Twelve years ago, four Stoneham Firefighters headed towards New York City to help out in any way possible in the wake of the biggest disaster of our time. On the anniversary, two of those four, Captain Jim Marshall and Firefighter Sean Fitzgerald recounted their experiences:
The Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts organization got these Stoneham Firefighters in contact with the International Association of Fire Fighters because they had completed a Critical Incident Stress Management Class. “We came down to talk to the New York Firefighters,” Captain Jim Marshall said. “The idea was that guys would be more likely to open up about their experiences to a peer.”
They worked along side clinicians, clergymen and other firefighters in helping their fellow firefighters who had seen unimaginable horrors. “At the time, I think we experienced the same emotions as the rest of the country,” Captain Marshall said. “We had no idea what was going on. It was an unfortunate reality to see the devastation.”
Captain Marshall described acres of dust-covered blocks and the putrid smell of rotting food, fuel, and burning debris. While he has never smelled anything similar, he said that something like it would take him right back to that moment. The Marathon Bombing also brought back a fair share of memories. “While the scope of the event was different, the fears and the feelings were very similar.” He noted that five people from Stoneham were wounded at the Marathon.
Firefighter Sean Fitzgerald was also headed to New York City. Where Captain Marshall arrived a week after the attack, Fitzgerald and his company of National Guardsmen hopped in a van from Fort Dix, New Jersey and headed north on the 13th. “I remember I was too young to rent a van at the time, so we had to find someone in the unit who was 25 or older,” Fitzgerald said. He and his unit were about to ship out to Bosnia, which was still an active combat zone in 2001. “We showed up, showed our ID’s and drove up a road that was untouched. Covered in dust.”
An army officer put them to work digging on The Pile. They would stop all the heavy activity when someone found a survivor. “The scene was dangerous as hell,” Fitzgerald said. “I-beams were being cut down left and right. You’d hear a massive thud. But we were digging as fast as we could.”
Captain Marshall was sent out to a Jesuit Retreat out on Staten Island, where he and fellow workers met with the families of the 343 (then) missing firefighters. They told family members to provide anything that might have DNA on it, like toothbrushes or combs. They were no longer looking for survivors, but bodies. Or whatever was left of them.
Fitzgerald was deployed over seas to Bosnia. Then Iraq. Then Afghanistan. “I saw this thing from start to wherever we are now.”
Captain Marshall said that every year, the people of Stoneham drop off flowers, baked goods, dinner and cards thanking them for their service.