Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th: They Are Not Gone. They Are Not Forgotten. They Live In Each of Our Hearts Every Day.

On September 11th, 2011 I lost over 70 friends in New York City. Some of my friends were childhood pals, some were friends from university, and some were professional colleagues. Some of my friends I played baseball with, some I studied with, others I drank with, and some I worked on Wall Street with. A handful were firefighters or police officers. A handful were bankers. Some worked in insurance, while others worked in communication. Together, they were actively part of my life. I rarely speak about just how much time I spent down in Ground Zero. A part of me has always felt the emptiness of missing my pals. A part of me remembers my own fear while being inside the pit. A part of me, oh so very easily can easily recall the taste of the carbon - the soot of glass, concrete, steel, paper, wood, and flesh - swirling in the air for months on end. Taste an ashtray. That is the taste of Ground Zero. Perhaps I don't want to be reminded of the sights I had seen ... not from a television set ... not from behind the fence ... not from a newspaper or a book: my eyes' memories come from being inside the pit. Or from standing on the roof of Ladder 10/ Engine 10's firehouse on Liberty Street. I was not in New York that day, but instead on the West Coast ... running on a beach that early morning in Malibu when I heard of what happened when a group of surfers gathered once news quickly spread. I remember the swell of fear that covered me. You see, I knew my brother John, an amazing New York City Firefighter, was working that day, and his firehouse would be in the red zone of immediate response. John is my middle brother, as I was first born. I know how John is: he is as tough as nails: physically powerful, mental unbendable (despite being 5'6" tall and at the time being 150 lbs, John played nose tackle on a Metropolitan based adult semi-pro football team: he was that strong, that stubborn, and that good!). So, when the news of the first tower getting hit, I knew my brother would be going up. And I knew in my gut that there was going to be another attack someplace, though I did not know or think the other tower would have gotten hit. But I knew regardless - John - who always put others first - would be there doing his duty - giving a damn - and making a difference. My brother did. When the second tower got hit, I froze in despair. Surely, my brother was there. Equally, my friends ... a great part of my life.... was under attack even though I was 2,300 miles away. I remember I couldn't get through on the telephone. And as I raced off the beach, knowing that there was no way I would be able to fly back to NYC.... I could not help but know that things were more than dark. Standing in front of my television, desperate but unable to reach my giant family in New York City, I watched as the first and the second tower fell. With it, the loss of so many wonderful, innocent lives. Men and women who worked in the buildings. And the first responders.... my brother.... as hard as nails.... FDNY. Frantic, and soon learning that all flights had been cancelled, I was left in despair ... my friends ... my family ... America was under attack. Eventually, I was able to reach my mother. She was crying. My brother John had called my mom and dad. He told them that they were amazing parents. He told them to live life to the fullest. He told them he had his duty to uphold. And he told them he loved them. And then he said 'Good-bye". That was all I knew at the time. I, like everyone else was glued to a television set, while my fingers kept making calls to certain friends ... seeing if and how I could get back east.... somehow. I did soon enough. But I will keep that to myself. Well, my family never heard from my brother that day. Or that night. The next day, John was placed on the 'Missing List' created by the FDNY. There were many 'brothers' on that list. Too many. All brave, selfless, and tough-as-nails. They were the opposite of the cowards who attacked our great nation. So on the 12th, I begin my voyage back to my NYC. It was a long journey, but not as quick as you may think. At some time after midnight on the 13th the phone rings in my parent's home. My brother is alive. John shared with me how his life was spared by chance. As it turned out, he switched days with a friend of his, Neil Levy, so that he could go fishing that day with our friend and fellow firefighter Eddie Fehey (Eddie was the chauffer for Chief Pfifer, and was on the West Side Highway that morning attending to a gas leak when the first tower got hit {I am happy to share that Eddie is alive and as he was, and as he is, a Good Man}. John did in fact arrive down at Ground Zero soon after the towers were hit. You see, every firefighter in this wonderful city of ours immediately rushed to duty no matter where they were. John was not unique in that sense, but rather, he was part of a very unique group of men and women who were part of the FDNY. Well, needless to say, my brother did go into one of the towers. And just like what Eddie said, they were more worried initially at that time of not having the buildings come down on them, but instead having the jumpers land on them - the scores of men and women who took there own life from high above - and left this world on their own terms rather than the terms of terrorist. Eventually, those buildings did come down. And John was there ... but he had just gotten out. But the explosion had tossed him into a local building where he would remain for some time. During that same time that the buildings came down, my cousin John, a detective with the NYPD took shelter under a fire engine on Liberty Street. The truck, demolished, saved his life. Both my brother John and my cousin John were named after my grandfather John - his Italian last name meaning 'One who is protected by God'. Now many of you know what occurred in the midst of the 11th, and the days that followed. But there was so much that did not get reported. When I arrived into NYC, I was soon able to have access to GZ. I will share some of this over the next day. But nevertheless, I was there, volunteering my time to help. As for my brother, John did what every first-responder did: he searched ... hoping ... so desperately hoping to bring his other brothers home. And he did not stop.... He did not stop looking for Neil. John was determined to bring his good friend - who took his place that day - home. On December 25th, Christmas Day, John was down at the pit. I was surprised to hear that he was there because the city had mandated that the firefighters had limited access to the pit due to health reasons (I remember being on the West Side Highway when the FDNY and the NYPD clashed over Mayor Giuliani’s decision to prohibit the FDNY from searching for their fallen brothers down at GZ, the fights that broke out during the rally down and around GZ). Well on that day, my brother called me. His voice was very different. He spoke with a strong sense of conviction and strength. A sense of relief. A sense of peace. In a sea of steel and stone and concrete and wood and glass and paper and flesh, amidst the smoke and stench of death, in the darkness that was, my brother John, a tough-as-nails New York City Firefighter found Neil. I don't know why he had called me when he did, but he did. Soon after, my brother led an honor guard and carried his dear friend, his brother Neil Levy out of the darkness of that hellhole. That day, miracles of miracles, the fires of Ground Zero ceased to exist. Again, the fires that burned in Ground Zero ended on December 25th. There are no coincidences my friends. None. And now I remember why I do not talk about these days often... I'm not as tough as I would like to think... And I do cry rather easily.... like right now. Again. I will leave you with these thoughts: We Will Never Forget Those That Gave Of Their Lives The Way They Did. They Are Not Gone. They Are Not Forgotten. They Live In Each of Our Hearts. Secondly, God Was There. And He Did Have A Purpose. Faith In Not Just A Word. In addition, and forever, a city that celebrates our differences - New York City, and for that matter, our nation - thanks the heroic FDNY, NYPD, and Port Authority Workers who acted that day. I also acknowledge the iron-workers who acted in great capacity the days that followed. You are unspoken heroes, too. Lastly, and most of all, may God bless each of you who he called to join him. In my heart I know you are each in a better place. A place I hope to get to one day. And even though I hope to get where you are one day ... it does not mean I don't miss you a great deal. Each of you. Friends, I am sure you will be reflecting on the events that took place a decade ago today. Personally, since that time, I have really learned not to take anything for granted. And that includes my friendships. Thank you for yours. Peter Thomas Senese

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