“Roger that; fire in the World Trade Center. Is this confirmed?”
“Yes, this is confirmed. Repeat: all available units to lower Manhattan: World Trade Center.”
The ride down through Manhattan was quiet, wailing sirens the only thing to break the silence. Inside the engine no one spoke; each man alone in his thoughts. Outside throngs of people either flocked northwards or stood frozen, staring up at a point high in the air in the direction the firefighters were heading. No one needed to tell these members of the Fire Department of New York what spectacle these people were watching. They all knew. But neither did most of them wish to look for themselves. They would soon enough.
“All civilians please clear the streets and remain on the sidewalks!” a harried police officer bellowed, physically manhandling dazed gawkers off of the roads, “the streets have got to stay clear! Please!” He looked north to glimpse a red fire engine round a corner and barrel down the avenue towards him. Rushing to the side of the road, shoving a confused sanitation worker along with him, he cursed the chaos of the day and of the people he was trying to control. But could he really fault them? Frankly, he himself was just as disoriented. As the truck roared past, blaring both horn and sirens, he glanced southwards towards the towers to which the engine was headed.
“God help them…”
On board the engine, one young fireman in particular fought to focus and ignore the outside world. But he quickly realized it was impossible.
“Good God I don’t believe it!” In the front seat one of the men craned his neck downwards in order to see the tops of the towers, “smoke is just pouring out of them both! Oh, no, all those people…” His exclamation whimpered off into an almost cry, and he sat back in his seat. Two planes; one for each tower. This could be no accident, the young firefighter had concluded not long ago.
America was under attack.
But attack civilians? What kind of monstrous evil could do this? Who could have planned this? Why?
A shiver ran down the young man’s spine: they had attacked his home. His city: New York. His borough: Manhattan. They wanted to kill people like him.
And he had the nagging sense that he and his comrades were going to oblige them.
The engine was slowing down. The young man wiped beads of sweat off his brow with the sleeve of his heavy black fire suit with yellow stripes. Running a gloved hand across his short hair, he put on his fire helmet as the engine suddenly stopped.
“Alright, here we are!” The steady wail finally ceased, and as the firefighters piled out onto the streets of lower Manhattan, the firefighter was struck by how unnaturally quiet it seemed. Sirens, yelling, businessmen and women hurrying away, police directing and shouting. But to him, at least, all seemed quiet. Almost serene.
The false peace was snuffed out at the first whiff of burning jet fuel. Snapped back into reality, his gaze directed upwards from the confused masses.
The Twin Towers loomed above, burning like massive torches. Heavy black smoke billowed out from gaping, burning holes, obscuring the top of the once majestic skyscrapers. Now, with the black and silver of the smoke and metal seeming to blend, contrasted by the snapping flash of flames, it seemed to possess a perverse and terrible beauty.
“We gotta get up there!” a burly and loud firefighter yelled with a gut-wrenching urgency to his voice, “they’re burning alive up there!” The young Manhattanite heard, but did not react, for he could not pry his eyes away from the hypnotizing horror. The World Trade Center. Burning. The cold prickling sensation returned. He would be climbing up there. People were burning up there. People were dying. People with friends, families, lives. Stories. What an awful way to die.
“The planes hit around the 80th floor on Tower 1” their captain yelled, “we’re heading up there to save as many as we can!” The men were only half listening, still transfixed by the burning monuments of humanity. One man, though, had been listening.
“My God, I know people on the 81st!” A short, squat fireman, the man began muttering to himself, “oh no, oh no, oh no…”
About a minute later, the men were able to collect their wits about them, gather up their firefighting gear, and marched towards the towers. The young man gathered up his fire-hose, falling in line behind the firefighter who had spoken up a moment ago, who was clenching an unclenching his fists. With all his might he tried to focus on the yellow “F.D.N.Y.” on the back of his uniform, but he, like the rest of the men, could not help but stare as he marched. Hardly a word was spoken. All eyes were upward. In front of him, the man suddenly screamed a curse, flinging a fist in frustration. The raging inferno above was boiling blood on the ground.
In a single file line the firefighters strode forward towards the base of Tower 1, as a sea of faces moved the opposite direction. The black and yellow of the Department distinguished them from the fleeing masses, but despite the ponderous loads of equipment they carried, one would have never known they carried the weight of a city on their shoulders.
A police officer roared at the confused citizens suddenly caught up in a hellish war zone. A stubborn reporter continued to persist in his attempts to stay at the base of the tower.
“I don’t care who you are sir, but please! For your own safety move away!” As the firemen filed past however, he and those around fell silent. For a moment the man in blue stared at the men in black, before the stress and anxiety disappeared from his face, replaced with a look of resolve. He intercepted the thin black line and patted each warrior’s shoulder as they passed.
“Godspeed you guys, Godspeed…”
As the young man passed, he swore he saw a tear in the officer’s eye. He glanced up at the tower above, the top shrouded in vast blackness.
“You know,” one of the men said, “we may not live through today.” As they passed into the lobby of Tower 1, the young man realized he might be right. An ocean of humanity poured the opposite way, but still the black and yellow line pressed onwards. Yes, he may very well die, but what better way to die than to save a life? Whoever had attacked New York had chosen the battlefield, but these men were not going to allow the unknown enemy to dictate the terms of surrender.
The prickling, gnawing fear gave way to a sense of resignation. As his hopes of surviving died with each passing step, his resolve grew. As the black clad angels approached the stairwell for the climb up, the young man steeled himself, in the same way he prayed the building would hold on for just enough time for them to climb up. The relief in the eyes of those fleeing downstairs as he passed strengthened his spirit, their smiles and well wishes encouraged him.
“Ten flights at a time boys. Let’s go.” Their leader yelled. The men of New York followed unwaveringly. It was a stairway to hell, and they knew it. But this was their moment, this was their time. It was as if they had been called, a stronger breed of human, for this very task. The young man knew this would be the day that would define his life.
As he approached the first flight he realized he could not recall the date.
As his boot touched the first step, he could have sworn he felt the earth shake.