When the North Tower fell at 10:28 a.m. on September 11, it brought the total number of men and women killed at the World Trade Center to 2,749. In the midst of this carnage a miraculous and inexplicable event took place: Somehow, when the collapse of this mass of 4.4 million square feet of floor space ended, it left a small open space buttressed by fallen concrete and steel. In this space were twelve firefighters, a Port Authority police officer, and a woman named Josephine Harris. Some minutes before the collapse, Captain Jay Jonas and the men of Ladder 6 had come across Josephine as they hurried to exit the tower, knowing that it was about to fall. She was in great distress, taking on one step at a time as she descended, and she pleaded with them, "Help me." At that moment Captain Jonas and his men determined to take this woman with them, recognizing that she could cost them their lives.
When the collapse started, I was on the fourth floor, looking for a chair for the woman we were rescuing, Josephine Harris. She had a serious case of flat feet and could not walk normally. She is a big woman, and taking the stairs was even more difficult for her. It was an agonizing and slow progress, on step at a time. The South Tower had already collapsed; I could not imagine how many people were already dead. It was just a matter of seconds or minutes before this one would begin to fall. We needed a chair to carry her so that we could run out of the building with her.
I didn't realize it at the time, but the guys I had working for me that day really didn't understand what kind of danger we were in. We had met Captain Billy Burke [see page 182] from Engine 21 when we were still going up the stairs, and when we felt some shaking in the building, he said, "you go check the north windows and I'll go check the south windows." We did that, and then we had a conversation. I thought he was going to tell me that a piece fell off the roof, maybe causing a partial collapse in our building. But he said, with kind of a straight face, "The South Tower just collapsed."
Ken Haskell is a New York City firefighter, as was his father. Ken is an expert in rescue techniques and teaches this important lifesaving subject to firefighters all across the country. His two brothers, Tommy and Timmy, were also FDNY firefighters, and both were lost in the mayhem of 9/11.
My father was a marine. In 1969 he joined the New York City Fire Department, starting out with 35 Truck and then moving over to Ladder 174 in East Flatbush. He had an active firefighting career, but he had a minor heart attack in 1979, and so he retired. Afterwards he started his own contracting business, which is how he supported our family, and my brothers and I basically grew up learning the trade. Working with my dad was an invaluable experience to me, for I learned so much from him. He died in 1994, but I still learn from him today.
Timmy was two years older than me, and Tommy was four years older than me. My mother and father had a big family to raise, five kids, all close in age—my sister, Dawn, is the only girl, and then there's also Kevin. Our father was very involved in our lives, in a good way. He was our coach for Little League and football and always taught us things. We lived on the water in Brooklyn, and he'd show us how to take care of a boat and drive it around the bay. He was very comfortable just letting us do our own thing, be ourselves. My father gave us guidance to be the man that he was, but it wasn't as if he ever forced anything on us. I think he would have liked to have seen us all join the marines, because we all knew what the marines did for him, but he never pushed it. It was the same with the Fire Department. His attitude was, Look, guys, when you're ready you've got to take these tests if you want the job. It's a good job. If you don't want it, it's something you can fall back on if whatever else you decide to do falls through.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from A Decade of Hope by Dennis Smith with Deirdre Smith. Copyright (c) 2011 by Dennis Smith