Paul Washington was on his way to his mother's house in Staten Island with his wife and infant son when he saw heavy smoke in the distance as he drove down Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn.
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It was a day off for him, a bright, sunny September Tuesday 20 years ago, but as he proceeded up Atlantic, he recalled, "You could see the Towers were on fire."
It was just as clear to Mr. Washington, who at the time was a Lieutenant with 13 years in the Fire Department, that a family visit was about to take a U-turn that led him to stop at the house of Bobby Smith, a fellow firefighter, to watch what was occurring on TV as the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, each of which had been struck by planes hijacked by terrorists, imploded less than an hour apart.
He returned home with his wife and baby, and later that morning, the FDNY gave the order to all firefighters who had not been working that day to report to their companies, which in Lieutenant Washington's case was Ladder 127 in Jamaica, Queens.
"They sent city buses for us," Mr. Washington said, to transport members of the ladder company, Engine 298 and Battalion 50 from the Hillside Ave. firehouse into lower Manhattan.
'The Biggest Fire I Ever Saw'
As they got close to the Trade Center site, he said, he and his colleagues noticed that one of the toppled Towers "was completely engulfed in fire—the biggest fire I ever saw. As we got closer, we got quiet, and when we saw the fire, we gasped."
They came off the buses and were directed to a staging area near 7 World Trade Center where commanders were giving them assignments, and he and other members of his battalion were detailed to stand by from outside a church along Broadway a few blocks south of City Hall. Late that afternoon, 7 World Trade, which Mayor Rudy Giuliani had previously chosen to serve as the city's emergency-command center, collapsed, and Mr. Washington was among those who jumped on a tower-ladder truck for the short drive to the site.
"It took us hours to get it under control," he said of the fire that followed that building's collapse. "It was dark when we finally extinguished it."
He was speaking Aug. 25 at Vulcan Hall, the headquarters of the Vulcan Society on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. At the time, Lieutenant Washington was president of the Vulcans, a role he took on early in 1999 as the group pressed its efforts to get more black firefighters on the job.
After hours of laboring to get the fire under control, there was no time to rest, Mr. Washington said.
A Strange Discovery
"Then we searched. I thought we were gonna find bodies left and right, but we didn't find anybody. That was a big surprise," he said, one that was later attributed to the building collapses pulverizing the structures and those still trapped inside.
"When we were staged by the church waiting," Mr. Washington said, "I remember a police officer saying there were 300 or 400 firefighters down." He stifled an impulse to tell the cop he shouldn't be making statements like that when there was no way for him to know it was that bad.
"I thought it was ridiculous when he said it," he recalled, "but he was almost exactly right," with the FDNY losing 343 employees, 340 of them firefighters—including the top-ranking uniformed officer, Peter Ganci, and First Deputy Commissioner William Feehan, himself a former Chief of Department who briefly served as interim Fire Commissioner.
"We left the site about 11, 12 the next morning," said Mr. Washington, who was subsequently promoted to Captain.
When Mr. Giuliani late the previous night said, "The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear," the firefighter was early in the fruitless search for survivors, and he had no greater clarity about the losses his agency had suffered in the light of another warm, sunny day.
"Nobody really knew what was going on," Captain Washington said. "I don't recall hearing numbers or companies. We assumed the heaviest losses would be in Manhattan companies" because in most instances they were the ones that arrived at the Trade Center the quickest.
Mr. Washington hadn't brought his cellphone with him when he responded to the Trade Center, but "my mother knew I wasn't there when the buildings came down." His brother, Kevin, also a Fire Lieutenant, was off-duty when the first plane struck but responded to the scene and was outside one of the buildings when it came down, Paul said.
When he finally got hold of his phone, "I had a million messages waiting for me. I went home, but I can't remember if I went back to the firehouse. I probably went to sleep—we were all exhausted."
When he woke up—he can't remember whether it was later Wednesday afternoon or the following day, there still wasn't much information about how many firefighters had perished.
"The big thing was, at that point they were technically only listed as missing," Captain Washington said. But when he returned later that day to the site, "walking around over the debris, there had been no signs of life."
'Like Another World'
"The landscape really seemed like a science-fiction movie, like another world: smoke rising, dust everywhere," he said.
For the next month, companies within his battalion were rotated between search duty at the Trade Center site and their regular firefighting duties.
"Myself personally, I felt different," Captain Washington recalled. "I had a young son—I was thinking if he was thinking about becoming a firefighter, maybe it wasn't the best career choice."
It would be more than 20 years before Julius Washington would be old enough to be hired, but Mr. Washington and his brother Kevin had followed their father, Cornelius, into the FDNY, so it wasn't odd that he would be thinking that far ahead as to whether what had seemed a logical choice for him from early in his life might not be for his first child.
'Shook a Lot of Us'
Before 9/11, the FDNY's greatest loss of life had been the 12 firefighters who died in an October 1966 fire on East 23rd St. when the floor beneath them collapsed. Losing nearly 30 times that many at the Trade Center was staggering emotionally, even among a group of employees who prided themselves on grieving for a few days but then quickly having their sense of invincibility displace the vulnerability they briefly felt.
"It shook me—I'm sure it shook a lot of firefighters," Captain Washington said.
Twelve of the dead were members of the Vulcan Society, including Keithroy Maynard, with whom he and his wife had long socialized.
"In one instance, it was my worst nightmare come true," he said. "Shawn Powell I had gotten onto the job. He had a problem, some kind of frivolous issue," and Mr. Washington as Vulcan president had been able to persuade top FDNY officials that it should not prevent him from being appointed.
Top FDNY officials handled the notifications to the families of those who had died, as well as detailing the benefits to which survivors would be entitled. As Vulcan president, Captain Washington said, his primary role was to offer condolences to the survivors of the group's members who died, and he personally called Mr. Powell's mother, knowing she might hold him partly responsible for the loss of her son.
A Gratifying Welcome
Instead, he recalled, she told him, "'You're the one who got my son onto the job.' She wasn't upset about it. She was happy to hear from me—a beautiful lady."
Besides letting members' families "know what we could do for them," he said, "we knew we were in it for the long haul."
And so individual members of the Vulcans were assigned to stay in touch with the families of those who had died, while the group also raised money that was distributed to the mothers beyond their departmental benefits.
"I'm glad we've done a good job of maintaining contact and bringing them into the family," Mr. Washington said.
But asked whether the huge loss of life had cut through some of the racial divisions that existed in the firefighter ranks, with the Vulcans pushing for changes in recruitment and testing while white firefighters and much of the department's leadership resisted anything they believed might lower standards, Mr. Washington said, "Not at all."
Rudy, Cassidy Stirred Anger
Part of that feeling came from Mayor Giuliani's decision, less than three weeks after 9/11, to appear in the opening of the new season of Saturday Night Live, flanked by his Police and Fire Commissioners with a couple of dozen cops and firefighters in uniform, virtually all of them white.
"It was clear to me that Giuliani wanted it that way," Mr. Washington said, as if only white first-responders had run into the Twin Towers and lost their lives during the rescue efforts.
Not long after that, he added, "There was a huge controversy, with Steve Cassidy at the center of it" within the FDNY itself.
The day after 9/11, three white firefighters raised an American flag at Ground Zero, re-enacting the scene in which three U.S. Marines during World War II planted the flag on Iwo Jima to mark an important victory over Japan.
Early the following year, after developer Bruce Ratner proposed erecting a statue outside FDNY headquarters in downtown Brooklyn commemorating that action but depicting firefighters of different races, Mr. Cassidy, who at the time was running for president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, stridently denounced the change.
'Tacked Into Racism Here'
Top FDNY officials approved of Mr. Ratner's concept, which acknowledged the reality that while the 23 firefighters of color who lost their lives during the rescue efforts comprised a relatively small segment of the department's death toll, the losses of both black and Latino firefighters represented a slightly higher percentage than their numbers on the force.
Mr. Washington at the time accused Mr. Cassidy—who went on to easily win the UFA election several months later—of playing racial politics in a force that at the time was 92 percent white. When he left office after 14 years in the job, the UFA leader insisted his denunciation of the change resonated because "management was jamming something down the union's face...That wasn't about race; it was about pushback and knowing how to use the media."
Captain Washington still doesn't buy it. The three white firefighters had engaged in what amounted to "a publicity stunt," he said, and those who insisted the statue should reflect them "also tacked into the racism inherent in the country and the department. Everyone was in Cassidy's corner. All of a sudden you have to be historically accurate? Give me a break."
He rebuffed Mr. Cassidy's attempt, the day after he won his first term, to justify his position during a visit to Vulcan Hall. Less than two months later, Mr. Washington spearheaded the lawsuit challenging the 1999 and 2002 Firefighter hiring exams as discriminatory.
He stepped down as president more than a decade ago, before U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in 2011 ruled that both exams were biased and that a subsequent 2007 test for the job had a discriminatory impact. That paved the way for the de Blasio administration's 2014 settlement that altered the recruiting and testing processes and began the meaningful integration of the Firefighter ranks.
A Question That Rankles
"People say, sometimes, 'How come you're only representing black firefighters?'" Captain Washington said, as if they were unaware that there were also fraternal groups for Latinos and whites of different ethnicities within the FDNY.
"I don't even answer that anymore," he said. "If somebody doesn't understand why we do that, God bless 'em."
In some respects, at 59 he is very much a typical senior firefighter, having followed his late father into the department and with a brother—now retired—who also had a long career in the FDNY. Like many of his white counterparts, he has also stayed on well past the point when he could have retired and qualified for a full pension.
There were fire officers who had planned similarly long careers but changed their minds after 9/11, abruptly made aware that even if they got new assignments that placed them in quiet firehouses or away from firefighting duty altogether, a similar mass-casualty event could force them to put their lives and health on the line to a greater degree than they had ever considered, and so they left soon after reaching their 20th anniversary in the job.
Mr. Washington, who now has 33 years' service, made a different calculation. He was aware of the potential long-term effects of the extended period searching first for survivors and then for remains at Ground Zero was having after a few weeks working shifts there, he said: "the dust mixed with smoke mixed with steam. We were told the air was safe to breathe. A lot of us were skeptical."
A Reminder of Benefits
He became more aware of that potential toll a year after 9/11, he said. By then, however, he'd been given a reason for staying on the job for its fulfillment that had nothing to do with the subsequent Vulcans' lawsuit.
About a month after 9/11, Captain Washington said, he and a colleague rescued a little boy of about 7 and his mother from a burning building. "It reminded me of what's so great about this job," he said. "I remember him putting his arms around my neck and his legs around my waist."
He has never gone to the World Trade Center site for the 9/11 ceremony, or to the gathering strictly of firefighters at the Firemen's Monument in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. Instead, he usually opts for a memorial service the Vulcans hold on Quincy St. in Bedford-Stuyvesant and, when he's working, a service held at his firehouse for Engine 234, not far from Vulcan headquarters.
"And I call all the families" of Vulcan members who lost their lives 20 years ago, he said.
The infant son who he decided back then might be better advised to do something else for a living, Julius, recently turned 20 and has other plans for his future while attending Howard University. His 18-year-old son, Malcolm (he and his wife also have a 15-year-old daughter, Ayana, and a 13-year-old son, Marcellus), "may be interested" in becoming a third-generation Washington in the FDNY.
To which Paul said, explaining also why he stayed on, "Just a rational look at it, it's risk vs. reward. [9/11] was just a one-time event. I'd have some worries, but no more than my father had for me."
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