Emotional toll on rescue workers as hunt goes on

Emergency Services
Click to follow
As the list of missing New York firefighters grew ever longer, distraught wives and girlfriends gathered at the city's station houses in a desperate attempt to locate their loved ones.

As the list of missing New York firefighters grew ever longer, distraught wives and girlfriends gathered at the city's station houses in a desperate attempt to locate their loved ones.

Some have had to be talked out of searching through the rubble and twisted metal, all that remains of the twin towers, to search for them.

For the relatives of five firefighters pulled clear of their wrecked vehicle yesterday afternoon, there was unimaginable joy. But the city has been stunned by the greatest trag-edy ever to befall the brigade. At least 202 firefighters, and possibly up to 350, are missing, feared dead.

At the same time about 400 firefighters armed with pickaxes and shovels, aided by mechanical diggers and cranes, are steadily sifting the rubble looking for survivors while pulling out the bodies of victims, many of them colleagues.

The physical and emotional toll on the fire officers having to carry on their work while so many of the co-workers and friends lay buried around them was expressed by Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen talking at the disaster scene.

"I keep looking at the list of people that are missing," he said. "I don't want to talk about all the names. Just a phenomenal group of people. The best of the department. The best rescue guys are missing. The squad guys are missing. Terrific units all around here. It's just phenomenal. It's just unbelievable to me."

Firefighter Joe Boneillo of Ladder 24 unit said: "We dug for hours, and we couldn't find anybody." He put his hand over his mouth as he added: "All we found were helmets."

Ladder Company 132 and Ladder Company 105 and Engine Company 33 are missing in action. So are all five of the élite Rescue Companies that serve the city. So are all the members of 30 other fire companies that responded to the attack on the World Trade Centre and found themselves caught in the collapse of buildings as they headed up stairwells and through hallways to rescue people.

A total of 350 firefighters, nearly 30 times the number ever lost before by the department in a single event, are missing or dead, officials said yesterday. Five of the department's most senior officials, including the chief who specialised in directing rescues from collapses of this sort, are also missing or dead, as are a dozen battalion chiefs. At least 10 fire trucks were buried in the rubble.

Yesterday, American flags hung from makeshift poles in front of homes on the street in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn where Timothy Stackpole lived with his wife, Tara, and their five children, aged seven to 18. Captain Stackpole, 42, had only returned to full duty several months ago after recovering from severe burns he suffered in a fire in 1998, and had been promoted a week ago. He was off duty when he heard about the terrorist attack, but went to the World Trade Centre to help. He has not been heard of since.

"Anybody who knew Timmy loved him," Noreen McGuiness, a neighbour, said. "He was a great man, a great husband."

Officials have estimated that as many as 400 firefighters were at the scene, including several hundred inside the buildings, when the first of the towers fell. Some made lucky escapes, but in many more cases the cascading rubble engulfed the officers. People such as the department chaplain, the Rev Mychal Judge, who was attending to a firefighter who had been injured by a falling body when both were swallowed up.

At Engine Company 1 in Manhattan, firefighters recalled how they got out of the north tower when they were told the south tower had just collapsed. Their lieutenant, Andy Desperito, told them to get out, while he stopped to help someone. Several minutes later they were on the street when the north tower fell. Lieutenant Desperito's body was recovered later in the day.

Among those caught in the second collapse were three of the department's most senior officials, William Feehan, the first deputy commissioner, Peter Ganci, the Fire Department's highest-ranking uniformed officer, and Raymond Downey, the chief of special operations, who were directing rescue operations from a command post.

Despite the rising death toll the search for survivors goes on.

Lieutenant Vincent Boura, who with hundreds of other soot-covered firefighters had spent hour after exhausting hour climbing in and out of the rubble at the World Trade Centre, said: "I'm going to go home and kiss my daughter. She's just starting to say 'Daddy.'

"I didn't see anyone in there. I haven't seen any survivors, nothing."