The 9/11 Decade: A First Responder Reflects

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. – On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Dave Russell, a Pound Ridge resident and member of FDNY Engine 62 in the north Bronx, thought the biggest devastation he’d see that day was at his home. It was under renovation and the walls were completely stripped of the Sheetrock.

But that perception changed quickly with a phone call from his wife.

“She called to tell me that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center,” he said. “But then I turned on the TV and counted the number of floors [that were damaged] and I knew right away that this was no small plane.”

Russell then made a crucial decision that may have saved his life. Instead of heading straight to the site of the attack, he went to his firehouse in the Bronx. There, he and fellow firefighters gathered up equipment and radios and commandeered a city bus to take them to Twin Towers. By the time Engine 62 reached the scene, the buildings had collapsed.

“It was insanity running stop lights with no police escort,” Russell said. “Our driver was great though. We keep telling him to go faster and he’d say, ‘I’m going as fast as I can.’”

Once they got to the scene, Russell said it was utter chaos and, thanks to the dust and smoke, visibility was practically zero.

“You couldn’t see anything, but you could feel the heat,” he said. “There was a whole rig (fire truck) that was fully involved but it was still running. You couldn’t tell whose it was because the logos were all melted off.”

As first responders, Russell said their job changed from moment to moment. He noted that there was no water from the hydrants because when the buildings collapsed they sheared off the water mains beneath the ground.

“It was like combat,” said Russell, who retired from the Air Force in 2005 as a tech sergeant after 30 years of service. “The one thing I will always remember is the sound of the air packs going off. We have these air packs, and if you don’t move, they will begin to chirp so you can be located. They were going off all over the place. It was a nauseating feeling.”

He heard his fellow firemen who were trapped in cars and in buildings transmitting over the radio to broadcast their locations.

“You start recognizing their voices, but your mind can play tricks on you,” Russell said.

He said as firemen began to look for colleagues and other people who might have escaped the buildings’ collapse, a macabre scene presented itself.

“You’d find half a body there, and an arm here,” he said. “We were on top of a hotel nearby and we found an airplane seat and body parts that you didn’t know what they were.”

He said as the search continued for fellow firemen, the phrase “nice to see you,” meant a lot.

“Guys were walking around asking, ‘have you seen so-and-so?’” Russell said. “They’d ask questions and all you could do was shrug your shoulders. It was real war. They killed our command staff.”

Russell retired from the fire department in 2006.

“It was time for me to go,” he said. “I have some lung issues now and acid reflux.”

The former fireman said it’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since the attack, noting that sometimes it feels like 100 years ago and other times it seems like two days.

“I will never forget it,” he said. “It started out like any other day and ended like no other.”


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