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NYC Firefighters Share Memories From Ground Zero
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're doing a series of programs this week relating to September 11th. Today,
we're going to hear from three firefighters. Later, we'll talk with Deputy
Chief Jay Jonas, who was on the fourth floor of the World Trade Center's North
Tower helping rescue a woman when the building collapsed. He'll tell us how he
survived with 106 stories of the North Tower raining down around him.
Jonas is one of the people profiled in the new book "A Decade of Hope," about
first responders and families with loved ones who were in the towers. It was
written by Dennis Smith, a retired firefighter and bestselling author who spent
56 days at ground zero and attended dozens of funerals in the months after the
attacks. Smith will also join us later.
First, we'll hear from Ken Haskell, who is the subject of a chapter in "A
Decade of Hope." He's a New York City firefighter, as was his father and two
brothers, Tommy and Timmy. The brothers died at ground zero on September 11th.
That morning, Haskell was off duty. He was busy refinishing part of his house
when he heard the news and headed right to ground zero.
I recorded this interview with him last week. He couldn't make it to the studio
because he was helping his mother fix up her home after Hurricane Irene, so we
spoke by phone.
Did you know your brothers would be at the World Trade Center, trying to rescue
Mr. KEN HASKELL (New York City Firefighter): Well, I had assumed my brother
Timmy would most likely be there, because he worked in Squad 18, which is in
Lower Manhattan. But he'd also lived in Lower Manhattan, in the Tribeca area.
So he was very close to the proximity of the Trade Center. So I had a big
inclination that he would be there, one way or other.
My brother Tommy was a captain who worked in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I wasn't sure
if either was on duty, but I was less concerned about Tommy actually having to
respond, you know, from such a distance. I didn't actually confirm that they
were working till probably, I guess, 1 or 2 o'clock that morning when I ran
into some people that had responded or seen them responding. And so it wasn't
until about two in the morning that I actually found out they were there and
they were missing.
GROSS: When you got to ground zero right after the towers collapsed, you first
started trying to put out the fire in Building 7. And then you had an instinct
that it was going to fall, so you walked away, and it did. It did fall. And
then eventually, what you took on as your work was looking for the remains of
people who had been trapped in the towers.
When you started doing that job, did you think that your brothers might be in
Mr. HASKELL: Well, obviously, anybody who was there on the scene, you know, had
the realization that there was going to be a tremendous amount of casualties.
One thing that was striking, there wasn't many remains left around the sight.
You know, the whole sight had been reduced to - basically, anything that wasn't
metal was reduced to ash, or completely pulverized, you know, which was really
a true testament to the energy that was created when those buildings fell. You
know, so the likelihood of anybody surviving was minimal. And that was a
realization that set in very quickly for me and gave me a lot of perspective
about how I went about working the first couple of days, you know, the risks I
was willing to take versus the reward that might be out there.
You're always an optimist when you're working situations like that. You're
always hopeful that you're going to be able to help somebody, to, you know,
perhaps save a life. So you're going to continue work, regardless of the
circumstances that are in front of you. And unfortunately, on September 11th,
there just wasn't too many survivors. And that was very apparent, almost
immediately, for anybody that was working the site.
GROSS: You know, you used the word rewards in terms of, like, finding remains.
And it's such a topsy-turvy thing when finding, like, a body or an arm or a leg
is the reward for your work. It's such a gruesome and tragic reward.
Mr. HASKELL: Well, as a professional firefighter, I had a responsibility to my
department and to my job. But I also was dealing with the moral obligation I
had to my family, particularly my brother Tommy's oldest daughter Megan, who at
the time was nine, who, every chance she got, she asked if I was going to bring
her father home, you know. And that really was difficult for me, because I
didn't want to make a promise to my niece that I knew I wouldn't be able to
But, you know, having said that, you still go to work every day and you're
hopeful. And, you know, and I was in a unique position where, knowing that I
was looking for my two brothers, in addition to doing all the other
responsibilities that I had as a fireman at the - you know, during that time,
when I did come across remains, I found myself analyzing what I was looking at,
you know, as I if I might know what my brother's femur might look like, because
that's what I had in my hand, you know.
GROSS: One of your brothers, Tommy, was never found. But the other, Timmy, his
body was found pretty intact.
Mr. HASKELL: Right.
GROSS: How do you think his body managed to remain intact? What kind of
scenario did you create in your mind to explain that?
Mr. HASKELL: Well, you know, when Timmy was found, I was actually underneath
the South Tower, because I would actually alternate my time, parts of the day,
once between the North Tower and once between South Tower, because I knew one
of my brothers were in each. Now, the fact that we were able to recover him was
because Timmy had gotten high in the North Tower - from my understanding, he
was in the upper 30s, close to the 40th floor.
My brother Tommy, you know, having put the pieces of the puzzle together by
asking questions about guys who were in the vicinity of him and his company. I
was able to find out that they were located near the lobby area of the South
Tower at the time when it collapsed. So, really, there was expectation of any
kind of recovery from him or anybody else that was in that portion of the
building, because this - just the radiant heat from all the fires and all the
compression and the - you know, the energy that was created when the buildings
collapsed just pulverized everything at that point.
GROSS: Did it make a difference in how you and your brothers' families and your
mother grieved for them, the difference between having an intact body and
having no remains at all?
Mr. HASKELL: Well, you know, even throughout Timmy's wake and his funeral, you
know, the conversation...
GROSS: Timmy's the brother who was - his body came back. Yeah.
Mr. HASKELL: My brother Timmy, you know, was found in the North Tower. We
recovered him, and we were able to have a funeral. But all throughout his wake
and the funeral itself, there was hopeful talk amongst the families, you know,
whether we were going to recover Tommy or not. We still held onto that
possibility that perhaps we someday would.
You know, as the weeks and months went by, it became obvious that that wasn't
going to happen. So in the November of '01, we decided to go ahead and have a
memorial, because we just felt that it was an appropriate thing to do. And
rather than have a funeral, we had a memorial where a casket was actually there
and everybody was asked to bring something in relation to Tommy or write a note
or put a picture in or something that meant - was meaningful to them, and which
also meant something to my brother. And subsequently, we buried that casket
next to Timmy.
GROSS: Oh. So, in December, you went back to work as a firefighter. And in the
book, you describe your first fire after going back to work in a three-story
frame house that was burning on the second and third floors. And you say that
you felt really apprehensive. And you had something like a clairvoyant moment,
telling you not to go in there. But you went in anyways. Would you describe
what happened after you got in?
Mr. HASKELL: Well, my brother Tommy's daughters and his wife Barbara had always
said that after Tommy was gone, they always felt his presence anytime they saw
a ladybug. And anytime any of the girls had seen a ladybug, no matter where
they were, they would always text me or call me and say, hey, you know, I saw a
ladybug today, and I happened to be thinking of dad at the time. So it kind of
became, you know, a bit of symbolism for them, you know, the way they
memorialized Tommy. And that particular fire, like you said, I did kind of have
a moment of, like, clairvoyance, where, you know, while it was a bad fire, it
It was, you know, similar - I had been in similar situations before, gone in,
done my searches and helped fight the fire without incident, but there was
something telling me not to go in there, and it's - you know, I went into the
apartment real quick. I was able to get into one bedroom of the apartment real
quick, and rather than go through the public hallway or make my way further
into the apartment, like I normally would have, I just decided to just go back
to the ladder.
I went back down, was going to make my way around, find another way to get back
in, and then part of the parapet, the front of the building, collapsed and took
out the ladder I was on, and in the room I just left flashed over.
So I went about fighting the rest of the fire, and afterwards, I was sitting on
a stoop across the street, just having a drink of water, and I was kind of
reflecting on what had happened. And as I went to raise the glass to my mouth
to take a sip of the water, there was a ladybug on my hand.
So I really think - that really struck me, you know, in a way that I hadn't
heard the story or had that relation with the ladybugs and the girls, I
probably wouldn't have thought anything of it. I probably would have swatted
the bug away, you know. But in that situation, it was like, looked up to the
sky and said hello to my brother and thanked him, you know.
So you felt like somehow your brother had kind of told you to get out of the
building right before your ladder burned and the parapet collapsed where you
Mr. HASKELL: Yeah.
GROSS: Was there ever a part of you that thought you can't still be a
firefighter because two of your brothers had died at the World Trade Center on
9/11. You were the only remaining son your mother had. You'd seen one of your
brother's wives become a widow. Did you ever think, like, I really can't go
back and do that because I have to - I have to make sure I don't die in the
fire for the sake of my family?
Mr. HASKELL: You know, I had thought about that and not so much concern for
myself but for my wife and for my mother, obviously. But it was quite the
opposite for me. I felt more of a responsibility to give to the department
after my brothers were killed. I mean, it's how I was raised in the department,
you know. It's the traditions that we have, you know.
You really - I always took that to heart. I felt a great responsibility. I love
the job. It's provided, you know, a great career for me, and I felt a
responsibility to stay on because we lost so many guys, and I knew we'd be
hiring a lot of young guys, and there would be â there would be, you know, a
need for senior guys to help these guys, to show them the way.
You know, I actually, after my brothers were killed, I actually transferred to
a busier firehouse than the one I'd been working at at the time. So not to say
that, you know, I enjoy taking chances, or I'm hooked on the danger. I mean, I
do love the job still. I'm most happy when we're busy and when we're doing
things. But it really came from a sense of respect for the job and almost a
sense of obligation that I felt personally to give back in the spirit the way,
you know, in the way that Tommy and Timmy served and the other 341 firefighters
that we lost within the FDNY.
I mean, those guys are the true symbolism of heroism and commitment, and I have
a tremendous amount of respect, you know, for the legacy that they left.
GROSS: Well, Ken Haskell, I want to thank you for the work that you do.
Mr. HASKELL: Thank you. Nice talking to you, Terry, and take care.
GROSS: Ken Haskell is a New York City firefighter and is one of the people
profiled in the new book "A Decade of Hope." After a break, we'll talk with
Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York Fire Department. He was on the fourth
floor of the North Tower when it collapsed. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I still don't really understand how my next guest survived the collapse
of the World Trade Center's North Tower. Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York
Fire Department was a captain on 9/11. He led his men up the stairs of the
North Tower trying to rescue people. After the South Tower collapsed, he
decided to lead his men back down the stairs, assuming the North Tower's demise
But on the way down, they found Josephine Harris, who could barely walk.
Knowing that rescuing her would slow them down and increase the chance that all
die in the collapse, Jonas decided to take her with them. When they got to the
fourth floor, the tower fell. Jonas was trapped with 12 firefighters, five
under us command, one port authority officer and Josephine Harris.
Chief, you knew you were risking your men's lives and your own life to rescue
Josephine Harris and that the odds were you wouldn't save her either because
she was so slow, and the building was on the verge of collapse, and you were,
what, on the 27th floor?
Deputy Chief JAY JONAS (New York Fire Department): Yeah, we were on the 27th
floor when the South Tower collapsed. That was our big indicator for us to make
GROSS: So how did you decide to stop for her, knowing it meant you would all be
leaving very slowly, probably too slow to get out?
Deputy Chief JONAS: Well, it was a lot easier decision for the firefighters
under my command, because they didn't really know that the South Tower had
collapsed - didn't know that until later. We experienced the - you know, all
kinds of earthquake-like rumbles. Our building swayed back and forth and the
lights went out for 30 seconds. And it wasn't really apparent what that was.
And there as another captain on the 27th floor, Billy Burke, the captain of
Engine 21. And I told Billy, you go check the south windows, I'll check the
north windows, and we'll come back here. And I kind of felt that a piece of our
building had just collapsed, that's why our building move so violently.
And he just looked at me and said, the South Tower collapsed. And I didn't
realize it, but my firefighters under my command didn't hear the conversation
with Captain Burke and myself, and I just looked at them and said: OK, if that
one can go, this one can go. It's time for us to get out of here.
And they looked at me a little quizzically, because they had just climbed 27
floors with 100 pounds of gear on their backs, and I said let's go. It's time
to retreat. And we were actually making pretty good time going down the stairs,
and once we made it to the 20th floor, we saw Josephine Harris standing in the
doorway and she was crying.
And my guys stopped, and one of my firefighters, Tommy Falco, turned around to
me and said, hey Cap, what do you want to do with her? And it was - how can I
put this? Every fiber in my being was screaming at me to get out of this
building. Every second that we waste was one second closer to us not getting
out of the building. But that's not what firemen do. We were there to save
peoples' lives. That's the whole purpose for us climbing those stairs was to
And that culture, that firefighter culture, overtook whatever personal need I
felt to get out of the building. And I said OK, let's stop and we'll save this
woman. And it seems like it was a monumental decision at the time, but there
was a true spirit of altruism within the building, and, you know, it was the
right thing to do.
There was a lot of other firemen who were in that building who were doing
similar things to what we were doing.
GROSS: So since she had such trouble walking, how were you trying to get her
down the stairs?
We took her arm, one of her arms, and put it around one of my firefighter's
shoulders, and - Billy Butler's shoulders - and all the other firefighters in
my company took some of Billy's tools and equipment, and we were actually
carrying her down the stairs, hoisting her, you know, that way.
It wasn't until we got to the fourth floor - was when she couldn't even support
her own weight anymore. She fell to the floor, and she started yelling at us to
leave her. That's when I decided to break into the fourth floor to look for a
sturdy chair that we could have put her on, and we can pick her up with her in
the chair, and we could run with her.
And the fourth floor was not an office floor. So it didn't have any chairs. So
I was way on the other side of the building when I just thought to myself,
well, we're just going to have to drag her down the stairs. And I started
running back to the stairway.
GROSS: At what point did the building start collapsing?
Deputy Chief JONAS: Just before I made it back to the stairway on the fourth
floor. That's when the collapse of the North Tower started.
GROSS: So were you separated from the other men?
Deputy Chief JONAS: Matt Komorowski was waiting for me on the landing, and
everybody else was on the next flight of stairs going down, before they got to
The vibration was so violent that they all fell to the ground. Matt Komorowski
was actually picked up by the air currents that were being created from the
compression of air inside the building with the collapse coming down, and he
actually got thrown down about two and a half flights of stairs.
So I dove for the stairway, and I just covered up as best I could.
GROSS: So you made it into the stairway.
Deputy Chief JONAS: I made it into the stairway, made it to the landing of the
GROSS: Can you explain how in the world you managed to survive when the North
Tower collapsed on top of you? You were on the fourth floor.
Deputy Chief JONAS: The only thing that I can offer as an explanation is that
the two buildings collapsed in two different ways. The South Tower collapsed
differently than the North Tower. The South Tower collapsed, it kind of leaned
over first, and then it collapsed. Because the way the plane hit it, it created
a plane of weakness, you know, similar to the way you would cut a piece of
sheet rock or something like that.
The North Tower collapsed the way it was designed to. You know, they â these
people think that it could fall over like a tree. Well, that's not true.
They're not designed to be loaded like that. It actually collapsed in what's
called a pancake fashion. And the building actually just kind of peels away,
similar to the way you would peel a banana, and we were the banana.
We were in the geographic center of that building, and everything just kind of
fell outward and down. If you were a little higher than I was, the stairway was
intact up to the fifth floor. So you would survive if you were up on the fifth
floor, but if you were on the ground floor, you wouldn't survive because the
weight of everything coming down would have crushed you.
So you kind of had to be where we were, somewheres between the first floor and
the fifth floor.
GROSS: Could you just describe what you experienced as the tower collapsed on
top of you?
Deputy Chief JONAS: Well, it started out, the floor started to move. And the
distance the collapse started about 1,300 feet away, the sound was off in the
distance. And it got louder as it got closer. And you could hear the floors
hitting the other floors, and every time that happened, it created tremendous
vibration in the stairway. And you could also hear the sound of twisting steel
all around you.
And it got louder as the collapse got closer, and the vibration got more
violent as it got closer, as well.
Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department will be back in the
second half of the show. He's one of the people profiled in the new book "A
Decade of Hope" by retired firefighter Dennis Smith. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with
Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department. On September 11th,
he was on the fourth floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower when it
collapsed. He was trapped with 12 firefighters, five under his command, a Port
Authority officer, and a woman they were trying to rescue named Josephine
Harris. When we left off, he described what it was like when the 106 stories
above him fell.
Were you shocked that you were alive after the collapse was over?
Mr. JONAS: Yeah. My first thought initially was that I didn't get my men out.
That was my first thought, that I had failed them. And I just covered up as
best I could and hoped for the best, and then the collapse stopped. And we were
coughing and gagging and trying to get pieces of debris out of our mouths and
our noses, our eyes. And my first thought was all right, I wonder who else is
And I gave out a roll call and my, all of my people were accounted for. And we
had a, you know, I didn't know Josephine's name at the time. I said what about
the woman? And they said yeah, the woman is still here. She is alive. So our
initial thought was OK, we're alive. Let's dust ourselves off and continue down
the stairway. And word came quickly from down below that we couldn't get out
from down below. So that's when we started our survival mode, I guess.
GROSS: How did you get out?
Mr. JONAS: Eventually, like about four hours later, the smoke and dust cleared
enough outside where all of the sudden some sunshine started to hit the
stairway where we were. And all of a sudden I could see a pencil-width beam of
sunlight hit the stairway. And I looked up and I see a little sliver of blue
sky. And we were in the dark most of the time. So all of a sudden I realized
that there used to be 106 floors over our heads and now I see blue sky. I said
well, we're on top of the World Trade Center.
GROSS: Oh wow. You mean you're saying at this point the fourth floor was like
the top floor because everything had collapsed beneath you?
Mr. JONAS: Yeah. Yeah. And it was at that point that we were able to with the
additional light, we were able to figure out that we could reach a hole in the
rubble and work our way out.
GROSS: So you climbed out through what had become the top of the World Trade
Mr. JONAS: Yeah, Yeah. The fourth floor at this point, because the rubble pile
at that point was about four stories tall, about 40 feet high. So we
essentially went out sideways and then down a little bit and then the rubble
was very uneven. You know, so but right at that point, right where the B
stairway was it was about four or five stories tall.
GROSS: So when you escaped the collapsed tower of the World Trade Center did
you allow yourself to experience the elation of surviving or was your heart too
heavy, knowing about how many people had not gotten out of those towers?
Mr. JONAS: Well, my first thought once I exited the rubble and I actually saw
what it looked like outside, we really didn't know what it looked like outside,
you know, just we were trying to get a visual from talking to different people
over the radio. But once I saw the complete devastation my first thought was oh
my God, I can't believe that I survived this.
And you want to be happy but, you know, you can't. Later in the day when I was
being treated at an ambulance, one of my guys was talking to me. Tommy Falco
was talking to me. He says, hey Cap, how many guys you think we lost here
today? And I stopped and I thought about it and I looked around and I says oh
Tommy, I don't know, maybe a couple hundred. And then I caught myself when I
said that. I said what the heck did I just say? Prior to that day our biggest
life loss was in 1966, we lost 12 firemen in the 23rd Street collapse. And I
just - and I just said the words a couple hundred. And it turns out I was off
by almost double, you know.
So it was hard to feel any sense of joy or accomplishments or anything like
that, that looking out and knowing how much pain and grief that's going to be
going on out there. Soon after I spoke to Tommy Falco, one of the - there was a
guy who was one of my contemporaries, Jimmy Ritchies, came up to me he said
Jays, I heard your radio transmissions. Congratulations. He says that was
unbelievable. That was one of the most dramatic things I've ever heard. And I
said, thanks, it's good to be out. And then he said by the way, did you see
Engine 4 today? And I thought to myself, Jesus, what an odd question. And I
thought about it and I said, no, I can honestly say I didn't see Engine 4
today. And he said, oh. He said my son was working in Engine 4 today. And that
hit me like a ton of bricks that this is going to be monumental, the amount of
grief and suffering.
You know, you had so many father and son and brothers within the fire
department that this is going to be monumental in scope as far as grief and
GROSS: You say in the book that you don't like it when people say to you: You
survived because God was with you. Why don't you like it when people say that?
Mr. JONAS: Well, first of all it's a little pompous to say that you are a
miracle, you know. But second of all, by them saying that God was with me that
day you're also kind of saying that God was not with them that day, and that's
certainly not the case. You know, I think of the one radio transmission between
Chief Pete Hayden and Captain Paddy Brown. Chief Hayden is talking to him as
we're coming down the stairs and I'm hearing this over the radio. Pete Hayden
is calling Captain Paddy Brown on the radio. He says Command Post to Ladder 3,
get out of the building. Get out of the building. And Paddy Brown gets on the
radio and he says I refuse the order, which is unbelievable, you know, that
somebody would say that. He says I refuse the order. I'm up here on the 44th
floor and I've got too many burnt people with me. I'm not leaving them. You
know, it still sends shivers up my spine hearing that. And...
GROSS: I take it he did not survive.
Mr. JONAS: No. Paddy Brown, all the men from Ladder 3 and all the people that
they were treating all died in the collapse.
GROSS: You say in the book that whenever you go to work you always have in the
back of your mind the possibility that this could be the last day of your life.
Why have you continued to do the work that you do and put yourself in the
position of experiencing that kind of possibility every working day?
Mr. JONAS: Well, it's hard not to feel that way after seeing all the death and
destruction down there, that this could happen again. And it's hard not to feel
that way but I wanted to be a fireman my whole life and I'm doing something
that I want to do and I'm very happy to still be doing. So I don't want to have
somebody chase me away from something that I love to do.
GROSS: Did your family ask you to give up the work after September 11?
Mr. JONAS: No, they never did. My children went through different bouts of
anxiety with it, but no, they never did ask me to leave.
GROSS: You were on medical leave for a while afterwards. What were the problems
that you were having?
Mr. JONAS: I was on medical leave for a month. I actually went to, went full
duty on October 11th and my eyes were injured, I had a twisted ankle, my
breathing wasn't the best and, you know, just the high levels of stress and
anxiety that they just says you could stay out as long as you want. And I says
well, how long does it take for the adrenaline to leave your system? I asked
her something like this. She said about a month. And I said all right, I'll
take the month.
GROSS: And that was enough?
Mr. JONAS: Well, yeah. And I got promoted to battalion chief five days after
September 11th. So all my comfort zone was now gone. So I no longer had my own
firehouse again. I had a different rank and I had different responsibilities.
So all during that time I was...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JONAS: ...stressing out what I was going to do when I went back to work.
And my first tour in I was driving to Coney Island and I had my first fire that
night after September 11th. And once I went to the fire, all the anxiety was
gone, all the stress was gone, that I felt most at ease, you know, during a
GROSS: Like you knew what to do and all of your automatic responses just kicked
Mr. JONAS: Well, it's something that we've trained our whole adult lives to do
and it's something that we do very well. And, you know, went to the fire. It
was a fire in a high-rise housing project and the fire went out. Nobody got
hurt. And it was just something in the back of my mind that says, you know
what? This is going to be OK. We'll survive this.
GROSS: My guest is Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department.
He's one of the people profiled in the new book "A Decade of Hope." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Deputy Chief Jay Jonas, who is a
firefighter profiled in the new book "A Decade of Hope: Stories of Grief and
Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends." And also with us is the author of
the book Dennis Smith.
So let me ask you both. Dennis Smith, you were at ground zero for over 50 days
trying to help out there. And Chief Jonas, you were in the North Tower when it
collapsed. But then you took off a month and returned to work in a different
area. So you both had good reason to feel long-time aftereffects of the impact
of 9/11 - physical aftereffects I'm talking about. So have either of you had
long-term medical problems? You know, breathing, headaches, other physical
Mr. SMITH: Well, you know, Terry, in the book, I interview Dr. David Prezant
who is the chief medical officer for EMS in the fire department. And he's a
lung specialist. He says just a great guy. Everybody loves him. He was there.
He got knocked over. He got thrown. He got covered deep, almost died. But he -
I interviewed because he does know about the health problems that grew from
9/11. Thirteen months to the day, October 11, 2002, I was diagnosed with throat
cancer. And so then I went through a period - I lost 60 pounds. I went through
a period of extraordinary radiation for 30 straight days, a very difficult
time. And then I got through that and then, you know, a year later I got
diagnosed with chronic obstructed pulmonary disease. And so that will never go
away, you know, that will always be with me. And...
(Soundbite of clearing throat)
Mr. SMITH: ...I'm clearing my throat all the time and coughing, I apologize,
but that is from that day. As Chief Jonas can tell you, you know, he's been in
a lot of fires in his life prior to 9/11 and said no one had ever experienced
smoke like that smoke that existed on 9/11. And you knew that this was harmful
and that it would have consequence and there was not much that Chief Jonas
could do about it. And in that morning when everyone else responded to the
scene, there were just not enough masks to go around. There was no way to
protect yourself really, but no one really thought that much about protecting
themselves because of the - what everybody knew was in front of them.
So the health problems are pretty significant. And, you know, among my personal
friends there's a lot of cancer and a lot of pulmonary problems.
GROSS: And Chief Jonas, what about you? Have you had long-term health problems?
Mr. JONAS: My breathing isn't what it used to be. I can feel a difference on a
very cold day, a very humid day, I find myself laboring to breathe.
GROSS: And anything else?
Mr. JONAS: No. Thatâs it so far.
Mr. JONAS: You know, we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
GROSS: I hope it doesn't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JONAS: And, you know, you can't really have witnessed all that we witnessed
and see as many people as we have come down with chronic diseases and or worse,
people who have died with secondary effects from the World Trade Center, and
not anticipate that the other shoe is going to drop sooner or later.
GROSS: You both...
Mr. SMITH: And you know, Terry?
Mr. SMITH: I was going to say that I interviewed so many people who - in this
book - who were not first responders. The first responders have, I mean it's
almost predictable, their health problems, and they had an awful lot of
psychological problems as well, you know, and there need to be a lot of
intervention therapy for the families of so many people who died, you know.
There was such extraordinary stress in those families, and such psychological
pain, because, you know, you lost somebody that you loved dearly and who was
very important to the, you know, in many cases, extremely important to the
economy of that family. And when they were gone, they suffered that absence in
such a way that it caused really serious psychological problems.
GROSS: You both know a lot of people who died on September 11th. You both know
a lot of people who have chronic health problems as a result of it, and Dennis
Smith, you are one of those who has chronic health problems as a result. And
Chief Jonas, you do too, though not as severe. I'm wondering if 9/11, and all
of the aftermath that youâve witnessed, have changed the way you see the
meaning or the lack of meaning in life?
Mr. SMITH: That really is a question for Chief Jonas, honestly. You know, I
have never met anybody in my life who has been through what he has been through
Mr. JONAS: Meaning of life? Hmm. Hmm. Hmm. I really have no regrets of any of
my actions on that day, even though we took extraordinary risk. And if I did
die that day, I would have died doing something that I love and helping out my
fellow man. So the meaning of life: Just live life to its fullest and help
other people and that's it. You know, thereâs, try not to be so self-absorbed
and try to seek out things that you can do to make a difference in somebody
GROSS: Let me just pick up on something you said, try not to be self-absorbed.
How do you keep the memories of that day - of the tower collapsing on top of
you - how do you keep that stuff from haunting you?
Mr. JONAS: Well, I continue to have, like, a little revelations of the day,
even almost 10 years later. Like I remember seeing a documentary on the
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and them describing how people were jumping
out of that. And I stopped and thought about that. I says well, I wonder how
many people jumped while I was climbing the stairs? You know, just thinking
about little things like that.
People have asked me how I, do I have survivor's guilt or things like that. I
really don't, because I was doing what everybody else was doing. We were in
there with the best of intentions, to try to save someone and we were able to
do that. We were able to bring one person out in addition to ourselves. And,
you know, she became essentially the reason why we were there. And so it â it
doesn't really haunt me? No. And, you know, like I'll go down to the World
Trade Center site now and people kind of dance around me and say, boy, you must
have a little anxiety of being around here. I says no, I really don't. It looks
nothing like it did that day and, you know, it is hallowed ground, but it
doesn't haunt me at all. No.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us and thank you
for the work you do the work that you've done. I wish you both well. Thank you.
Mr. SMITH: Thank you, Terry.
Mr. JONAS: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Deputy Chief Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department is one of
the people profiled in the book "A Decade of Hope" by retired firefighter
Dennis Smith. You can read an excerpt of "Decade of Hope" on our website,
Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg responds to a question heâs often asked:
How did September 11th change our language?
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
No Language Legacy: Where's The September 11th Vocab?
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
Ten years later, how have 9/11 and its repercussions changed our language? Not
as much as people expected, says our linguist Geoff Nurnberg.
GEOFF NUNBERG: They were instant cliches, but they needed saying anyway.
September 11th was our Pearl Harbor. It would change the way we think and
create a new normal. It defined a generation. And from the beginning, people
looked to the language to bear witness to how utterly differently we were
seeing the world.
Ten years later, it's not so clear. I've been making a list of all the words
I've been tracking since 2001 that were connected to 9/11 and its
repercussions. Itâs a jumble: axis of evil and the army you have, cakewalk,
coalition of the willing and connect the dots, dead or alive and don't touch my
junk, evildoers and enhanced interrogation. But the one thing that jumps out at
me is how ephemeral they are. Most have already disappeared, and apart from
9/11 itself, few of the rest will be around a decade from now.
Of course, buzzwords come and go. But it's striking that 9/11 and its
aftereffects have left almost no traces in the language of everyday life.
Shortly after the attacks, the Washington Post reported that teenagers were
calling a punishment a jihad, and describing hot salsa as weapons-grade. I'm
dubious, to put it mildly, but if anybody ever did use those words, they didn't
catch on. Nor did we pick up on any of the pungent slang of the soldiers
serving in war zones, like embrace the suck for deal with it, or Casper for a
goldbricker who disappears when there's work to be done.
That's the big linguistic difference between 9/11 and World War II. That war
left a vast legacy in the American vocabulary - beachhead, blitz, blockbuster
and blood bath; boondocks, blackout and brown-nose, just to name some of the
I know. It's not a fair comparison. In World War II, just about every family
had someone in the service, and the war affected the lives of everybody on the
home front - the rationing and scrap metal drives, the women pouring into the
workforce, the families pulling out their world atlases to listen to the news
on the radio.
Yet even Vietnam contributed more items to the language than 9/11 has,
including some that were recycled over the last decade, like hawks and doves,
stay the course and light at the end of the tunnel.
But wars could only have that kind of broad effect on the language when they
reached so deeply into the life of a people that they created a common point of
reference. At that point it felt natural to use military words like
blockbuster, beachhead and flak as metaphors for everyday experience.
That didn't happen here. In those first days Americans were desperate to do
something to help. People drove across the country to lend a hand at Ground
Zero, lined up to give blood, collected food and clothing. It was heart-
warming, but as it turned out, it wasn't really necessary: This war wasn't
going to have much of a home front. In fact, if you were lucky enough not to be
one of the few people whose lives were devastated, then by the weird logic of
terrorism, you could be most helpful by not doing anything different at all.
The patriotic thing to do, the president told us, was just to go to Disney
World as planned.
I think of that absurd but telling phrase that appeared just after the attacks:
If we cancel the party or don't send the marching band to the Rose Bowl, then
the terrorists win. Everybody knew it was a rationalization; al-Qaida weren't
gnashing their teeth at the thought that Ellen DeGeneres would be hosting the
Emmys as scheduled. And by November the phrase was a joke. The New Yorker ran a
cartoon by J.C. Duffy that showed a man in a bar saying, I figure if I don't
have that third martini, then the terrorists win.
Yet people kept using the phrase anyway. It helped them or their customers
square their consciences, as it became clear that in the period that followed
this new Pearl Harbor, only a few people would be called on to do the serious
sacrificing. For the rest of us, the actual hardship would chiefly extend to
having to leave for the airport an hour earlier.
Even after the dissipation of that sense of common purpose, people didn't tune
everything out. We were still anxious and concerned, both terrorism and about
the war on it, even if now those were a focus of contention more often than of
unity. And we were all grateful to the five or 10 percent of Americans,
civilian and military, who had chosen to put 9/11 and its consequences at the
center of their lives - though now, of course, supporting the troops was less
arduous than it was in World War II, when it involved giving up some Saturdays.
But when the dust cleared, 9/11 was no longer uppermost in our thoughts. When
the American Dialect Society voted on the word of the decade in 2010, 9/11 came
in a distant third behind Google and blog. It's hard to argue with that ranking
- the Internet has gotten a lot more of our attention than 9/11 over the last
decade, and it has given us a lot more new words. If there's any difference
between the new normal and the old, you couldn't tell it from the way we talk.
GROSS: Geoff Lundberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at
the University of California at Berkeley.
You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Journalist Alissa J. Rubin spent most of the last 10 years reporting on
the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She's now the Kabul bureau chief for The New
On the next FRESH AIR, she talks about disturbing trends in Afghanistan, the
prospects for peace in Iraq, and how September 11th changed her life.
(Soundbite of music)
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