Family Ties: Michel Martin, Brother Recall Sept. 11

Norman "Mack" McQueen was a firefighter in New York City during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. McQueen speaks to his sister, host Michel Martin, about what he remembers from that fateful day and how his life has changed.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: the Money Coach on preparing for a disaster. But first, like most Americans, I can tell you where I was and what I was doing when the World Trade towers came under attack on September 11th. I was in New York on assignment, heading with a television crew to a downtown location. I remember hearing a radio report that the first tower was hit. We ran into a hotel and crowded around a television in time to see the second plane go into the second tower.

And somewhere in there, I started calling somebody important to me. That was my brother, Norman McQueen. Everybody calls him Mack. He was a member of the Fire Patrol, normally stationed at a house in Greenwich Village. I was lucky. I reached him on the first try, just long enough for him to say, I'm okay. I'll talk to you when I can.

My brother, along with his brother firefighters, worked the pile, as Ground Zero became known, assisting in the recovery, looking for survivors and then, of course, for remains. In the weeks and the months and the years since the attacks, it's actually been difficult to talk about his experience and how that day changed his life.

So I'm pleased to say that today, I'm joined by my brother, Norman McQueen, a former officer with the New York Fire Patrol. And he joins us from our studios in New York. Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. NORMAN McQUEEN (Former Officer, New York Fire Patrol): Hi.

MARTIN: When I reached you, I was surprised that you picked up the phone. Do you remember what was going through your mind?

Mr. McQUEEN: I was watching the news. I was at home that morning when the first plane hit. At that time, nobody knew that it was a terrorist attack. The first reports were that a small plane had hit one of the towers, and it wasn't until the second plane hit that it became apparent that we were under attack.

MARTIN: What did you do?

Mr. McQUEEN: First thing I did was call my wife - my ex-wife now - and told her to go to the nearest firehouse where I was assigned in Manhattan. Then I called my chief, under whose command I was at that time. And he told me to get to the nearest firehouse in Brooklyn so that's what I did.

MARTIN: Why did you want your wife to go to the firehouse?

Mr. McQUEEN: I didn't want her to try to travel or try to cross any bridges or tunnels to get home.

MARTIN: And so you went to the nearest firehouse. And then what happened?

Mr. McQUEEN: Little by little, members came in from off duty as I was, and we got a team together and took a truck into Manhattan.

MARTIN: What was your assignment?

Mr. McQUEEN: Well, I was in charge of six guys, and we just wanted to be unaccounted for members and basically find the missing of our units.

MARTIN: You know, I hate to ask, but were you scared? Because I remember you were the first responder for the first - you remember, the first World Trade Center attack? That was in…

Mr. McQUEEN: Ninety-three.

MARTIN: …93. And I remember you were there for that, and I don't think you went into the building, but I think you were driving a rig, right? So were you nervous going down there?

Mr. McQUEEN: Nobody was really nervous and scared, or it wasn't obvious to me that anybody was scared. It was too - things were moving too fast for anybody, really, to be scared about anything. The full effect of what had happened didn't really sink in.

MARTIN: What did you do when you got down there to Ground Zero?

Mr. McQUEEN: We got the team together, myself and five other guys, and we headed down toward - to the towers. By the time we got there, both towers went down. The only remaining building, I believe, was tower seven, which hadn't collapsed as of yet. And we just walked off into the dust and try to find our missing people.

MARTIN: Did you realize at the time that you would have lost men? That guys would have been - that there were guys from your unit that weren't coming back?

Mr. McQUEEN: I thought that I would lose more than what we'd lost, to be quite frank, because it's just hard to believe that anybody got out that was actually inside the buildings.

MARTIN: Wow. And, of course, you know, I was up in New York for - actually, I remember how long after that, we're all trying to figure out, you know, what we could do. As, you know, as a journalist, we're all trying to do whatever you could do, and I think everybody was scrambling at that time.

But I remember, you know, obviously, you know, I called the parents to tell them you were okay, and - which I was glad I did, because it was very hard to, you know, get cell phone communication through after that, because obviously, the - what's the word I'm looking for? The antennas were on top of the tower, so there was something hard to get through. And I don't think I talked to you again for two more weeks after that. What were you doing all that time?

Mr. McQUEEN: For the first month afterwards, when I was at work, I was on the pile downtown, guess I was just pretty busy trying to hold it all together, hold everybody together. It was a very difficult time for everybody I worked with. We couldn't turn the TV news on, because it just kept showing the buildings go down over and over again. People would stop by the firehouse and want to talk about it, and we really didn't want to talk about it.

MARTIN: I remember you saying that. I remember when I finally got through to you, you said, you know what? I'll talk about anything but that. I appreciate that. But is there anything that we could have done differently to make that easier for you?

Mr. McQUEEN: No, not really. I don't think so. I couldn't think of anything that would make it easier.

MARTIN: What about dad? You know, our father is a retired firefighter. Did you ever talk to him about it?

Mr. McQUEEN: No. No, I didn't.

MARTIN: Why did you think that is?

Mr. McQUEEN: I really don't know. I mean, as I said, I talked about it as little as possible because I was living it 24 hours a day, basically, just couldn't get away from it, couldn't turn the TV on. Anybody I ran into that knew what I did for a living would want to talk about it, and it was just - I think I had talked about it enough, as much as I wanted to at that time.

MARTIN: Did you think that 9/11 changed your life?

Mr. McQUEEN: That definitely changed my life. I have a whole different outlook on life. I'm a little hesitant to make long-range plans about anything. I think that, if there's something you want to do in your life, if there's a vacation that you want to take or some place you want to see, I think you should do it now and not wait for retirement or plan too far ahead. And that's the way I feel about life now. It's kind of hard to think about 30-year mortgages and things like that after seeing what I saw that day and the months after.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to Norman "Mack" McQueen. He's a former officer of the New York Fire Patrol. He assisted in the 9/11-recovery effort.

And you were close to some of the guys who were lost, as I recall. Do you feel like telling me about them?

Mr. McQUEEN: It's a cliché, but they were all basically good guys. They would reach out to help other people without hesitation.

MARTIN: And there were hundreds of firefighters lost down there. I know, I remember, you're mentioning, though, the added dimension of the fact that there aren't that many African-Americans in the department, in the either the New York City Fire Department, or at the time, in the Fire Patrol. I just wondered, was there any additional dimension of that in being African-American and being a minority that you could talk about? There might not be, but I just wonder if there is.

Mr. McQUEEN: I don't want to label everybody, but to some people, 9/11 was an excuse to just hate. I didn't lose a family member. I didn't lose a spouse or child or sister or a brother there. So, maybe I look at things differently, but there were a lot of talks about just nuking Iraq, kill every man, woman, child in Iraq and just, people just hating anybody with a turban on, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. It just gave a lot of people an excuse to hate.

MARTIN: And that was hard for you? Why?

Mr. McQUEEN: Well, being a person of color, I'm less likely to just label a whole people for the acts of a few people. That's not the way I think. That's not the way I was raised. But not everybody's the same.

MARTIN: Did you ever feel you could talk to anybody about it? Did you ever talk to the guys about it, or did you just feel it wasn't worth it?

Mr. McQUEEN: Some people you can reach in with, some people you can't. You cant' teach people how they should feel. I mean, it's just something you can't do, so you just have to ignore it and think for yourself.

MARTIN: As I mentioned earlier, you worked down at the pile for months, as I recall. There's been a lot of reporting about folks developing health problems as a result of the work down there. Has that happened to you?

Mr. McQUEEN: Well, I'm part that of World Trade Center Registry, which tracks the health of the survivors, of people that were down there. It's from by Mount Sinai Hospital here in New York. My last checkup, I was okay, but I know several guys that aren't, that developed that - what they call the World Trade Center cough. So I've been lucky so far. So far, good.

MARTIN: How do you feel about this now? There's been a lot of talk about, you know, we're six years out from 9/11, and it's been an important day. I don't know, it's certainly not a day you can ignore. There are some people who talk about, maybe is it time to move away from some of the commemorations that have continued. How do you feel about that? What do you think about?

Mr. McQUEEN: Well, as I said, I didn't lose a family member. I lost friends, but not family members. So I can understand how they feel. They want to continue to do the memorials. For myself, I hold memorial - a private memorial myself. I will never forget the people. I'll never forget the things that happened down there. But as far as attending any more memorials, I think I've done enough.

MARTIN: Is there anything you'd like people to know about your experience at 9/11 that maybe you haven't been able to tell before, or that you just like people to know, period?

Mr. McQUEEN: One thing I can say is people have this image of New York as being these heartless people. But I saw a lot of good down there. I saw a lot of people really reaching out and helping total strangers that day. On the negative side, the best way to described what I saw down there is one of the early "Planet of the Apes" movies after New York had been blown up, because that's what the Ground Zero looked like. It looked like the whole - all of New York had just been blown to pieces.

MARTIN: Do you think that there will ever come a time when you don't think about it?

Mr. McQUEEN: No. It's one of those things that - it'll stay with me. It'll stay with everybody who's down there who survived it.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for talking to me.

Mr. McQUEEN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Norman "Mack" McQueen is a former officer of the New York Fire Patrol who assisted in the 9/11 recovery effort. He is also my brother. And he joined us from the NPR bureau in New York. Thank you, dear.

Mr. McQUEEN: Say hello to Billy and the babies.

MARTIN: Oh, sure. I love you.

Mr. McQUEEN: I love you, too.

MARTIN: Bye-bye.

Mr. McQUEEN: Bye.

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