9/11 Stories: Determination Never Wavered, Energy Never Waned
Fort Lee-born NYC firefighter talks about working at Ground Zero in the days after Sept. 11, 2001
Retired New York City firefighter Louie Sarapochillo reminisces about his firehouse in the Bronx--Ladder 33/Engine 75, famously known to all firefighters as “Animal House.”
“Our house was one of the busiest in the city, and we fought fires in one of the worst parts of the Bronx, Sarapochillo said. "We dealt with working fires in abandoned buildings, apartment fires from food being left on stoves, first aid emergencies like drug o.d.'s and car accidents. Basically, a firefighter's dream come true.”
Sarapochillo grew up on Coolidge Avenue before moving to 11th Street and graduating from Fort Lee High School in 1969.
“Fort Lee was a great town to be a kid in," he said. "I used to ride my bike from Coytesville to the Palisades almost every day. Me and my friends roamed the cliffs and hung out down the river. I have such great memories.”
What he remembers most fondly is playing defensive tackle his senior year against Leonia at the Thanksgiving Day game in November of 1968.
“Somewhere in the middle of the game I broke my arm. My buddy told me it looked broken, but I didn't care. I just played through. It was the last game I'd ever play as a Bridgeman and I wasn't going to let a broken arm get in the way. We won the game. That's the way you want to go out,” Sarapochillo laughed.
Sarapochillo was a union carpenter before he became a member of the FDNY in 1981 and was assigned to Ladder 33/Engine 75 in the Bronx nicknamed by a chief who said the house reminded him of the one in the movie Animal House.
"In New York City there are typically two companies in each firehouse—a ladder company and an engine company," Sarapochillo said. "There are 14 guys assigned to each shift and shifts are 24 hours on, three days off. Working and living with the same 14 guys on 24 hour shifts you become closer than brothers."
Sarapochillo reflects on Sept, 11, 2001.
“On 9/11 I had just come in to start my shift," he said. "Everyone was having coffee, reading the paper or watching TV. That's how we learned about the first plane hitting the tower. We were all gathered around the TV when the second plane flew into the second tower. That's when we knew something was wrong.”
Right after the second plane hit they got called out, but not to the Trade Center.
“It was eery," he said. "There was no regular traffic on the Major Deegan. Just the craziness of emergency vehicles speeding past us—FBI, police, unmarked cars."
Sarapochillo continued, “As soon as we got back to the firehouse you could see the towers burning from where we were watching. The radios were going crazy relocating Bronx companies to cover houses in Manhattan that were at the Trade Center. We stayed behind to cover those houses along with some Westchester County companies that were called to the Bronx."
Sarapochillo described watching the towers fall as "surreal."
Whereas the possibility of structural collapse became a new post-9/11 concern for other houses, the firefighters at Animal House lived with the possibility of collapse every time they went out on a call.
"We worked in an area where there were a lot of abandoned buildings that were structurally insecure," he said. "We always thought that any building we entered had real potential to collapse."
Animal House didn't get sent to assist at the World Trade Center on the day of the attack. Their work began the day after.
“As soon as our shift ended the next morning we hopped in someone's truck and went down there," Sarapochillo said. "Anytime we were off duty we put on our gear and went down to Ground Zero. We used our IDs to get through all the checkpoints.”
Sarapochillo remembers the first time he walked onto Ground Zero.
“I couldn't believe what I was looking at," he said. "Everything was smoking and smoldering. It was like walking through Hell. It was pure chaos. There was nothing but piles and piles of debris and nothing was even close to being organized. Everyone was walking around still in a state of shock. Especially firemen who had lost so many brothers. We lost all of our high-ranking chiefs and commissioners. Anyone who had any knowledge of working construction sites led the way. We had eight to 10 guys on a crew until the new chiefs started settling in and a sense of organization started coming about.”
He continued, “Each firehouse had their own guys working and a person from each group would take charge. About three guys I was very close with were missing down there—guys I went to Probie school with; guys who worked at my house and then got promoted--so we tried to zone in on where we thought they might be by using the street grid and trying our best to determine the placement of the buildings. Then we just started digging.”
The ruins of Ground Zero were punctuated by huge piles of twisted steel and debris. Everyone working there had to be really careful not to fall into a 30- to 40-foot-deep hole that lay hidden beneath light layers of debris.
“Guys fell into holes and got burned by the steel,” Sarapochillo said. “Lots of people got hurt down there.”
Then there was “Bucket Brigade” duty.
“You'd take buckets of debris and sift through it looking for human remains and any personal belongings," Sarapochillo said. "If something was found we'd pass the bucket down the line to someone in charge.”
Sarapochillo briefly pauses before going on, “The mission quickly went from a rescue to a recovery mission. We were very careful and slower in our recovery efforts. We wanted to find our men. Our determination never wavered and our energy never waned. Whenever we found remains of people the line stopped. If we could identify the remains we called in the appropriate personnel. If we found the remains of a firefighter someone from FDNY would take charge; remains of a cop, NYPD came in; if we found civilian remains we marked it and called the fire chief over. Once things got organized down there, Ground Zero was divided into sectors. Each sector had a chief assigned to it.”
Between working Ground Zero and working his shift at the firehouse there were all those memorial services.
“The mood at the firehouse was a combination of sad and mad at everything that had happened," he said.
Sarapochillo remembers how wonderful the people from their neighborhood were. They came by every day and every night with food for the firemen.
“These poor people in the Bronx who had nothing fed 14 to 16 guys every day and night,” Sarapochillo said. “To be given so much by people who had so little to give was incredibly moving to all of us.”
Sarapochillo reflects upon the past 10 years, saying, “I still miss my friends in the fire department who lost their lives on 9/11. I feel like the people who weren't there, people who didn't lose someone they cared about, have to be reminded by an anniversary of all that we lost that day. Life has moved on for them. But for us who lost 343 brothers, every day is cause to remember 9/11.”