9/11 Stories: Sitting in Purgatory
9/11 Commanding Officer of Fire Co. #3 recounts deployment to NYC
Former Fort Lee Fire Chief and Captain of Fire Co. No. 3 on 9/11, Corey Parker, remembers:
“Piemonte just kept his foot on the gas going as fast as the fire truck would take us over the bridge. As commanding officer, I was riding shotgun and just kept shouting, 'Don't stop, keep going,' as we flew across the empty bridge. Our instructions were to keep moving as fast as we could because there had been talk of a potential bomb on the bridge.”
On 9/11 Parker learned about the first plane hitting Tower 1 while he was at the DPW shop.
“We stood around a TV watching what had happened," Parker said. "We couldn't believe that someone flew their plane into the World Trade Center. We started talking about what the FDNY must be thinking trying to extinguish a fire like that. That's when we saw the second plane hit and after a moment of shock, we knew we were under attack.”
Parker grew up on 8th Street and was a graduate of School No. 2, the middle school and FLHS class of '87.
“Fort Lee was the best town to grow up in," he said. "When I was about 11, me and my friends built a fort in the woods by the middle school. Someone's uncle was a carpenter and he checked to make sure our structure was sound. My father even gave us carpeting to put down on the floor. We spent most of our time there and even stayed in it during a hurricane--it stood strong and never leaked.”
Most firemen grow up knowing that they want to be a firefighter. Not Parker.
“When I was young I had a friend who said as soon as we turned 18 we'd join the fire department," he said. "I thought he was crazy. But then right before I turned 18 I ran into someone I knew who was on a fire call at Med West. That's when I decided to join Company No. 3. Now I'm not only a volunteer fireman, but I've also made a career out of it on the Englewood Fire Department. What I love most about the job is the brotherhood.”
On 9/11 Bergen County firefighters reported to their firehouses to stand by in case assistance was needed in New York City. Two staging areas for deployment were set up: one in the Port Authority parking lot on Bridge Plaza and another at Overpeck Park in Leonia. Fort Lee, along with other East Bergen County Mutual Aid Emergency Services, gathered at the Port Authority location.
Parker recounted, “We knew our chief, Mike DeGidio, worked at the World Trade Center and I can't tell you how many times I tried calling him to see if he was okay--40, 50 times--but I couldn't reach him.”
Tower 1 collapsed while they were waiting at the Port Authority.
“We just couldn't wrap our heads around that,” Parker said.
Right after the collapse of Tower 1, Fort Lee was deployed by the Port Authority to New York City.
“The bridge was completely empty except for us," Parker said. "No cars, no trucks, no people. The skies were empty. No planes flying to LaGuardia, Kennedy, Teterboro or Newark. It was really eerie how quiet and empty everything was. We were on the bridge when we heard over the radio that the second tower had collapsed. I still couldn't reach Mike. All I kept thinking was that our chief was in one of those buildings. We wanted to get down there as fast as we could to rescue our own because you always want your men accounted for. You can't just sit back and watch. Just as FDNY wanted to get their men out, so we wanted to get ours out as well.”
Making it safely across the bridge, Fort Lee Truck 2 continued to follow the Port Authority escort. When they were deployed to Manhattan, Parker thought they were on their way to the World Trade Center to assist the FDNY, but now they had been led from the Harlem River Drive onto side streets in Harlem.
“I was a little concerned that our fire truck wouldn't clear the underpasses that we were being taken through because we only had about a foot of clearance," Parker said. "If we hit a bump, there goes our clearance. Then out of nowhere came a car from the opposite direction headed right for us. Let's just say it's a miracle that no one got hurt.”
The Port Authority police escort led Parker and the other fire trucks from East Bergen Mutual Aid to a firehouse in Harlem.
“I thought we were headed downtown so I was focused on what our task would be once we got there," Parker said. "Our crew from Fort Lee was trained on how to fight highrise fires, but what was going on down at the Trade Center was so outside the scope of anything we ever dealt with. When we got to Harlem I thought we were covering their house so they could help their brothers downtown.”
Harlem wasn't expecting a visit from New Jersey, so when a caravan of Bergen County fire engines arrived at their door, they didn't know what to do with them.
"I'll never forget the Harlem Battalion Chief saying, 'What do I do with all you guys?'" Parker laughed.
Then the waiting game began. There was absolutely nothing any of the firefighters from Jersey or Harlem could do except listen to the news of what was going on downtown. It seemed like the city stopped moving above the Trade Center. No calls came into the Harlem house that day. It was while they were stationed there that they finally got word that their chief, Mike DeGidio, had managed to get out of Tower 1 and was home in Fort Lee. Learning that their chief was back home made all of them less anxious.
Parker recounted, “Our trucks were parked on the street outside the firehouse. People started to throw bottles at them. We had to be relocated to the CCNY (City College of New York) campus to protect our trucks. I'd never seen anything like that. It was crazy.”
He continued, “But it was the waiting that was the hardest part. It was like sitting in Purgatory. We had come over to help either down at the Trade Center or to cover a house. We had all this equipment and we did nothing. There's nothing worse for a firefighter than doing nothing especially when there's a working fire, or when there are brothers in need. It was torture.”
After about 14 hours of waiting, they were released to return home.
Ten years later Parker reflects, “After 9/11 emergency service workers were heroes, and we were all put on a pedestal. Everyone wanted to shake our hands and have their picture taken with us. Now, we're on the line of attack whenever budgets have to be cut. When times are tough, we're perceived as a burden on the taxpayers. That's some legacy.”