John McCann was still sleeping when the phone rang. A rookie fireman
with Engine 255 in Brooklyn, he'd worked the night before, and the
11th was his day off. It was McCann's mother on the phone. She told
him to turn on the television.
Not long afterward--following calls to his parents and his girlfriend,
Christina Keough '01, a nurse in Boston--McCann was on a bus filled
with firemen crossing the Manhattan Bridge. Both World Trade Center
towers had fallen, and "you couldn't see Lower Manhattan because
of the smoke, but you could see fighter jets over the city," says
McCann, a native of Manhasset, Long Island.
When the men of Engine 255 got to ground zero around noon, they
were told to wait for further instructions. "We were just standing
there for a while," says McCann, "and all around us was mayhem."
Ash and soot made it hard to breathe. McCann saw firetrucks "smashed
and twisted like toys." Soon, he says, the company decided standing
around wasn't what they'd come for. He and a few others helped move
a massive crane through the rubble-strewn streets--clearing concrete,
then dragging the crane a few feet behind a truck. When a third
Trade Center building fell, they had to run from it. Reports through
the day of gas-main explosions kept everyone alert.
McCann finally went back to the firehouse around 1 a.m. He tried
to fall asleep in his bunk. But he couldn't manage it. "I was so
antsy to get back down there," he says. He worked 130 hours a week.
Some days were spent at ground zero, others at the firehouse in
case regular, everyday fires broke out in Brooklyn. One day, as
he and his company were sifting through the wreckage of the south
tower, someone pulled a keychain out of the concrete and dust. It
said "World Trade Center" on it, and the firefighters realized they
were standing in what had once been the gift shop of the observation
deck, 107 stories up in the sky.
One man who gave his life on September 11 was McCann's best friend
from the fire academy, Jim Pappageorge of Engine 23, a Manhattan
company that lost five of its 25 men. "We sat in the last row in
class and I was on the end of that row," says McCann. "No one was
on the other side of me--just him. That's the hard part."
Tim Townsend '91
Townsend's account of the morning of September 11 appeared in Rolling