Every day, Michael Simon is reminded of 11 men he worked alongside as a rookie firefighter, in the lessons of the craft they taught him, by their photos hanging on the walls of his Manhattan firehouse. Ten years ago, all 11 died in the Sept. 11 attacks, and Simon can still remember that warm, sunny September day: his mother calling to tell him to turn on the news, rushing to his West Village firehouse, hearing that hundreds of first responders were missing in the fiery rubble.
For days, he and fellow firefighters believed that the 11 would emerge from some pocket in the smoldering chaos of concrete and steel where 343 firefighters died.
“We never lost hope,” he said, until Sept. 14, when the men from Engine Co. 24, Ladder Co. 5, Battalion 2 found the remains of nine of their colleagues, crushed or pulverized in the World Trade Center's north tower. Two were never found.
He was stunned at how the remains had settled in the debris: in the same order of rank and position as the firefighters would line up when responding to New York City fires.
In the rain, “we carried them down one by one,” Simon remembers, swallowing hard as he stands talking by a fire engine. “They were up on a pile, and getting them down from there was a job in itself.”
“It was a bittersweet day,” he says. “We were able to bring them home, but it was also a day of total devastation.”
The next day, the surviving firefighters performed the most wrenching task of all: notifying the men's families.
It's taken the department years to fill the “vacuum of experience” left by the men who passed on their skills to newcomers at the red brick firehouse on Sixth Avenue, says Lt. Michael Thomas of Ladder Co. 5.
“They had a wealth of knowledge that they shared with us,” says Simon. “Their knowledge, their wisdom made me carry on to this day.”
Adds Simon, “I think of them every day, and what they had taught me.”
Only a handful of firefighters from 9/11 remain at the firehouse, but “you get bombarded with it, you can't turn on the TV without being reminded of it,” says Thomas.
“It's always the same every year. It's just as bad, as evil.”
The firehouse's losses from the terrorist attack did not end on Sept. 11, 2001. Two more men died in a 2007 blaze at the 9/11-damaged Deutsche Bank building they were dismantling.
And even before 9/11, grief visited the firehouse nestled in a historic Manhattan neighborhood. In 1994, three members died after becoming trapped in a burning apartment.
But there's one joy to look forward to with each anniversary: the visits from families.
“We'll talk about the good times and the laughs we had,” says Simon. “We see their kids, how they've grown.”