Changed lives: The New York fireman

Palmer Doyle a New York firefighter helped in the rescue effort at the World Trade Centre. He lost 70 of his colleagues and friends in the tragedy
Click to follow
The Independent US

On 11 September, I was volunteering as a poll-watcher for one of the city-council candidates when the first plane hit the World Trade Centre. I went home, called my firehouse and turned on the television. When the second plane hit the tower, I kissed my wife goodbye and raced into my station, stopping at my children's school to kiss them goodbye, too. I jumped on my engine (254) and responded with all the others on duty.

I couldn't wait to get in there because I knew that people were in trouble. Once we got over the Brooklyn Bridge, we knew this was the real thing. I have been a firefighter for more than 14 years, but nothing prepared me for what I witnessed. We got into Manhattan as the second tower collapsed and raced to the command centre so that we could prepare to work.

What I witnessed on that day has changed me forever. We were losing a great number of firefighters, and I was digging for firemen with whom I'd grown up and worked. That day, I lost more than 70 friends – all family men whom you just can't replace.

It's not easy. All I feel I can do is ask why, and try to figure out what was gained from this. I am trying now not to let them beat me. I am trying to stay positive in a way that I never have before. Since 11 September, I have really valued the support from family and friends, and the counsellors who have come down to the firehouse. Things have changed in many ways, but especially in how people have been brought closer together. I don't worry about small stuff anymore. It has made me see what is really important and wake up to how precious life is. All I can do is pray and hope that I will never see anything like this again.

That day has not only changed me emotionally, but physically, too. As well as contracting bronchitis, my sinuses are infected and my voice has been raspy ever since working at the site. I find that I'm living with the weight of the fear of not knowing what the future holds for my health. I was exposed to cancer-causing toxins, and who knows what will happen in five or 10 years?

I have also become involved in the process of protecting myself legally, along with some others, as we feel that the city failed to provide proper breathing equipment in the days following 11 September. Yet I'm still working as a New York City firefighter: for me, it's the greatest job in the world. And I am still resolved to do my job to the best of my ability. But I'm always wondering what will happen next.

Now, for me, the most important part of my job is to get home to my family after each shift. They should always be thought of first, but I'll still answer the bell whenever I am called. I take things a step slower now, and I feel weighed down by the feeling of loss, but I am so much more aware of how wonderful the people left are.