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Fight of his life (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday January 29, 2008 2:13PM; Updated: Thursday January 31, 2008 5:28PM
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By Tim Layden, SI.com

Joe had been at a dentist's office in Foxboro on the Tuesday of the attacks (NFL players are almost always off on Tuesdays). He rushed home that day to see the images on television that we all have seen many times and he knew that Jimmy's firehouse -- Engine 5 on East 14th Street -- was close to the disaster. Five hours later, he learned that Jimmy (along with oldest brother, Billy, and youngest, Marc), had all survived. On the following Sunday afternoon, with the NFL shut down, I sat in the Andruzzi's living room and listened to Jimmy's story. Here is part of what I wrote in that story:

On the day after the disaster, Joe sleepwalked through meetings and practice, in preparation for a game at Carolina that he hoped would not take place. "I was there, but not really there,'' he says. NFL games were wiped out the next day, and Joe drove to Staten Island. He was sitting in the living room of his family's modest split-level home late in the afternoon when Jimmy walked through the door and stopped at the entrance to the room, raised his right arm, and held his thumb and index finger less than an inch apart, wordlessly demonstrating the margin of his survival as his lip trembled and his eyes watered. Both men began to cry and crashed into each other in the center of the house, sobbing for longer than either could remember.

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On the morning of the crash, Jimmy was scheduled to a work a nine-to-six shift, but firefighters all know that means you show up at eight. Just after 8:30, they were called to a smoky apartment at 19th and Irving. Food left on a stove. They put that out and as they climbed back onto the truck, heard a jet plane screaming overheard. Awfully low, they said to each other. Seconds later, the engine radio erupted in noise. Engine 10, Ladder 10, a plane has hit Tower Two of the World Trade Center... Engine 10 was in the shadow of the twin towers; firefighters in that house saw the first plane hit. Engine 5, fresh from their kitchen fire, was nearly as close. Almost simultaneously, the two companies rushed to the base of Tower Two, the first one struck.

Last Sunday afternoon, Jimmy Andruzzi sat on a couch on his parents' living room, unshaven, wearing denim shorts and a white t-shirt with a silk-screened reproduction of a New York Post editorial cartoon showing a single New York City fireman and a single city policeman standing where the fallen buildings had been, beneath the words THE NEW TWIN TOWERS. Two of his brothers, Joe and Billy, sat nearby, as did his 78-year-old grandmother, Theresa Caudiano and his uncle, Daniel Caudiano. His mother was in the kitchen, making macaroni and meatballs, seeking blessed routine in a room where the day's Staten Island Advance was thrown open on a table, with pictures of dozens of the still missing, many of whom the Andruzzis have touched. Her husband, Bill, 13 years retired from the police force, would soon be home from his sales job.

In a soft voice, Jimmy described the events of Sept. 11:

"We're on the rig and we look up and see the first tower burning and my buddy, Derek Brogan says to me `We're going to the biggest disaster in the history of New York City.' Once we're there, we're thinking about the protocol for a high-rise: Command post in the lobby, another command post three floors below the fire. They told us the bottom of the fire was on 79. We're in the lobby when we hear another huge explosion. I figured out later that was the second plane hitting. I'm thinking, when we practice terrorist scenarios, they always tell us, 'First responders will be casualties.' The building is shaking and nobody wants to go up now. They tell us, 'Engine 5, go with Engine 10 to 79, put that fire out.' So we go up the stairs, me and Derek and Manny DelValle and Gerard Gorman and Ed Mecna and Lt. Bob Bohack. That's what we do. We put out fires.

People are coming down the stairs. They're saying, 'You guys are so brave, thank you, thank you.' The stairwell is so f------- narrow... one line going up, another line going down. At the ninth floor, Derek's getting chest pains. The lieutenant tells him to stop, but he keeps going. We're carrying 160 pounds of equipment and it's hot. We get to the 23rd floor and Derek is worse. The lieutenant radios for oxygen and tells the cops who bring up the oxygen to bring Derek back down. We start up again, maybe four more floors before we hear the biggest, loudest, most intense sound I've ever heard in my life. I didn't know at the time, but that was Tower One coming down. We thought it was our building coming down or a huge bomb. I figured I was dead right there. That's it.

Lieutenant Bohack says, 'Drop your hoses and get out! Right now! Out!' We start running down the stairs and it's all black smoke. [Here Jimmy begins to sob loudly] We're leaving all those firemen behind and they're still going up... all those guys, those guys... going up... but we had to leave... those poor guys...[He becomes quieter again] We got to the fourth floor and the door out of the stairwell to the lobby is locked. I felt this rumble, like thunder, and the walls start cracking and the beams are bending. Some guy, not a firefighter, God bless him, he was an angel, points out another door and we got through that into the lobby. I ran out into the street and kept going and the whole building came down, maybe 45 seconds behind me. All those firemen got killed...and I'm alive because Derek got chest pains and because my lieutenant told us to get out and that guy was on the fourth floor...[Long pause, more crying] It's not supposed to happen. Terrorists aren't supposed to fly jet planes into a building full of innocent people and the World Trade Center isn't supposed to fall down. It's just not supposed to happen.

I remember driving from Staten Island back to SI's midtown offices that day, shaken by what Jimmy Andruzzi had related. But just as much, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the Andruzzi family. Joe's mother, Mary-Ann, almost wouldn't let me leave the house without eating some macaroni and meatballs, never mind the deadlines. They are remarkable people.

Last week I talked to Jimmy Andruzzi again. He is 36 now and still a fireman. Now he works out of Ladder 3 on East 13th St. between 3rd and 4th Avenues. It has not been easy carrying on. Ladder 3 lost a staggering 12 firemen on 9/11. Their photographs are on the walls of the house. He remembers talking to me five days after the attacks. "I was in a different place back then,'' he says. But he also says, "There are a lot of guys who are still pretty shaken up by what happened that day.''

Jimmy visited his brother in the middle of his treatment, when Joe was at a low point. "He said to me, 'Jim, how did you get through 9/11?' '' recalls Jimmy. "I said, 'To be perfectly honest with you, for a long time, I drank. But you've got to remember, whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.' ''

Coaches have said that before, but without the same power. Joe remembers hearing these words from his brother. Back in 2001, he admitted guilt at earning a huge salary for playing football while his brothers earned multiples less while risking their lives to save others. Coming from an older brother, the words took on meaning. Both of them can laugh now when they remember that Jimmy used to call Joe "Rip Van Winkle'' back in the summer, because the treatment left him sleeping so much.

Joe finished treatment on Aug. 6. (That would have been C.J. Buckley's 22nd birthday). He has undergone three scans since then, all clean, but the last one cleanest of all. His doctors have told him that he is officially in remission, especially encouraging news since Burkitt's most often recurs quickly. Now Joe is going to a gym, riding a stationary bike and pushing a little weight. "Slow process,'' he says. "But I have a lot of fight left in me.'' He might even like to take another crack at football, go out on his own terms.

"How many people get to do that?'' he asks, and then answers: "Not many.''

In the end, it doesn't matter in the least. He has already played longer than most, and with greater rewards. And it was all just a prelude to much greater things.

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