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Mike dived under a battalion chief's cherry-red Suburban. "The only way to describe it was like a blizzard, like a quiet blizzard where everything was black," he says. In the rush to exit the building, he had dropped all his oxygen, so he tried to hold his breath until the dark storm passed. When he finally stood up, he saw an abandoned Poland Spring truck and helped himself to a bottle of water to wash the ash and grime from his throat. He looked around for the other men of Engine 28 and then, for the first moment since he left her, thought of his wife. He ran the five blocks north to her office. Like everything else in the dead zone, it had been evacuated.
That morning, just as E.J. was leaving her desk to pick up X rays at 1 World Trade Center, a patient called to schedule an MRI. E.J. was ticking off available time slots when she heard a loud thud, like a large truck running over a grate. There was a gasp and then, "Oh my God! A plane hit the Trade Center," on the other end of the line. E.J.'s first thought was of Mike, and she ran outside to the corner of West Broadway and Duane Street to see if she could catch a glimpse of his engine. What seemed like hundreds of trucks screeched by, but not the one with No. 28 painted on the side. She ran back and forth from her desk for more than an hour, when she suddenly heard a "very loud crackling." The first tower was falling. She and four co-workers ran a few blocks, then turned back and stared. Strangers came together in spontaneous clusters, as they did all over the city. But E.J. heard only one thing they were saying. "Everyone was talking about the firemen," she says. "We saw one guy in his suit covered in ash sitting on a park bench and asked if we could help him, and all he said was, 'Those poor firemen. They were coming up when we were going down.'"
She eventually walked the two miles to Mike's firehouse. Neither the engine nor the ladder had been heard from, and wives were beginning to call and, like E.J., show up at the firehouse. The officers led E.J. into the kitchen and said she should help herself to the bagels Mike had brought that morning. Finally the phone rang, and E.J. heard an officer mutter a crisp, "All right, Mike." She screamed for the phone, to hear Mike's voice for herself. "He said, 'Oh my God, I love you, you're safe,' over and over again," she recalls. "But I wasn't sure it was Mike. It just didn't sound like him."
There has long been a code of silence among fire fighters, a tacit understanding that they "don't bring the fires home." It was true in 1963 when Mike's father Robert went to work for $9,000 a year fighting fires in Brooklyn. And it remained the rule when Mike, 33, gave up his unionized carpentry job to join the department 3 1/2 years ago. At work he unloaded the gory details about the calls he took; he brought home a heavily edited version to E.J.
But Mike clearly could not confine the details of Sept. 11 to the firehouse. The blasts instantly spread to every corner of Mike's immediate orbit. E.J. had seen bodies falling with her own eyes. Mike's brother Jim, a fireman who retired in 1996 because of a bad knee, put on his old uniform and rushed to ground zero to haul debris--as did Mike's tight-knit group of friends, mostly construction workers and policemen.