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Adversity: Recovering Heroes
They say that angels come in many forms, and we sense their nearness when, in crisis, help arrives. But sometimes, in the aftermath of what they do best, our heroes need healing, too.
On September 11, 2013, I met my brother, Tom (a/k/a Tommy) and we traveled into lower Manhattan. It was the first 9-11 memorial in twelve years that he planned to meet with fellow fire fighters and the captain whose command he followed: Captain Mike. Tom experienced big memory gaps from that day and weeks in the recovery operation. But Capt. Mike filled in a lot of those voids.
Tom followed Dad’s footsteps and was sworn into the New York City Fire Department in 1989. On a crisp, cool day twelve years later, he enjoyed coffee in solitude in his new home in Upstate, New York. Then the news appeared: an airplane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He watched, making a visual size up of the building as it burned. He sat the mug down and drove to lower Manhattan. When he arrived, unable to turn back, he walked into the cloud of debris, afraid of what he’d find.
Capt. Mike was within blocks of the site, along with three other off-duty fire fighters in his command, when the second tower collapsed. A cloud of black smoke and debris surrounded the four firemen, who’d covered their faces in their hoods. They formed a human chain; the captain led with a flashlight, using the yellow line in the street as a guide to the site.
Capt. Mike and his crew of three arrived to the site, where manhole covers, trucks and buildings were on fire. A Port Authority Police officer reported that one of his men was trapped in Tower 6, so they used a portable and broke a window on the Vessey Street side, to climb into what remained of the tower to search for the officer.
At the rear of the tower, all the floors had collapsed and were on fire. In their search, they discovered a fallen fire fighter. And as they called for the stokes basket to bring him away from that place, Tom climbed the portable and said that he was from their same battalion and that he could work with them. The captain said he was glad to have him and that they could use the help.
It was dark, and there was little visibility. A rail needed to be removed from the ledge of the tower to lower the stokes basket. They prayed over their fallen brother, and Capt. Mike whispered. “May the Angeles lead you to paradise.” He later described what happened next. “As they took the rail off the ledge, the dust rose like a curtain, and we could see the total destruction of the towers and West Street for the first time.” That’s how the search went in the weeks that followed.
When Tom returned to regular FDNY life, he discovered the new normal was filled with lapses in judgment. He hoped that a new start and a new focus would be helpful. He applied for, and secured a position in Special Operations Command, Haz Mat in 2005. Despite numerous professional achievements, he continued to be haunted by memories and long, unpredictable bouts of depression.
“Depression is something that happens to someone else, not to the strong, and certainly not to a firefighter,” Tom said. “I couldn’t fight it, because I didn’t understand it, or accept it. Depression has some really tough tentacles. It can attack so many areas of a person’s life. In some ways, I went from ‘the frying pan to the fire’. Haz Mat 1 and Squad 288 took the heaviest 9-11 losses of any fire house on the job. The evidence can be found throughout the building. Ironically, lower Manhattan is also clearly visible from the Kitchen windows.”
“Twenty and out-- get another job.” Retirement seemed to be the next best option. But Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 18:00 hours, the fifteen-hour countdown to civilian life began, and all hell broke loose for Tom. It was the beginning of a long battle with the demons from the past. There was no place left to run. Beginning a new career was also not an option in the near future. From that day forward, there have been many twists and turns, healings and setbacks.
Tom gives credit to many, including Capt. Mike, for his support and friendship, and he thanks God for his faith that's been his guiding light in the darkest hours.
Tom’s in the production phase and about to bring to market a product that’s designed to aid fire firefighters in their difficult work. His dream is to extinguish fires in another way – by aiding young people, who suffer from mental illness, by using profits generated by the sale of his product to create a camp where youth and their families can find a program of holistic healing and hope.
Hope in Adversity
Everybody experiences adversity, whether it’s through the events of one’s own life, the life of a loved one or through local or world news. It doesn’t have to make headlines to alter life as one knows it.
Why not write about a time when, after a setback or loss, you needed to realign yourself with your life purpose or perhaps embrace a new life strategy?
- What strengthened you through the event?
- Did you recall or recite a motto, slogan or scripture for strength?
- Were you enlightened, and, if so, how?
- What changes did you make?
- What new approach or mindset did you embrace?
- What has been the result so far?
- What would you say to somebody else whose experiencing a similar challenge?
Add a story, photo or Pict-Oral Memory about what gives you hope in adversity.
Acknowledging how you manage adversity can provide valuable information and demonstrates an essential survival skill: fortitude.
Legacy Matters, Pass it On!
Writer, Certified Legacy Planner, Personal Historian and Proprietor of Pearl Pen Memoirs.