alongside my brother Brian (also a firefighter), trying to rescue people from this disaster.
I am a NYC fireman as of last week and this Thursday (Sept. 13) was to be my first day of work. I was scheduled to attend a conference this morning (Sept. 12) at the first tower of the World Trade Center to go over terrorist response with the Federal Office of Emergency Management. As fate had it, I was jogging near my house in full view of the World Trade Center when I saw the first tower blow up right in front of me. I ran to Brian’s house and told him what had happened and we decided that we had to get down there. We got our Bunker Gear on and headed to the city. We commandeered an NYPD bus and they took us within three blocks of the World Trade Center. The first tower was already down at this stage and we started to walk toward the standing tower to rescue victims. The scene looked like a war zone. There was three feet of debris, twisted metal, paper and fiberglass everywhere. It was very surreal because it was so quiet.
As we approached the standing tower, Brian said that I should not try to be a hero and to just look out for myself. Then he suggested that we split up so that the two of us would not be lost if tragedy struck. Then we looked up and saw the entire top of the second tower blow up in a 100-foot fireball and debris started falling. The two of us ran back about 20 feet. We then dove headfirst into a doorway cut into the side of a building as debris crashed to the ground. Brian and I were separated and I thought he was dead. I tried to yell his name but couldn’t as the smoke and dust were choking me. There was zero visibility. When I finally was able to scream, he immediately screamed back that he was OK. We decided that we had to get out before a secondary collapse trapped us. So, we opened the door and proceeded north, totally blind in the most surreal setting imaginable. There were mini explosions on all sides of us and then a huge gas main blew up, creating a 30-foot torch. Incredible. We eventually were able to see the slightest glimmer of light and we walked toward it.
About 12 minutes later, we were pretty much in the clear and thankful to be alive. Later, I went back to the scene with my company to try and uncover some firemen and other victims. Words cannot explain the carnage, despair and hopelessness we saw. There were entire fire companies wiped out. The devastation was so great among the fire companies because the World Trade Center call came in at about 9 a.m., during a shift change. As tradition dictates, if a call comes in during the change, firefighters from both shifts will work the call.
You don’t get paid overtime or get any recognition for this. It’s just what you do to make the battle easier for the firefighters and to try to save more people. This is proof of the dedication and loyalty firefighters have for the job and for New York City. Pray for the victims, especially the firemen and their families. Try and understand that as this building was burning and thousands of people were running out, these guys were running in to save people they didn’t even know. The rescue effort continues and I am part of the WTC Task Force that works every day until further notice. The loss for the FDNY is immense and the department is brokenhearted, but not beaten.
The support of people around the world and especially in New York City really has helped shoulder the pain. I have never seen such random acts of kindness by everyone who passes the firehouse, like the executive chefs from the Stanhope Hyatt Hotel who came by unannounced to cook us breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are the hundreds of little kids who have baked, sang and poured lemonade to raise money for the affected firehouses. Children from the NYC Ronald McDonald House made us a banner that says, “We love you Engine 39, and Ladder 16. ” There are more brownies, cakes, clothes, socks and toothpaste in the firehouse than you could ever imagine. One little girl wrote on construction paper, “I am very happy that you helped so many ingered people…and thank you for saveing everyone.” The little spelling errors make you laugh, forget the pain and remember that all is not lost. Think of all the goodness that has come out of this terrible week and how we have all come together to help each other through. It’s amazing how quickly we all realized what is truly important in life. Good night and keep smiling 🙂 –Firefighter Pat Connolly, CBA’91, Engine 39 NY