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The first and second alarms sounded in unison at 8:47 at firehouses across lower Manhattan. The third was transmitted at 8:48 as a 10-60, code for a major emergency. No fourth alarm was necessary; at 8:56 the blaze was upgraded to a five-alarm fire. Because the night tour was just then being relieved, two shifts of men were milling around most firehouses, bantering about the morning's headlines (AIR WE GO AGAIN, blared the New York Post about Michael Jordan's comeback) and the previous evening's calls. That meant that double the men were on hand to respond.
The noise of the first crash traveled two miles north to the Alphabet City firehouse that is shared by Engine 28 and Ladder 11. In good humor as always, Mike was sitting in the front office joking with guys changing shifts when the computer spit out the white slip of paper summoning Engine 28. The six men of Ladder 11 suited up and waited for their slip. Michael Cammarata, 22 and still living in his parents' basement, dialed his father. "Tell everybody I'm all right," he said. Lieut. Michael Quilty, the senior officer on the ladder, called his wife to say a quick "Hello, I love you." Then he called the dispatcher to say his unit didn't want to wait any longer. Ladder 11 was assigned to the second tower.
Mike remembers what followed only in spurts. The engine, which typically barrels straight to the scene, was doing a strange, slow zigzag as it approached the Twin Towers. When he climbed out he saw why: the street was already littered with bodies that had fallen from the sky. The fire fighters entered the lobby of 1 World Trade through blown-out windows and waited for their orders from senior officers at a desk that served as a makeshift command center.
While other squads extract people from burning buildings or handle hazardous materials, the sole job of an engine company like Mike's is to lay the hose to douse the flames. The members of Engine 28, each hauling more than 100 lbs. of gear, were dispatched directly to the scene of the blaze. Mike was in the control position that day, which means he was charged with carrying a spare canister of oxygen and a leather pouch of tools to connect the hose to the internal water pipes that run up the spines of skyscrapers.
A kind of eerie order presided in the stairwell. People were perspiring from the heat, but they were filing down calmly. Some, as if they were on the sidelines at a road race, even stopped to hand the fire fighters bottled water. "I have no idea how much time had passed," Mike says, "but we were up around floor 28 when it seemed like someone had grabbed hold of the towers, like King Kong was shaking the two towers." Within seconds, the call to evacuate came over the bullhorn. The members of Engine 28 turned and charged down the stairs. They lingered, breathless, in the lobby for an instant as some companies, ignoring the order, continued to run into the building. Roy Chelsen, a fireman with Engine 28, yelled, "We have to get out. Run!" Then King Kong returned.