Heroism and courage come in many forms, but for those who were among the first responders following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, these characteristics seem to be in their DNA. Whether or not they were on duty, thousands of firefighters and others rushed to the sites under attack to lend their support, all risking — and many losing — their lives. Among them were Jewish firefighters David Weiss, Alan Feinberg and Steve Belson, of blessed memory, who answered the call to serve.
This year, as we commemorate the the tenth anniversary of 9/11, remembering the thousands of people who perished and honoring those who served, Repair the World spoke with two Jewish first responders from the New York Fire Department, Butch Brandes of Battalion 41 in Flatbush, Brooklyn and Peter Archer of Engine 279 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, who were off-duty that day but nonetheless answered the call to serve. These courageous heroes share their insights into why they serve, their experiences at Ground Zero, and their thoughts on the eve of 10th anniversary.
Why did you decide to become a firefighter and what does it mean to you to serve?
Butch: My father was a fireman, so there was history there. When I was in college I took just about every civil service test that was available. I got contacted for many of them, but ended up deciding to go to the fire department. It was the best decision I ever made. I like helping people and I like the excitement. I’d been a lifeguard on the beach at Jacob Riis Park, and it is a similar feeling. It’s a tremendous rush when you get to help people in precarious situations.
Peter: I applied for the job with the hope of attaining a position to serve the public and make myself a living in a manner that was exciting, challenging, and honestly a little dangerous. I could not have comprehended just how dangerous it was going to be, but in the end I stay with it because, this may sound funny, but I actually really like the challenge.
Do you connect your service as a fire fighter to your Jewish heritage?
Peter: I grew up in large secular household (with 8 kids) in Brooklyn, and it felt like everyone I knew growing up was Jewish. Then I went to college at SUNY Albany, which is practically half Jewish. So it was never something I really thought much about – until I became a New York firefighter. When you become a firefighter here, you’re likely going to be the only Jewish guy in the firehouse and you know it. I work with good guys, but they don’t really know anything about Judaism. So in a way, becoming a firefighter was a defining moment in that regard.
Butch: I’m a member of Ner Tamid, which means Eternal Light. It’s a fraternal organization of Jewish firefighters. It’s not really a religious thing, it’s more of a gathering of people who are Jewish. We talk about current events and how they pertain to being Jewish, and also about what it’s like to be Jewish on the job, which is not always easy. My father was a member, but didn’t go to meetings until I joined – then we’d go together. I liked the idea of being on a team, and having an affiliation and a sense of belonging. I’ve been vice president for almost 30 years.
When did you first hear that a plane had hit the World Trade Center?
Peter: I live in lower Manhattan and I heard the plane hit the first building. It sounded like when a big container truck is going down the street and hits a bump and there’s this flapping metal sound. I had no idea what it was at first – the fire escape was being repaired outside my building’s window, and I figured a large piece of metal had fallen. I went up to the roof with a neighbor and just thought “oh man.” I was off duty that day, and at the time my unit, a ladder company, was located in Coney Island, so I headed to the local firehouse near my apartment to jump on their rig. But I didn’t have gear or my uniform, so the officer at the station told me not to. I found out later that not long after they arrived – maybe 10 minutes after I’d spoken to them – the building collapsed on them and they were wiped out.
Traffic at that point was incredibly snarled, so I decided the best thing to do was to ride my bike to work on Coney Island. I went over the Manhattan Bridge, which was just full of pedestrians – all people running away. When I got to Ocean Parkway [in Brooklyn, on route to Coney Island], I saw that I was just covered in what looked like snow. I had to stop and dust myself off, and I thought “holy moly, that’s some fire they got there.” But of course it was not just fire, it was the building. As soon as I got to the station, I asked what was happening. One colleague told me that the Tower was down. I thought he meant that their communications – their phone lines and things like that – were down. I couldn’t fathom that he meant the building. It didn’t compute.
Butch: I saw it happen. I swim in the ocean with a bunch of friends in the morning. The water that day was magnificent. I had my 16 month old son with me at the beach, and sometime around 9AM I was standing in front of the bathhouse at Riis Park, talking about the waves with some friends. A friend of mine who is a fireman said, “You have to see the job [fire] at the Trade Center.” So we headed beyond the bathhouse to take a look and saw the second plane hit. I thought, “Holy cow, this is more than just a job.” I biked home and found my wife with the TV on. I was off duty that day but I said, “Take him [their son], I’m going to work.”
How did you eventually make it to the World Trade Center site?
Butch: I went to the firehouse and grabbed a bunch of radios and flashlights, and met about 7-8 other firefighters there. We had a flatbed pickup truck and planned to drive right through the Battery Tunnel. We got stopped by a cop who told us we couldn’t go through. I argued with the him, and he agreed to stop traffic for us and let us get over the bridge. That hold up lasted 20 minutes, but it felt like forever. We made it over the bridge right as the second building came down. In retrospect, I thought that I should find that cop and thank him – he probably saved our lives.
Peter: A bunch of other off duty guys had also shown up to the firehouse, and we basically took over a city bus and drove to Staten Island. From there we took the Staten Island Ferry to lower Manhattan – I don’t know who came up with that idea, but we figured it would be the easiest way.
Share a bit about your experience in the days and weeks after at ground zero.
Peter: Once we arrived, we were there for hours and hours. The only building collapse I personally saw was World Trade Center 7. It sounded like a freight train, with wind and growling. It was crazy scary.
At first we were working until 3 or 4 in the morning and then arriving back to the site at 8 the next day. The Pile [of debris] was huge, just enormous. There were just lines of firefighters and other first responders with buckets taking pieces of debris out and passing them along to the next guy, like a bucket brigade. There was no plan, no real order. How do you know what to do at a time like that? There was a lot of misinformation flying around, and people were digging by hand – it was chaos. After a week or so, things started to get more organized. We would work 12 hour days, and we worked there for many weeks. There’s no doubt that it wasn’t good for our health – a lot of guys have lingering health effects, including me.
Butch: I was originally assigned as a staging officer who manages the flow of people arriving and gives people assignments. But that’s not where I felt I should be – I’m a fire officer, not a staging officer. I like to be in the middle of everything – a hands on guy. Eventually an assignment came for someone to go into 7 World Trade Center and assess the structural stability. And I said, “I’ve got it.”
I went in to the building and met three other guys, mostly chiefs and the engineer of the building. I don’t know how we even found each other but we did. We made our way up from the foyer to the stairwell and finally on the eight floor we we found an unlocked door and went in. Parts of the building had already collapsed and on the south side, there was a gaping hole where a piece of the plane had hit the building. You could see the outside. The lights and computers were still on, so you could tell that people had exited in a rush.
I was standing by myself and saw signs and symptoms of collapse. The building was talking to me – there were creaks and groans, and the sound of steel twisting. And I realized that the building was not sound. I found the other guys one by one and told them to just listen to the building. It was coming down.
We made our way back around the floor to the stairwell, but there’d been more internal collapse and we couldn’t make it down. Finally we got around to the other side of the building to the other stairwell and made it out. They put out an order that nobody could go near the building and set up a collapse zone twice the height of the building. We got out at 3pm and the building came down at 5:30pm or so.
How are you feeling leading up to the 10th anniversary?
Butch: After it was over, I never thought or talked much about the Trade Center. My thing was: I was there, I did it, it ended. In my mind some people need to talk and process, but this works for me. I do get upset by the memorials though, and how they are just a big showcase for politicians. Firefighters are not even allowed to go to the Trade Center site for the memorial on Sunday – unless we lost a family member. You could have been in a firehouse where you lost 10 friends, but if they’re not a brother or father, you can’t go.
Peter: 10 years is a long time, but to this day when I talk about September 11th I get a little nauseous. It’s a visceral response. To me its an extremely macabre anniversary – it’s the anniversary of when a bunch of my best friends got killed. I’m also angry about the way that 9/11 has been used for political purposes, as a grandstand for politicians and a justification for war. I find it incredibly distasteful and offensive.
I can’t speak for the families of course. They’re like a different category of people. I witnessed history, like a World War II vet, but I didn’t lose my husband, wife or child. That said, I know that if I had gotten killed 10 years ago, I wouldn’t want to be remembered for the day I was killed. What my colleagues did was extraordinary, but if it were me I would rather be remembered for the good things I did with friends and family and the good times I had while I was alive.
Note: The views presented in this article are solely those of the interviewees and may not reflect the views of Repair the World or its employees.