Following is a talk given September 13, 2008, by FDNY firefighter Bobby Senn at the unveiling of the City of Redondo Beach 9-11 Memorial. Senn, twice buried alive in the rubble of the World Trade Center, helped the city obtain the 300 pound WTC beam remnant for the memorial.
It was a cloudless, crisp, beautiful September morning. Here in America, life was setting up for another typical day. Parents were getting their children off to their first weeks of school. Some kids were figuring out who that new kid was sitting across the classroom, storeowners were brewing fresh cups of coffee, and all of us were more or less setting upon another day in the life.
For me, the day started at 5:45 a.m. with the alarm clock ringing behind my head. I rolled over swung my feet on the floor and did my best not to wake my wife Christine. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and prepared to leave for another day as a firefighter in the greatest job in the world – the job I wanted for a very long time, and a job I never went to not wanting to be there.
Life was good, and life was pretty simple. Life in the New York City Fire Department was always eventful and I loved every minute of it.
I started my car and snuck back into the house to kiss Christine one more time and tell her that I loved her. I told her I would call her at some point during the day and I’d see her tomorrow when we both arrived home. I gave Bentley, our big white 200-pound Great Pyrenees, a big hug and kiss on the head and out the door I went. To me, being in the FDNY was not a job, or a career, or even work, for that matter. It was a passion and a vocation. It was something that others would look upon as an insane way to make a living by flirting with death day in and day out. But to me, it completed me. It made me so happy to be part of a brotherhood and, more so, part of tradition of men that made a true difference in the world. We’d pull life from death’s hands and make it so others could live yet another day.
I drove from the front of my home on Long Island never looking back, never taking a second glance at my neighborhood, never once thinking, ‘You are going to speak to God today, and you will never go home,’ never once thinking that my life would turn completely upside down in a matter of a few hours.
We arrived at the World Trade Center at 8:58 a.m. on Liberty Street, 12 minutes after Flight 11 struck Tower One. Years of training, years of preparation, years practicing how to be the best firefighters we could be all came down to this moment. Looking towards the sky I could see three things: a lot of smoke, an awful lot of debris falling, and fire that was consuming almost 20 floors of a high rise building.
Looking back sometimes it all seems like it’s in slow motion. Suddenly there was a change in everyone’s focus. Heads were no longer fixed on Tower One. They were searching, searching for that noise, that loud, rumbling, screaming, intense noise that shook the ground. To be honest, I don’t remember hearing it at all. I was on sensory overload, as well as concentrating on getting out of the rig and into the building. But what I can tell you is I remember seeing so vividly the tail section of United Airlines Flight 175 sinking into the south wall of the South Tower, 70 floors above our heads, with an explosion so incredible we felt the heat of the fireball from thousands of gallons of jet fuel at street level. Those thousands of onlookers figured out instantly that they needed to get as far away from this place as they could. Stampedes of regular people, who also left their homes that morning in search of a good day, were now running for their lives, for fear of death.
I can still see that one girl, dressed in that lovely green suit, makeup running down her face, screaming, ‘Where do I go?’ Members of the New York City fire department and police department and Port Authority police department and regular ordinary civilians were going into that building while everyone else was coming down the stairs and out.
Well, most of them were. For those tragically trapped above the point of impact, there were two options: stay up there and die at the will of the smoke and fire, or make that decision to take destiny into their own hands. Most will not speak about it. Most who witnessed it, as I did, will simply close their eyes and slowly shake their heads. They would come to the window’s edge, 1,000 ft. in the air. They would look upwards, as if to make a deal with God and clean their slate. Some held hands, and some went together. Some just put their arms out and stepped towards hopefully what the next life might be.
They fell so helplessly in what I can best describe as a spiritual event. Some disappeared behind the roofline of surrounding buildings. Others, unfortunately, I had very clear view…of their life ending here upon this earth. The memories of this I wish upon no one. The sight of life ending in such horrific form should be left to the imagination, fiction books and the movies. Unfortunately this wasn’t a movie; it was very real. It was real and there was nothing any of us could do to save them. It was the most helpless feeling one could have, especially when you are in the business we are in.
I made my way to Tower One and along the way I found myself in the lobby of the Marriot Hotel, which sat nestled between both towers. Myself and a police officer helped about 25 occupants out of the lobby of that building and down West Street safely. Looking back it was the only good thing that happened that day. I know I might have helped some folks home to their families, and it’s one brief moment I can look back on and think maybe I made a difference.
I continued on to the North Tower lobby. Along the way sights were horrific and nauseating. The jumpers, they continued to fall from above and explode on impact. They were landing on the sidewalks, they were landing on the fire trucks, they were landing on the street, and at 9:25 a.m. the first line-of-duty death for the New York City Fire Department occurred.
A veteran Brooklyn firefighter named Danny was leading his company to the command post for instruction. His last words were, ‘Look out for the people jumping. If one of them hits us, we are dead.’ He turned and two seconds later his words turned to reality as a young female landed on him, killing him instantly. I can still see his officer calling command post for an ambulance for his fallen comrade.
In very simple words, there were bodies everywhere. Some of them I can still see. I see their clothes, their hair, their faces, and their lifeless bodies in a mass wherever their descent had terminated
Finally making it into the lobby of Tower One, it was there I saw FDNY Chaplin Father Michael Judge, pacing and praying for the safe return for all of us from this. Hell had come to earth and we were right in the middle of it. He and I exchanged glances, and I was looking for the rest of the brothers from my firehouse. Considering the chaos outside, the lobby wasn’t really as crazy as I would have expected it to be. Occupants were coming down the stairs and following directions, firefighters and police officers were heavily engaged in assignments and trying to make a difference.
A short time later a light rumble began. It began lightly but intensified to deafening almost immediately. The building was shaking and everyone in the lobby began to retreat for cover. In a matter of two seconds I was off my feet and flying through the lobby horizontally. I slammed off a wall and came to rest underneath a lobby reception desk.
I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t move.
At some point in our lives, usually at a funeral or in a hospital, we all ponder, if even for a moment, what is going to become of us and what will our last day be like. Our hopes are that we are surrounded by those we love and that our fleeting moments are peaceful and we move on to whatever the next life might be. Our families know we love them, and they us. We are embraced as we pass.
Well, instantly, I knew what my last day was, where and how I was going to die. I was going to die in the World Trade Center in a building collapse. I was never going home again. I would never see Christine again. We would not grow old together, and this was it: I was dead and there was nothing I could do about it. This was much larger than I was. However, I wasn’t scared, my life did not flash before my eyes, I was not screaming for help. It was quiet, it was peaceful, and it was okay to die.
My grandfather passed away in 1980. Lying under there covered with everything and not being able to move, I heard his voice. I felt him standing behind me and he told me, you have to get out of here and you need to get out of here right now. As quickly as he was there he was gone and my eyes hurt again. I couldn’t breathe, I was vomiting, and I was in a really bad spot. Slowly I was able to free myself, and whether it took five or ten or fifteen minutes I really couldn’t tell you. I found my way through the darkness, and some others who were also in what remained of the lobby, we found our way to a stairwell and made our way over the overhead walkway that crossed West Street over to the financial center. We made our way outside and it looked like a snowstorm, a gray ashy blizzard.
Those who survived this collapse were wandering around covered in the ashes and dust and they looked like zombies from a horror movie. We made our way to the nearest corner, which was Vesey Street. It was there I was able to use someone’s cell phone and I called my wife at work. I said to her, ‘I just called to tell you that I love you and I don’t think I’m coming home. Just know that I love you.’
She panicked, not knowing what was going on herself. I told her to just get home and she’d know what was happening. ‘I just need you to know I love you, Chris.’
I hung up the phone and looked towards the sky and all I could see was a large antenna from Tower One starting to sink down above us. I just stood there and said, ‘Holy shit, it’s coming down!’
I turned and attempted to run and again got about three steps and was off my feet sailing through the air, this time coming to rest on my hands and knees against a fence, buried face down.
Somehow, I managed to get up and onto my hands and knees again and crawled almost two full city blocks not knowing where I was going, puking on myself with my eyes practically burned shut. A police officer, one of those guys who ran towards the danger and not away from it, said, ‘I got you, brother.’ He walked me out of the daylight, daylight five blocks away, and now very painful to be in. He took me over to a fire hydrant where I was able to wash out my eyes. I looked back towards the dust and debris and the buildings were gone, both of them, smoke billowing towards the sky and a cloud of dust covered all of lower Manhattan. Hell had come to Earth and left some mark.
Within minutes, the names started circulating of who was missing. Radios were calling for help. Some of the toughest guys I’ve ever met in the world were crying in the street. We were all looking for an answer, an answer to the question of what just happened. Quickly the questions became, ‘Who is in there?’ And ‘Let’s go back in there and get them.’
By an absolute miracle some of the guys from my firehouse were right next to me when that smoke started to clear. Our embrace was a lifetime of hugs all in one. Fire trucks, police vehicles from everywhere, were coming in. Yellow ones, white ones, New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut…The brothers were on their way, the brothers were coming, and God knows we needed them. Within days there were brother firefighters and police officers from all over the country, and eventually the world. And yes, yellow helmets and turnouts of firefighters and rescue gear of police officers from Southern California, on the pile of smoking debris looking for their comrades from New York.
The rest of the day was filled with learning who was missing and already confirmed dead. Father Michael Judge, who I was in the lobby with, he was gone; Chief of department Pete Ganci, a humble man who became the leader of the greatest fire department in the world, he too was gone. And his story goes that he too survived the first collapse, and like a great military leader of the past, he retook the command post in the middle of West Street amongst the devastation and continued to lead his troops. He died when the second collapse came down right on top of the command post. I remember standing unable to see, with my hands on his casket in a firehouse on Long Island, one week later. I simply apologized to him that we couldn’t get it done. I took one of his funeral cards and just went home.
We were beaten, were broken, and for the first time in the history of our great department, we lost. We were down, and to be honest for quite some time I don’t know how we actually stood up again. Looking back, we stood up because we had to – we had to for those guys who were still in there, for those families who lost everything, for the now thousands of empty chairs at so many dinner tables. To tell you the truth, there are some days it still doesn’t seem possible…it was just some really bad nightmare. And then comes days like today when I look at that piece of steel and it’s real and it happened and the lives of thousands have changed. Twenty thousand children lost someone connected to them that day – twenty thousand. Today it is believed there are over 3,000 cases of cancer as a result of the recovery effort as well, and I and many of my friends are sick, and some are very sick. The death toll will continue to rise and the sick and dead will follow…more people affected.
In February of 2002, as part of the mayor’s office, I represented the City of New York and was chosen to go to a place in California to just say thank you for the support. When my phone rang they told me you are going to Redondo Beach, and I said, ‘Where the hell is Redondo Beach?’
I had a very difficult time deciding whether or not to leave New York. Many of the seven brothers missing from my firehouse were still in that debris pile someplace. I was working and digging and helping families and the last thing I wanted to do was leave. To be honest, the only reason why I went was so I could get my wife out of New York for a few days to get some rest. And secondly, I insisted I had to visit firehouses and spend time with the brothers to tell them about what really happened that day and during the recovery effort. We arrived at Long Beach airport to meet a contingent of firefighters from Long Beach and Redondo Beach.
It was then I first placed my hand in the hand of Captain Robert Franck, who was then a paramedic firefighter, who was responsible for our safe arrival and passage into this city. We were greeted as family by Bob and the rest of the Redondo Beach Fire Department. We ate dinner at the firehouse. They embraced Christine and gave us a little bit of peace in our lives.
Nobody knows this until now but I remember the first time we opened the door to the hotel room at the Portofino that overlooks the ocean. The sun was shining so bright, the sea lions were barking, and it was almost as if planned – a few seagulls soared right by our window and a boat was cruising out of the harbor. I felt the sun on my face for the first time in a long time as I closed my eyes, and it was the first time I realized I was still alive. I stood there with the tears rolling down my cheeks, with Christine, and didn’t want that moment to end.
We spent time with the brothers of both police and fire departments. I told them about that day, and moreover told them about the missing and the dead. I told them of my friends whom I missed so very much that I could feel my belly hurt. I told them about the horrendous recoveries we had to perform in order to send people home to their loved ones. I spoke of Terry Farrell, a good friend and generous heart, who was among the dead. I spoke of Walter Weaver, the kid who grew up across the street from me, and grew up to become a member of the New York Police Department emergency services unit. He was told to get out of the South tower and he said, ‘We’ll be right down. We are on the sixth floor taking people out of an elevator.’
I spoke of my hometown friend, Port Authority police officer George Howard, one of the most brilliant rescue men I have ever met, and also one of the ugliest guys I have ever met. I spoke of how I missed his raspy, gruff voice and his willingness to make a difference in this world. And regardless of your political views, the President of the United States now carries George’s shield with him, and it is only fitting that the President carries the shield of someone who made the decision to give his life to the emergency services and make his life secondary to that of others.
George was off duty on Sept. 11. He was home and learned of the attack. He jumped in his car, and George being George defied traffic and somehow in midmorning traffic made it to JFK airport and to his ESU vehicle and down to the World Trade Center. It is believed that George had just exited his ESU vehicle under the foot of Tower One. He grabbed his stuff and was headed to do whatever he could do to get the job done. Well, within seconds of his arrival, Tower One collapsed with George in its path. His final act was not to save himself. As the tower collapsed, a woman in front of him had fallen. And George again being George stopped to insure her safety. He pushed her in front of him safely away from the falling tower. And George’s final, selfless act is what I will hold close to my heart, for his supreme sacrifice will always be a testament to his life’s commitment.
I could stand here for hours, and Bob Franck will attest to this, that there are many stories like George’s – acts of human sacrifice and selflessness that day. When you come up and look at this piece of steel I would hope that those are some of the things you will think of. I hope you will think of the brave fights for life that went on inside those airplanes, the regular everyday person who refused to leave the old co-worker on an upper floor and ultimately paid the price with their own life as well…the firefighters and police officers who knew the moment we saw those buildings in flames that we weren’t going home, and yet we still went in as strong and as fast as ever because of the commitment…and that you reflect on the thousands who are now dying of respiratory illness and cancer as a result of the recovery effort. Those, like myself, who live with the affects of post-traumatic stress and try to get through each day without thinking about how our lives have unraveled and that we continue to pick up the emotional pieces of our lives. And that Sept 11, 2001, which, to some, was so long ago, seems like yesterday, and many of us still smell, see, feel and relive that day.
To those here today – there are some people who don’t need a memorial to remember. This memorial before us – to be honest, I really don’t need it. Most of here today don’t need it. Sgt. John Wisser of the Redondo Beach Police Department doesn’t need it in order to remember. His reminder is the death of his nephew in the United States Army, who was killed in action in the war on terror. He has his memorial right here [places hand on heart]. You met Brad Burlingame before [Burlingame spoke earlier at the Redondo ceremony about his brother, Charles, the pilot of American Airline Flight 77 who is believed to have died fighting the terrorists on board]. He doesn’t need it. His brother Charles, who crashed into the Pentagon…well, I’m sure Brad need only open his eyes every morning to recall how his life has changed.
So who needs this? Well, your children need this, and your children’s children need this, so that years from today they can come here on a field trip with their classmates, or go the library, and touch a piece of steel and connect with a time I hope they never have to see again. Those driving down Pacific Coast Highway, pissed off that they are late for yoga or a nail appointment, need this. And the guy who strolls by with his dog, his newspaper under his arm, and the freedom to choose whether or not he is going into that church or that synagogue or this mosque, or whether he isn’t going to go into any of them at all, he needs this – a reminder that life and freedom come at a price, and the price is sacrifice.
I sacrificed my entire life with no regrets in the interest of making others’ lives better. My life has never been about me. The thousands of lives that were lost on September 11 and the aftermath were selfless acts in order to insure that we drive our own cars, park in our own driveways, write and convey our own thoughts, and maintain our ability to be individuals with rights. Those who brought hell to earth on Sept. 11 came with the intentions of dismantling our lives and our freedom because they disapprove of our way. They have brought many of us pain, and they took the lives of many. However, that flag [he points to the WTC American flag, which was raised prior to the ceremony], the same flag that flew at the World Trade Center as we carried off our dead, still waves today, seven years later with the pride and fortitude that our ancestors instilled in it.
As you put your fingers and hands on this memorial, remember where you were that day, and how simple life seemed the day before. Remember that life can and will change in an instant. Tell your family that you love them, today. Tell your friends that you love them, today. I stood on West Street prepared to die and had the great fortune of getting to tell my wife that I loved her when I knew I wasn’t’ going home. Most don’t get that opportunity. Most don’t get to go home and get a second chance. Do not let life pass you by.
Your homework assignment tonight is to go home and pick up the phone and call the most important person in your life, and tell them that Bobby Senn told me I should call you. And tell them how I should be dead, tell them about the dead guy that God sent home. Tell them how much you love them and your life is so much better because they are in it. And you should live with no regrets.
I would like to thank the City of Redondo Beach for inviting my brothers and me here today, inviting us here to remember those who were lost and helping to insure that we never forget. I would like to thank the brothers of the Redondo Beach fire and police departments, some of whom Christine and I care for so very deeply we now consider family. You are truly a good thing that has come out of this tragedy.
Finally a short story I feel you all should know regarding the day that this piece of history arrived in Redondo Beach. It was immediately placed in the hands of the Redondo Beach police and fire departments for its safekeeping. And upon removing the protective cover for its trip, a group of men who are all here today, men who too have dedicated their lives to protecting the citizens and property of this city, stood silently and each placed their hands upon it recalling that day, the losses suffered and wondering where this piece of steel stood within lower Manhattan’s icon to New York City. It was told to me that one senior firefighter slowly approached and simply said, ‘This piece of steel is stained with the blood of heroes.’. .. I can tell you and everyone here today that those that did not go home that day, be it Charles Burlingame, Todd Beamer [the UA 93 passenger credited with leading the fight with terrorists on board], Walter Weaver, Terry Farrell, or any of the other lost souls… if they could speak to you, they would stand here before you as I do and tell you ‘I am no hero.’ They would tell you they just tried to make a difference in the world, a difference in their vocations, a difference with their families and with their friends. However, to you and me, they will always be our heroes. Ladies and gentlemen, please keep our troops in your thoughts and in your hearts, fly the flag of this great country, and never forget that tragic day seven years ago that has changed our lives forever.
[Looks to the sky]
I miss you guys.