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Braving The Heat

Who would storm into a burning building without a care for their own safety? Firefighters. That's what they do. But how do you carry on with 300 brothers missing?

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He is running. He is running up West Street in clunky knee-high rubber boots that cut into the backs of his knees, in a bulky black-and-yellow firefighter's coat, with a 30-pound air cylinder strapped to his back, and Howie Scott is running faster than he ever has before in his 39 years on this earth. Ten seconds ago, he was about to step into 2 World Trade Center. For no reason, he glanced up. The tower exploded. The whole freakin' thing exploded! Now Scott is running from a black cloud of -- what? Ash? Soot?

A shrapnel storm of steel and glass and stone is smashing all around him. A concrete boulder the size of a garbage truck thuds into the ground. "John! John! John!" he is yelling as he runs. John Ceriello, also from Squad 18, was standing right next to him outside the building. Where is John?

Scott is diving. He sees a walkway and leaps for cover. He is flying through the air as if something is pushing him, something more than his adrenaline -- the force of the explosion? The hand of God? He travels at least 50 feet in the air. As he hits the asphalt, the oxygen tank delivers an iron punch to his lower back. Scott lands under the walkway as 110 stories of pulverized office tower smack like an industrial hailstorm, shredding and demolishing every car and storefront and abandoned doughnut cart in sight. The walkway shields him from the debris. The walkway saves his life.

After 30 seconds on the ground, Scott starts to save other people's lives. He pulls his air mask back into place. He crawls, bumping into -- what is this shit? It's too dark, just black, black, black everywhere, to distinguish animal from mineral. It is weirdly quiet. No sirens. No screams. There are people streaming out of an undamaged building, dazed and staring. "Just go!" Scott yells. "Don't even look! Just get out of here! Go! Go! Go!" Men in expensive business suits coated in thick dust, women with bloody bare feet, everyone is sprinting.

Scott runs, too. North again, he thinks. His back aches. His lungs are heaving. He is picking up speed. He runs straight into a plate-glass window.

He fights not to lose consciousness. Must be the only damn unbroken window, and it's nearly knocked him out! He gets up again. There's some daylight. At least it appears to be daylight. This time Scott walks. Up West Street, toward the daylight. He stops when he arrives instead at the edge of the Hudson River. Holy shit, he thinks. Where thehell am I?

"The firefighters' boots, with four-inch-thick rubber soles, were melting to their feet."

Scott slowly picks his way back toward the improvised command center at the corner of West and Vesey. There's supposed to be a main gas line over there, underneath Battery Park City; everyone is being herded clear. The chiefs are getting a little control over the situation now. They're formulating a plan . . . then BOOM! The second tower comes down. It sounds like when a pilot lowers the hammer for takeoff, Scott thinks. The first one, we had time to react, we had a moment to make a move. This one? Anyone there got crushed. Holy Christ.

Now all the radios are out. Bosses are talking about sending firefighters back in, but among the men there's a lot of skepticism: "Is there more?"

"Is anything else coming down?"

"Did they wire this building?"

Figures are emerging like apparitions, stumbling. Firefighters are hugging as they recognize fellow survivors. Scott doesn't see anyone from Squad 18. Where's John? Where is Timmy Haskell, who wouldn't wait for Scott to finish getting dressed and roared off from their Lafayette Street firehouse in the Hazmat truck? Where is Eric Allen, the guy everyone ragged about collecting old junk? Where is Manny Mojica, the Harley-riding Puerto Rican from Astoria with biceps like an NFL lineman's?

Scott's eyes are burning. He knows rubbing them is the worst thing to do, that more of the black gunk will get inhis eyes, but he can't help it. Suddenly, thankfully, a familiar face materializes, alive, out of the gloom. It's Larry Cohen. He was scheduled to be working this shift, but Scotthad asked to trade. Larry was at home upstate when he got the call. He raced across the Tappan Zee, stopped off at special-operations command on Roosevelt Island, then continued downtown.

On his way into the city, Cohen picked up Joe Downey, a Squad 18 captain andson of Ray Downey, chief of special operations. In 1995, Ray Downey had been dispatched to Oklahoma City to help direct rescue efforts after the bombing; in 1998, he'd pushed the FDNY to create units with extra training in terrorism response, particularly in anticipation of the millennium. One of those units was Squad 18.

Ray Downey's uncanny ability to find order in the worst chaos earned him the nickname "God." Teasing colleagues nicknamed his son "Jesus." Now the World Trade Center has fallen on God, and Jesus is searching for him.

On West Street, Scott tells Cohen about the other members of Squad 18 who are unaccounted for. "Let's go," Cohen urges. "We gotta get them out."

Nearly twodays later, Howie Scott and Larry Cohen return to Lafayette Street. Scott talks tough but can't look anyone in the eye. Cohen's mood ricochets minute by minute, from chesty pridein the bravery he's witnessed to exhausted despair. They had slowly paced the smoldering wreckage, trying to get traction in the unstable mounds of paper and dirt, peering intovoids and shining their flashlights into the chasms, squinting to see any reflection of life, backing off hastily when the ruins began crumbling. The firefighters' boots, with four-inch-thick rubber soles, were melting to their feet.


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