Five years later, firefighter John Gaine, 43, still remembers the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as vividly as ever.
On the morning of the attacks, he was at home recovering from knee surgery to treat an injury he incurred while fighting an Astoria blaze that claimed the lives of three fellow firefighters from Rescue Company 4 on Father’s Day.
Resting in front of the television, Gaine was startled when the morning news broadcast he was watching was interrupted by a distant explosion that shook the cameras. A low flying plane had just struck one of the Twin Towers. Immediately, the veteran firefighter phoned William Mahoney II, a friend at the Rescue 4 firehouse in Woodside, to find out what was going on.
“We were talking to each other, realizing how serious this was, when Mahoney said, ‘Hold on, we’re going down to the Trade Center,’ and put the phone down,” Gaine said. “That’s the last I ever heard from him.”
Gaine himself was soon rushing to the World Trade Center, but would not arrive before Mahoney and five other firefighters from his company perished under the collapsed skyscrapers. Along with the surviving members of his crew, Gaine would spend weeks thereafter digging through the rubble, desperately searching for survivors.
Today, the six men from his company who died at Ground Zero are honored on a marble plaque that greets visitors when they step through the front door of the firehouse. Above the plaque is a wooden sculpture of the World Trade Center with a turquoise rosary dangling from one of the towers and an inscription of nine names—the six who were killed on 9/11, plus the three who died on Father’s Day.
“Each one was an outstanding firefighter, and great guys to be around,” said Gaine, who will join his late comrades’ widows at a private mass at the Queens Boulevard firehouse Monday. “This will probably be the biggest milestone since the one year anniversary,” he added.
Doubtless to say, the last five years have been some of the most trying times in Rescue 4’s history. Its members have suffered an inordinate loss of life and have been exposed to more danger than many other companies in the city.
But then, Rescue 4 is no ordinary company. With its proximity to Midtown Manhattan and the Bronx, the company handles an especially high volume of emergency calls every day. The specialized unit also has more veterans on staff than any other in the city. While most of the 49 engine companies in Queens deal with building fires and automobile accidents only, Rescue 4 is equipped to respond to life threatening situations of all sorts—building collapses, train derailments, underwater rescues, and “confined space” missions where firefighters must extract civilians trapped in underground bunkers or tunnels.
Just recently, Rescue 4 was able to extract several firefighters trapped in the basement of a burning 99 cent store in the Bronx by burrowing with sledgehammers through the wall of a neighboring cell phone shop. Two of the trapped firefighters, Michael Reilly, 25, and Howard Carpluk, 43, a 20 year FDNY veteran, did not survive the blaze and were laid to rest last week in back to back funerals.
Prior to that, Richie Schmidt of Rescue 4 was the firefighter who pulled Nicholas Bartha from the smoldering wreckage of his midtown home after the estranged doctor apparently set off a gas explosion in an attempt to kill himself July 15. “It takes a special kind of person to do this kind of work,” said one firefighter who has served on Rescue 4 for the last five years and declined to be named. “We’ve got guys here who are so loyal to the company, they’ll come to work two hours early, just because they love what they do so much.”
It’s this unwavering sense of duty, loyalty and commitment that has seen Rescue 4 through some of the rougher times.
Last Friday, firefighters from the company donned formal uniforms and joined a procession of mourners that stretched for blocks outside the church where the funeral mass for Carpluk was held. The next day, many of the same firefighters were eager to get back out on patrol.
“There is no right or wrong way to deal with the losses we’ve experienced, and I’m not saying it isn’t difficult,” Gaine said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve got a job to do first, and you can’t just bury your head in the sand. The firehouse is going to be around a lot longer than you or me, so you just have to keep going.”
Still, many veteran firefighters said the Sept. 11 attacks have fundamentally changed the firehouse culture at Rescue 4 and other companies throughout the city. The traditional dedication and camaraderie remain intact—and likely always will. But with more veterans leaving the force and an influx of newer recruits rising through the ranks, the fire department is a much younger, less experienced institution than it was five years ago, firefighters said.
Hundreds of longtime firefighters were killed at the World Trade Center or forced to quit due to respiratory or stress related illnesses acquired after prolonged recovery work at Ground Zero in the months following the attacks. Many FDNY veterans accrued so many overtime hours in that time they became eligible for retirement earlier than expected and were offered increased pensions from the city as further inducement to retire.
With the ranks of highly experienced firefighters thinning, the task of training and mentoring rookies is falling inordinately on the force’s few remaining veterans.
“It’s always been a firehouse tradition to have senior men break in the young guys, but that’s getting harder for the guys who have been around for a while,” said one fire department official who requested anonymity for this article. “I’m confident we’ll get back to where we used to be eventually. But since 9/11 we’ve become a work in progress.”