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A Survivor's Burden

Submission by Tom Feeney Jr

(The following is a story about Bill Spade, a former firefighter who survived to tell his story.)


Bill Spade rested in the emergency room at Metropolitan Hospital, located at First Avenue and 97th Street in uptown Manhattan. The dust settled on a wounded city, and when night came, Spade received a phone call from his brother in-law Tommy Ihnken.

“Bill did you hear the news?” Ihnken asked. “All the guys from five are missing.”

Spade began naming the 11 men he shared a French toast breakfast with that morning at the Rescue Co. 5 firehouse in Staten Island, NY. The faces of men Spade consider family raced through his head, desperate to remember the time in the kitchen.

“Every one of them Bill,” Ihnken said.

Only moment’s later Spades wife Cynthia called, and asked if he had heard the bad news. Spade admitted he knew about the 11 missing men from Rescue Co. 5, but Cynthia was calling to tell her husband that his uncle Joe Driscoll died on United Airlines Flight 93, the hijacked plane that crashed in Shanksville, PA.

“Well you can give me all the bad news now because I’m ready for it,” Spade said. “This is the lowest point of my life.”

Seven years later, 49-year old Spade walks in his basement gleaming with pride, unable to tell his next story fast enough. Every wall of the basement is decked with sports memorabilia, collected throughout his lifetime.

A single corner is dedicated to the Yankees, with the walls painted like the fences at the old Yankee Stadium, dimensions and all. Centering the photos of Yankee greats is a life size statue of Babe Ruth.

“I remember bringing home two pieces of drywall every two weeks, putting it up, taping it, then doing it again after another two weeks,” Spade said.

Spade began constructing his basement when he first joined the New York City Police Department in 1985. He started at the 120 precinct in Staten Island, and just a year later moved over to the 66 precinct in Brooklyn.

“I like to say that I did two years on the police department and then I got promoted to fireman,” Spade said.

It’s the teamwork associated with the fire department that drew Spade into the job. He always liked being on sports teams growing up, so the six guys on the fire truck was the perfect fit.

By the time he had finished the walls in his basement and found time to install a bar, Spade was building friendships at Rescue Co. 5 that would last him a lifetime.

“Just the friendships you make there are so strong,” Spade said.

The firefighters at Rescue Co. 5 would strengthen those bonds over “scuba nights,” meetings that would be posted on the firehouse bulletin to be held in Spade’s basement.

“One guy would post scuba meeting tonight, Bill Spade’s house eight o’clock. And that was it we would all meet here for a scuba meeting,” Spade said. “Well we wouldn’t talk one thing scuba, but we had a good time for four hours.”

Now the finished basement no longer plays host to scuba meetings. Spade is the lone survivor of the twelve on duty firefighters from Rescue Co. 5 that worked on 9/11. Coping with the guilt of being alive, coupled with his traumatic experience, is something Spade deals with every day of his life.

***

On the morning of Sept 11, 2001, Rescue Co. 5 was called to a steam leak at Bayley Seton Hospital right before the first attack on the World Trade Center. Both rigs were sent to the job, so Spade who was driving the Tactical Support 2 truck, wasn’t needed.

After the trucks left the house, Spade received a call from an off-duty firefighter who saw the plane hit the tower. Spade didn’t believe it at first, but the man insisted, so Spade called the dispatcher. The dispatcher confirmed, and off Spade went towards the Verrazano Bridge.

When Spade reached the bridge, he could see the smoke.

“My main thought was I was going to be here for 24 hours,” Spade said. “I had just started at seven, and I was thinking I don’t want to be here 24 hours, there goes your meals and everything.”

But as Spade approached the top of the bridge, he received a 1075. A confirmed fire, and people were already jumping out of the tower.

“I said to myself we already got people jumping and its only a couple minutes old, you don’t get that that early in a fire where people have to make that decision,” Spade said.

Just seconds later, Spade heard the Trade Center was upgraded to a second alarm, and the four other rescue companies were called to the fire. All of this was unprecedented.

When Spade approached the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, traffic slowed as commuter buses and cars were being turned away from Manhattan.

From the approach Spade could see the second plane curl around the Statue of Liberty, then smash into the second tower.

When Spade made it out of the tunnel and turned right onto West Street, he saw a car with a jet engine through the back of it. Body parts littered the streets.

Spade parked the tactical truck across the six-lane street from the Trade Center, and made all the compartments of his rig available to fellow firefighters.

“Bodies and light aluminum were coming down and companies were being held back by their bosses because everything was coming down,” Spade said. “I’m by myself so I decided to go across. If I don’t make it I don’t make it, but if I don’t go in I’m not going to help anybody.”

After making it to the lobby of the North Tower, Spade checked in with Chief Cassano, an Incident Commander.

One of the first people Spade saw was Reverend Michael Judge, the Fire Department chaplain. He was gripping the rosary in his right hand, whispering prayers with noticeable nerves.

“If you saw and approached Reverend Michael Judge and said, hey father remember me? He would say yeah sure I gave you 20 dollars the last time I saw you. Whenever I would see him I would say, hey father did you get that 20 I lent you, and he would say, hey you know me!” Spade said.

“That day there was no talking to him,” Spade said.

All the while Rev. Judge prayed and Cassano gave orders, the motion-activated doors behind them would open as they sensed the falling bodies hit the pavement.

“At one point you see a lady coming down and she is screaming and yelling, and then you hear nothing,” said Spade. That was one point when my emotions took over and I said, man life is being taken away from people like that, that quick. That hurt me for a point there.”

It also hurt Rev. Judge. When a bleeding arm came flying into the lobby, the Reverends face was ghostly white. Reverend Judge died from a heart attack that morning.

Spade teamed up with Bobby LaRocca of Rescue Co. 2, who was off duty at the time. They made there way to the concourse level, and found that people were confused on where to go. Spade and LaRocca decided to guide the evacuators to the ground level.

Spade knew he was in stairway C of the North Tower, so LaRocca went to the third floor, and Spade stayed on the second (or concourse) floor.

“Stay to your right 200 feet, make a right again 50 feet, and go down to your left, your down the escalator and out of the building,” Spade would tell the evacuators. “Just one more flight to go.”

The first firefighters Spade saw were Mike Clark and Carl Molinaro of Ladder 2. Molinaro, a Rangers fan, joked on his way up about hockey to Spade.

“How we gonna do this year?” Molinaro asked.

Spade, an avid Devils fan, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pay tribute to the Lincoln Tunnel rivalry.

“Well you’re not going to do anything,” Spade said. That was the last time Spade would ever see Molinaro or Clark again.

***
Since retiring from the FDNY with a respiratory infection from inhalation at the site, Spade has done his part to give back to a city he so dearly loves.

He volunteers at the local Great Kills Swim Club, and also gives tours at the WTC Family Tribute Center, which is a museum that extends its tour to the outskirts of Ground Zero.

“I do that, and it’s almost like a therapy to get it out, because it’s something that I relive every day of my life anyway, so it helps to get it out, and not keep it in,” Spade said.

The idea of the tribute center is to give those who visit the site stories to go along with what they see in front of them. Two guides give the tour at a time.

Spade says it’s the foreigners who populate the tours the most.

“We get 22 people on the tour and 90 percent are foreigners, and just the fact that they want to tell you what they were doing at the time is what makes it for me,” Spade said. “It was all over the world, not just the United States, that makes me feel good that it hit everywhere and people understood the severity of it.”

People love to tell Spade what they were doing when the first tower fell, but when Spade tells them what he was doing, it goes straight to the core.

“I heard this big noise, and I knew something was coming down, but I didn’t know what,” Spade said.

Spade was still on the concourse level and LaRocca had just headed out to help a hyperventilating woman. When he heard and felt the rumble, he ran and closed the double doors, and hugged the standpipe in the corner of the room.

“I was expecting the rubble to come down the stairs and trap us, but it didn’t. After a minute or so it stopped, and I was still alive,” Spade said. “I remember pointing my flashlight up the stairs and seeing the whites of everybody’s eyes.”

After a period of silence, Spade heard people yelling from the other side of the double doors he had closed before the collapse of the South Tower. He couldn’t open the doors, until two police officers, emergency service cops, came along. Spade and the two cops prepared mayday calls, but their radios were all down.

The three men resorted to barreling the door. After a crack in the door, Spade got to the other side. With ground up glass ripping into his eyes, Spade was able to flash light to those trapped.

“I said listen, I’m a fireman if you see me come to my light. They came to me, I put their hands against the wall and told them to follow it to the door,” Spade said.

After making contact with the trapped people, Spade started to get worked up, the stress of the situation cracking the shell of his training, protocol, and professionalism.

“I yelled everybody be quiet, and nobody was saying anything,” Spade said. “In my mind I said to myself you’re the only one yelling.’

Spade took a deep breath and told the cops that if there was a way out he was going to find it. He went back to the escalator path and saw two port authority officers dusting themselves off. They told Spade the path was clear despite some fallen beams, and Spade told the officers that he was going to send evacuees towards them.

Spade returned to the concourse level with the other two cops and started to funnel evacuees down towards the escalator again.

“Stay to your right 200 feet, make a right again 50 feet, and go down to your left, your down the escalator and out of the building,”

“Just one more flight to go.”

While evacuees made their way down from the upper levels, Spade and the cops would ask what floor they were coming from. As the floor number got higher, the trickle of people became weaker. When the flow of people hit the 70th floor, the evacuees stopped coming.

While guiding people out of the building, Spade and one of the officers, John Delara began speaking.

“Where are you from?” Delara asked.

“Rescue 5, where you from?’ Spade asked.

“ESU 2,” Delara said.

“Where’s that?” Spade asked.

“Manhattan, where’s five?” Delara asked.

“Staten Island,” Spade said.

“Wow, we’ve come a long way for this,” Delara said. “What are we doing working together?”

“I guess it takes the World Trade Center coming down for us to work together,” Spade said.

The two swapped stories about kids and family the entire time of the evacuation. If New York City Fireman and cops have one thing in common, it’s that they never speak about family on the job. But this was no ordinary job.

***

Being the only survivor ripped Spade apart, and while doses of time and other activities have been cathartic, the true pain felt was enormous.

“After 9/11 I tried to stay away from a lot of it. I tell everyone I’m just a fireman, I do my job and stay strongly away from the politics. That’s why when I put stuff up in my room I didn’t do it for two or three years because there is that guilt complex, that you lived, and everyone else died. Its hard, you don’t want to offend anyone so you stay clear of it.”

As Spade walks through his room, he points out the mementos, the pictures, and other items that help him release, but never forget. The room is a small office to the left of the foyer in Spade’s home.

Hanging on the walls is Spade’s helmet, a signed letter from President Bush, and the final picture taken of the Rescue 5 rigs coming out of the tunnel into lower Manhattan, both towers engulfed in smoke and looming over Spade’s brothers.

Also on the wall is a picture of Spade’s Uncle Joe fishing near a pond. Spade likes to believe that his uncle fought the hijackers of flight 93 with everything he had.

The hardest thing for Spade to do is look the 11 or so widows, including wives and girlfriends, in the eye. He feels a weight of guilt that he cannot lift from his soul.

“But there are certain few, like Madeline BergIn, she is tremendous, she always has a big smile,” Spade said.

Madeline is widow to John BergIn, a firefighter from Rescue Co. 5 and a dear friend to Spade. Madeline is a teacher, so when she asked her husband to give the annual fire safety lecture at school, John would defer the duties to Spade.

“From the first two or three days after I got out of the hospital I went to her house and I said Madeline, I’m so sorry. And she would say what are you sorry about? But I was sorry, not being there”

Spade couldn’t help his brothers and was never given a chance to be with the rigs from five that day. But he had his other duties.

After Spade and the two cops finished evacuating the flow of people, they decided to head towards the staircase. There they met five other men, including a police sergeant and a civilian.

“We go together, we stay together,” Spade said.

When the group reached a gap between the tower and Six World Trade Center, they had to run across a courtyard that was being bombarded with debris.

Before Spade decided to cross he noticed all the windows of Six World Trade Center were shattered, and kept that in mind, just in case he heard that noise again.

We stay together, we leave together.

“We weren’t out of building 30 seconds and I heard that noise again,” Spade said. “I took three steps towards the broken window and I got blown 40 feet into the wall. I remember getting knocked down, hitting my face against the floor”

Spade felt around the floor for his eye, because he thought he had lost it. The impact left him dazed and the cacophony of collapsing tower grew louder and louder.

“I put my head under the desk because I lost my helmet. Everything was coming down, and I started saying goodbye to my wife and my kids, and I had to say goodbye to my youngster, and I was thinking he would never get to know his dad,” Spade said.

And then it stopped, and Spade was alive.

Spade reached for his flashlight but all of his equipment was gone. Only three other fireman from the group of eight remained. The room was filled with smoke and debris, and the men were breathing off the floor. Spade crawled in agony, his ACL was torn.

“I aint dying in this room,” Spade said.

For over an hour the men searched for an exit. They made there way to an overhang but were still lost. Then the youngest man found light, a void that lead to a lamppost standing 40 feet from the ground.

“The young guy jumped before I could even say anything, and all I could remember seeing was his coat fly open looking like batman. He slid down the pole, hit a pile of soft metal below, and started to walk away,” Spade said.

Spade kept yelling for the man to put up a ladder, but by that time he was long gone. Spade decided that unless he heard that noise again, he was staying put.

And then Spade saw “Survivor’s Staircase.”

“I looked into the distance, it was a bright sunny day, and saw St Paul’s Church. It’s a small building with a steeple and I could make out a staircase. We made our way over there, and sure enough it was a staircase,” Spade said.

Spade walked a few blocks before stumbling into a deli. An off duty cop helped wash out Spade’s eyes and directed him to a command post.

Spade walked towards Broadway on his last legs, and came across Chief Harring.

“Chief there has been a collapse and I have lost some men,” Spade said.

“We lost a lot of men,” Harring said.
***

Spade walks towards the exit of the basement, squeezing in the final details of his hole in one, and how he got every guy on the Michigan University football team to sign a Wolverine helmet.

As he walks by the giant statue of a classic golfer that greets you at the base of the stairs, Spade shuts the lights on the bar.

But really, Spade just shut the lights on another scuba meeting with his brothers from Rescue Co. 5.

“And you know, life goes on,” said Spade.

I was there too