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NYC Firefighters Share Memories From Ground Zero

Ken Haskell is a second-generation New York City firefighter and an expert in rescue techniques. Haskell lost two brothers — also firefighters — in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
Courtesy Ken Haskell
Ken Haskell is a second-generation New York City firefighter and an expert in rescue techniques. Haskell lost two brothers — also firefighters — in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

Ken Haskell, a second-generation firefighter, was off-duty and planning to work on some home reconstruction projects on Sept. 11, 2001. His brothers Timmy and Tom, also New York City firefighters, were both working that day. Both Timmy and Tom went to the World Trade Center and died when the towers collapsed.

Ken arrived at Ground Zero shortly after the North and South towers fell. He spent the next two months working at the Ground Zero site, sifting through the rubble and trying to find the remains of people who had been trapped in the towers. His brother Tim's body was recovered while Ken was on-site; Tom's body has never been found.

Haskell's memories of Sept. 11 are collected in Dennis Smith's A Decade of Hope: Stories of Grief and Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends. Haskell, along with Smith and New York City Fire Department battalion chief Jay Jonas, who was inside the North Tower when it collapsed, join Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a discussion about their memories of Sept. 11, and how their lives have changed since the terrorist attacks.

Ken Haskell: 'I Was Looking For My Two Brothers.'

Haskell remembers arriving at the World Trade Center and then realizing how few bodies were retrievable from Ground Zero.

"That was a realization that set in very quickly for me," he says. "The site had been reduced so that anything that wasn't metal was reduced to ash or completely pulverized. ... So the likelihood of anyone surviving was minimal."

Haskell worked on the pile for hours that day. He went home at 4:30 in the morning but was back on-site by 8:00 the next morning. He spent most of the next 48 hours sifting through the rubble, alternating between the South Tower rubble and the North Tower rubble because he knew his brothers had been in separate towers.

"I was in a unique position knowing that I was looking for my two brothers in addition to doing all of the responsibilities I had as a firefighter," he says. "When I did come across remains, I found myself analyzing what I was looking at, as if I might know what my brother's femur might look like because that's what I had in my hand."

A week later, Timmy's body was found completely intact in the shell of the North Tower. But Tommy was still missing. Tommy's oldest daughter, Megan, was 9 years old at the time. "Every chance she got, [she] asked if I was going to bring her father home," says Haskell. "That really was difficult for me because I didn't want to make a promise to my niece that I knew I wouldn't be able to keep."

The family held out hope that Tommy would be found. "All through Timmy's wake we held onto the possibility that we would recover [Tommy's body]," he says. "When it became obvious that that wasn't going to happen, we decided to hold a memorial because we thought it was the appropriate thing to do."

Instead of a funeral, the family held a memorial service for Tommy, where everyone brought something to place in an empty casket, which was then buried next to Timmy. Tommy's three daughters, who had always loved ladybugs, told Ken that whenever they saw a ladybug, they thought of their dad.

A month later, Ken returned to work as a firefighter with Ladder 175. His first fire was large — a three-story frame house.

"Something was telling me not to go in there," he said. "But I went in anyway, and I was able to get into one bedroom. And rather than go through the hallway and go through the rest of the apartment like I normally would have, I decided to go back to the ladder. Went back down, and then part of the front of the building collapsed, and the room that I was just in [fell] over. Afterwards I was sitting on the stoop across the street, reflecting on what had happened. And as I went to raise a glass to take a sip of water, there was a ladybug on my hand. ... I looked up to the sky and said hello to my brother — just sort of thanked him."

Jay Jonas: 'You Want To Be Happy, But You Can't'

Capt. Jay Jonas was on the 27th floor of the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed. When he found out, he didn't tell the firefighters who were under his command.

"There was another captain on the 27th floor, and I said [to him]: 'You check the south windows. I'll check the north windows,' because I thought a piece of our building had just collapsed. And he just looked at me and said, 'The South Tower collapsed.' The firefighters under my command didn't hear the conversation, and I just looked at them and said: 'It's time for us to get out of here.' "

Jay Jonas is a battalion chief in the New York City Fire Department and a father of three.
/ Courtesy of Jay Jonas
Courtesy of Jay Jonas
Jay Jonas is a battalion chief in the New York City Fire Department and a father of three.

The captain and his men started to make their way down the staircase. Minutes before the tower came down, they came across a woman named Josephine Harris. She said she needed help.

"She was crying," he says. "My guys stopped and one of my firefighters turned around and said, 'Hey Cap, what do you want to do with her?' And every fiber in my being was screaming at me to get out of this building. Every second we waste was one second closer to us not getting out of the building. But that's not what firemen do. We were there to save peoples' lives. That's the whole purpose for us climbing those stairs was to save someone."

Jonas and his men started carrying Harris down the stairs. They reached the fourth floor landing when the building started to collapse.

"The floor started to move," he says. "Since the collapse started 1,300 feet away, the sound was off in the distance. And it got louder as it got closer. And you could hear the floors hitting the other floors, and it created tremendous vibrations in the stairway. You could also hear the sound of twisting steel all around you."

Every fiber in my being was screaming at me to get out of this building ... But that's not what firemen do.

After the building collapsed, Jonas' first thought was that he didn't get all of his men out. His second thought was that he was about to die.

"We were coughing and gagging and trying to get debris out of our mouths and our noses, and I thought, 'I wonder who else is still alive?' " And I gave out a roll call, and all of my people were accounted for," he says. "So our initial thought was, OK, 'We're alive. Let's dust ourselves off and continue down the stairway.' "

The stairway was gone. Jonas, Harris and the other firefighters waited for several hours when they saw a sliver of sunshine hitting them. He could see a pencil-width beam of sunlight.

"I looked up and saw a sliver of blue sky," he says. "And I looked up and saw the sky. All of a sudden I realized we're on top of the World Trade Center, [which was] four or five stories tall."

Jonas and his men finally found a way to inch their way out of the rubble pile. Once he saw the devastation, he says he didn't know how he was able to survive.

"You want to be happy, but you can't," he says. "It was hard to feel any sense of joy or accomplishment — looking out and knowing how much pain and grief was going to be going on over there. ... [While I was being treated] I talked to a guy who was one of my contemporaries and he said, 'I heard your radio transmissions. Congratulations. That was unbelievable. That was one of the most dramatic things I ever heard. ... By the way, did you see Engine 4 today?' And I thought to myself, 'Gee, what an odd question.' And I said, 'Honestly, no, I didn't see Engine 4 today.' And he said, 'Oh. My son was working in Engine 4 today.' And that hit me like a ton of bricks — that this is going to be monumental, the amount of grief and suffering within the fire department.'"

Jonas took a month off to recover from his injuries. When he returned, he had a new rank — battalion chief — and a new set of responsibilities.

"My first fire after Sept. 11, it was actually pretty strange that once I went to the fire, all of the stress and anxiety were gone," he says. "I felt most at ease, during a fire. ... The fire went out. Nobody got hurt. And it was just something in the back of my mind that said, 'This is going to be OK. We'll survive this.' "

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.