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The Miracle Survivors


The book, plainspoken, conversational, is self-glorifying, which may be the source of the trouble. Firefighters live by codes. When, finally, the men trapped in Stairwell B raised rescuers on the radio, the response was, “Brother, we’re coming for you.” By the code, firefighters are brothers. Picciotto’s book is a story of an individual, mainly, rather than of a group, which goes against the grain. “Other people tell you you’re a good firefighter,” explains one department official. “You don’t claim that yourself.”

Clearly, however heroic he was that day, Picciotto was other things, including frightened. Picciotto, the first to escape, tied off his end so others could use the rope, then swiftly “opened up a good deal of distance between myself and the rest of the pack,” he writes. “That was okay. In my head, it had moved from being a leadership situation . . . to being a question of survival. . . . My focus shifted . . . to getting the hell out of there.”

Jonas says, “We would have taken his actions to the grave with us,” which is what the code dictates. But Picciotto violated the code. “He started taking credit for the things that we did,” says Jonas.

Picciotto doesn’t think that’s what he did. “If you ask ten different witnesses to an accident, each has a different story,” he says. As far as Harris, he says, “I wasn’t specifically helping her; I was organizing moving a lot of people.” The conflict bothers him. He hopes to make up with Jonas eventually. “It’s a shame. He doesn’t live far from here,” he says.

These days, Picciotto says, his publisher has been after him to write another book, but he isn’t interested. “I want to enjoy life,” he says. “I don’t know how to go about doing that.” He misses firefighting, a career he loved, and the camaraderie of the firehouse: “I was happier then,” he says. The Fire Department plans to reunite those trapped in Stairwell B for a counseling session, except for Picciotto, who, in this group, has become odd man out.

Louise and Pasquale Buzzelli’s relationship has gotten back on track; they’ve got Hope, a toddler now and a great source of happiness. Many relationships hit a rocky patch at first—“We had difficulty,” Diane Butler says sharply—then got better and often deeper. The disaster brought each firefighter closer to his wife. “We’re more tender with each other now,” says Debbie Picciotto. Husbands, in particular, have a new appreciation for their partners. One day, Billy Butler forgot to pick up a kid at school—he forgets a lot these days. Later, Diane told him pointedly, “Get back in the game.”

“She’s really been the backbone,” he says.

But talk to these survivors for any length of time, and you wonder: Why hasn’t relief followed good fortune? As Louise puts it, “Why aren’t we happy? As opposed to feeling bad and feeling that at any moment it could totally be gone again?”

In fact, many of the survivors are still gripped by the event. If not careful, many find themselves back there in the thick darkness of the stairwell, breathing the sooty air. Prunty dies again over their radios. Those few hours are relentless; they won’t let go. “Our personalities have changed. September 11 affected every part of our lives, the way we interact with each other, with our children, with our friends,” Jennifer Komorowski says wearily one sunny day on her backyard deck.

“Everything seems more subdued, toned down. That sadness in your heart that you felt that day, that week, it kind of hasn’t gone away.”

Many aspects of life seem just fine. Buzzelli is back at the office. He works hard, though he can’t shake the feeling that he’s lost time. “It’s two years later, and everything is the same, if not worse,” he says. Lim, reassigned to La Guardia, still misses his old partner—he can admit that freely now—but he has a new dog, a black Lab named Sprig. Harris returned to work after less than a month off. Butler and Komorowski earned promotions to lieutenant, which keeps them focused. (Though Butler still hides from the sound of thunderstorms, and Komorowski still has to reassure himself in elevators.) Captain Jonas was made a chief—leading his men out of the Trade Center was his last act as a captain. His nightmares come less frequently now, and his son, after considerable coaxing, agreed to go to Boy Scout camp this summer. But just being normal—or what the Fire Department calls the “new normal”—takes work. “Nothing seems easy anymore, or clear-cut. We got to think out everything,” says Jonas. “Are the kids going to be okay? Are we going to be okay?”

“I wish we could just go back to the people we were. We used to be great fun,” says Jennifer Komorowski.

Matt Komorowski recently asked his therapist about the chances of getting it all back. The therapist assured him—these guys quote their therapists now—that over time, a person usually returns to the person he was before a trauma. The answer surprised Komorowski. “I’d like that,” he says, “but I’m not there yet.”

The one thing that takes these guys away from that day and its mysterious echoes is, oddly, a good fire, which is what they call a fire where they get in, help the people, and get out without injury. “When I go to a fire, I don’t really have the time to think about 9/11,” says Komorowski. “There is no dizziness. No shortness of breath. I can’t explain it, but that’s the way it is.” Maybe it’s that work means making a bad situation better, a luxurious feeling. Jonas concurs. “I’m happiest—at ease, comfortable, anxiety gone—immediately after a fire.”


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