Ron Viola laughs when he talks about the nicknames firefighters give each other.
“Everyone has a nickname: Joey Bag of Donuts, Frankie Love Handles, Billy Bones,” Viola said
Then growing serious, he pauses to add, “But on 9/11 they all had one name: Brother.”
Everybody has a story about where they were when the planes hit the World Trade Center. If you’re old enough to remember the events of that day then you’re old enough to have a unique story to tell.
Ron Viola comes from a long line of people born and raised in Fort Lee. Carrying on the family tradition, he grew up roaming the cliffs and the river, played Bridgemen Football and lived and breathed the Fort Lee Fire Department.
On September 11th, 2001, Viola was working for Seagrave Fire Apparatus, one of the power house companies that supply fire departments with trucks--everything from aerials, to pumpers, to tankers, to rescue. Seagrave has been a main supplier of trucks to the New York City Fire Department.
Part of Viola’s territory included Manhattan, and many days he found himself going from firehouse to firehouse fixing trucks that were still under warranty. This is how he got to know a lot of the firemen from different houses in the city.
“No matter what house I was in, they always treated me like I was one of their own,” he said.
And if you know anything about firemen, especially New York City firemen, you know that you can’t be in their house without them trying to feed you.
“Some of the best food I ever tasted was cooked by New York City firemen,” Viola said.
Viola spent a lot of time making repairs at the busier houses in the city because the trucks were constantly going out on calls. Engine 54 in midtown Manhattan was one of the firehouses Viola knew well; it’s also one of the firehouses that experienced some of the most loss on 9/11.
When the second plane hit the towers, Viola was working at Seagrave's shop in New Jersey. He was also a Lieutenant for the Garfield Volunteer Fire Department. Like all volunteer firefighters in Bergen County on that day, everyone reported to their fire department should the call come out to assist New York.
Viola and his men were stationed at Fort Lee High School as a "de-con" (decontamination) unit.
“It was an honor to have my men at my alma mater ready to provide any relief that we could," he said. "I was home again. Back on my streets, on the field where my football team had practiced everyday.”
Despite those feelings of honor, Viola felt that a part of his childhood was being taken away on 9/11.
“These streets were my playground; that skyline was my front yard," he said. "Whenever I had a bad day, or I was having a hard time dealing with something, I used to go to the cliffs or walk down to the river to be alone and just think. I always left feeling better. Now here I was, behind Fort Lee High School, with the national guard patrolling my streets, my cliffs.”
He continued, “The towns that line the Hudson River--Fort Lee, Edgewater, West New York--the river and the skyline belong to us. And here we stood, no longer children, watching it burn before our eyes.”
At the same time Viola was thinking about all the guys from the FDNY; guys he went out with, drank with, laughed with. Were they in the towers? Were they safe? He was thinking about his grandfather in Fort Lee. He was thinking about his father, a detective in the Sheriff’s department and a firefighter who infused Viola with his own passion for fire fighting. It was through the fire department that Viola and his father had always found their connection.
After 9/11 all the new fire trucks and replacement parts were being delivered to New York. Viola found himself working around the clock to help get the FDNY fully operational and back in service again. Day after day he found himself in the firehouses repairing trucks amid all those memorials. The seemingly endless stream of civilians stopping by to offer condolences and take pictures, not giving the firemen a minute to catch their breath or deal with their pain in the solitude of their house with their guys.
“Most people remember 9/11 as the most tragic day, but the tragedy hit home for me after 9/11 when I spent months going into city firehouses repairing the trucks," Viola said. "Months later, even a year later, 9/11 dust would pour out of an engine, valve, or hose that I was working on bringing the reality of that day back full force."
And when you spend so much time with these guys at their firehouse, the lines between work and social get blurred.
“Many of these guys became my close friends,” Viola said.
After 9/11 the hardest firehouse for Viola to be in was 54 Engine in midtown. This is the place where he spent most of his time before 9/11. From the time he was a young boy, his father would take him there to visit his friends; in fact, his father gave their dalmation, Bandit, to 54 Engine as a mascot. This was the firehouse where Viola worked; these were the men he drank with.
And all that pain, all that stress, all those hours spent away from home trying to help a city up from off its knees wreaks havoc on a relationship.
Viola added, “Back then, for the small amount of time that I was home, I was always getting ready to leave and go back to work again. It’s really hard on your family and marriages didn’t survive. Mine didn’t. It’s a casualty that few people talk about.”
Ten years later Viola still carries around the weight of loss with him. The loss of the men he knew who perished on that day and the loss of all those lives.
But most of all, he says, “Ten years later, I no longer trust people the way I once did. Ten years later, the world I live in is a much different place.”