The Calmness of Firefighters

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Michael Stein

In 2001, Stein, now 49, was a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York, sent to Ground Zero on Sept. 11. He was promoted to captain that November, but has since retired because of lung problems suffered on 9/11.

I was a lieutenant in R&D for the FDNY. We handled all the life-saving ropes, belts, harnesses and safety equipment in the fire department, so on the morning of Sept. 11 we received a call for assistance when the first plane struck the north tower.

We responded from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and arrived on the northeast side of the complex after the second plane had hit. I remember we got out of the car and started putting our equipment on. We were still getting our gear together to take to the command center right by Building Five when the south tower collapsed. We sought refuge in doorways and under vehicles to get out of the debris field. Then after the dust began to settle, we helped numerous people who were injured into buildings. We proceeded to the north tower to see if we could help people in that tower, and we were just about there when it collapsed. We retreated to Broadway to avoid the debris again. There, we set up a command post, and the chief sent us in as a group to search the debris pile to see if we could find any of our guys who were trapped. But we didn't find anybody. I was down at the site all day and most of the night. In the end we stopped because our eyes were all closed up. We actually went to the hospital, to St. Vincent's, to get our eyes treated. They were clogged with all the dust and debris, our throats and lungs, too. By then it must have been around one in the morning.

How 9/11 Changed My Life

In their own words

The Survivor

• The Burden of The Living
An executive made it to safety, but is wracked with guilt knowing his firefighter brother-in-law did not

The Widow

• Death in the Public Eye
An actress accustomed to exposure is stunned by the very public death of her husband

The Firefighter

• It Was All Part of the Job
A lieutenant with the FDNY survives that day, only to be forced into retirement due to crippling lung problems

The City Councilor

• The War Zone
The politican responsible for the World Trade Center's district went from worrying about potholes to worrying about poisonous air

The Cop

•The Darkest Moment
After spending months raking debris for remains, an NYPD officer finds solace in therapy

The Complete Coverage

The 5th Anniversary of September 11


•Photo Essay: 9/11 First Responders
September 11th has left its mark on these heroes

•Photo Essay: 9/11 The Turning Point
How Americans have tried to commemorate the tragedy across the nation

•Video: Memories In The Landscape
Historian Niall Ferguson looks at the effects of 9/11 from the year 2031

I think what firefighters have that most people don't see is a calmness. They are calm when there's a catastrophe. Where other people would panic and run, they focus and see what they have to do to make a bad situation better. I was a fireman for 25 years so I saw a lot of destruction — nothing to that degree, but you really try to stay focused on what you've got to do. That's what we did then. We just did our jobs.

I probably knew about 50 of the guys who died, and would consider them good friends. I'd worked with a lot of them. You always knew when you went to work that you risked possible injury or death on the job. It's not a safe job that we do. But something like that, seeing the number of guys that died that day and knowing their families and their wives, you think about your own families and how they would react. What if it had been me? You learn to appreciate what you have more.

I don't think 9/11 has changed me very much. After five years I still see it the same way I ever did. But it has taught me to slow down a little bit and appreciate life, to spend a bit more time enjoying the good things that I have. I worked a lot of hours over the years because of where I was assigned. Now I have a little more time, and I try to spend more with my family, as much as possible.

Since 9/11, I've been forced to retire. Pretty much right away I had difficulty breathing because of all the dust and debris at the site. I went to our department doctor and as soon as they took a CAT scan they realized there was something wrong. I have serious lung problems. I retired in 2002, but then came back to the department as a consultant. On Sept. 11 we'd been unable to communicate with the radios we had in the Trade Center because of all the steel and concrete. I invented a radio, the Command Post Radio, that's powerful enough to work in a high-rise or in the subway, but is still portable.

The department has suffered because of 9/11. A lot of the senior people that were there perished, and others — like me — have been forced to retire because of injuries and ailments sustained on that day. The department was always grown out of the fact that you had senior men teaching the younger men. Now with the mass exodus of the older men, you have an input of younger guys who don't have anyone to look to anymore. You also have promotions of a lot of younger guys who aren't always completely confident in themselves because they haven't been to enough fires or incidents, or because they're leading men who have no experience. It compounds.

—As told to Laura Blue

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