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People are coming down the stairs. They're saying, "You guys are so brave, thank you, thank you." The stairwell is 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 2 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 Bohak 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 pauses to compose himself.] We get to the fourth floor, and the door out of the stairwell to the lobby is locked. I feel 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 as he begins crying again.] 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."
Firefighters have two families: one at home, one at the station house. "My brothers, they're blood," says Jimmy. "But the guys in the station house, they're my brothers too. Everybody knows everything about everybody else. You know who's got a new girlfriend, you know whose kids are sick. The guys with seniority, they get all the respect. The probies, they get their balls broken a lot. Thin skin doesn't play in the station house."
When Jimmy exited onto the street that Tuesday morning, he found that among his group from the stairwell, only Delvalle was missing. Five days later he was still missing, along with Engine 5 lieutenant Paul Mitchell, who was off duty at the time of the crash but rushed to the site to help. They were two of the more than 300 New York City firefighters lost in the disaster, equal to more than a third of all previous casualties in the department's history. "Probably 100 of them were friends of mine," says Jimmy, who has worked at four station houses in his six-plus years with the department. "That's true of a lot of guys."
At the core of this immeasurable disaster, the missing firefighters were at once heroes and victims, symbols of bravery and tragedy. It will be years before their ranks fully recover the experience and skill that was lost. Two days after the towers fell, Jimmy joined the thousands of firemen and other volunteers searching through the rubble for survivors and bodies. Standing atop a pile of twisted steel and compacted concrete, he felt another rumble, similar to what he had felt 48 hours earlier. He ran from the pile in terror and promised not to return soon.
His brothers Billy and Marc have done multiple shifts on what rescue and recovery workers have come to call "the mountain," their name for the pile of rubble that had been the tallest buildings in the city. "I hate to say that it's hard to appreciate what it's like down there," said Billy on Sunday, "but television does not do justice to how terrible it is."
The previous evening he had held a fellow firefighter's ankles as the man reached deep into the wreckage and scooped intestines out of a detached torso for DNA identification. In another place he picked up a single tooth. "By the end of my shift down there, I smelled like death," he said, and then he too began to cry.
On a cool, crystal-clear Sunday morning, Joe went with Jimmy to the Engine 5 station house, a three-story building that is one of the oldest firehouses in the city. He found tough men, scarred but battling for their sanity. "There were guys there who said they'd been crying for three days and it was time to stop," Joe said later. They were also worried about Jimmy, who had taken things harder than most. "They said he's not back yet," said Joe. "They said he needs more time. I hope it helps him to talk about it."
Joe sat on the steps of his mom and dad's home. A soft breeze ruffled the American flag on the front of the house. Inside, the table was set for dinner. Soon Joe would return to Massachusetts to begin preparing for this Sunday's game against the New York Jets in Foxboro. Football business. "Regular game week," said Joe. Normalcy beckons, but reaching it will take longest for those survivors who were closest to the flame.