A decade later, Falls firefighters recall their roles in Sept. 11 attacks

By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette

NIAGARA FALLS — On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, former Falls Fire Chief William MacKay had just wrapped up an overnight shift as the commander of the Fairfax County, Virginia Fire Department’s HAZMAT Unit.

“I had just gotten home and on the radio they were taking about a plane having hit one of the (World Trade Center) towers,” MacKay said. “I settled down and turned on the TV and then I saw the second plane hit the South Tower.”

At the same time, Falls Fire Department Captains Dave Williams and John Asklar where in Queens, attending a fire officer training academy run by the New York City Fire Department.

“Classes started at 8:30 a.m., and not long after that an instructor came in and told us a plane had hit the World Trade Center,” Asklar recalled. “We all though it must have been a private aircraft, something small.”

Like MacKay, Asklar and Williams and the other firefighters began watching television coverage of what was unfolding in lower Manhattan.

“And then we saw the second plane hit (the South Tower) and we knew this was not accidental,” Asklar said.

Williams told Asklar it had to be an act of terrorism.

“Dave was a lot more tuned into that stuff than I was,” Asklar said. “The instructors told the New York City guys in the class to go to their fire halls and they told us to grab our turn-out gear. Then they loaded us on a van and we started heading (to the World Trade Center).”

MacKay was still riveted to his TV when he saw a bulletin crawl across the bottom of the screen. The message was shocking.

“It said an airplane had hit the Pentagon,” MacKay said. “I got back in my car and started driving back to work and I could see the thick black smoke off in the distance.”

MacKay, Asklar and Williams were not rookies. They all had earned their stripes with years of work in the fire service.

Still, none of them were quite prepared for what they were about to confront.

“I didn’t know what to expect or what we’d see,” Asklar said. “I mean, it’s a big difference fighting a house fire in Niagara Falls and going to something like this.”

As the van rumbled from Queens toward lower Manhattan, a New York City Fire commander gave the out-of-town firefighters an ominous instruction.

“He told us to put our IDs in our boots — in case something happened, they’d be able to identify us,” Asklar said. “It kind of hits you, how dangerous this is. We all think we’re invincible, nothing’s going to happen to you, it’s always the other guy.”

On the route to the Trade Center, Ashlar and Williams watched as thousands of New Yorkers streamed north through the streets into mid-town Manhattan and beyond, fleeing from the horror of what had happened at ground zero. The closer they got the more the air began to fill with smoke, dust and debris.

“It was scary. Everyone was a little apprehensive,” Asklar remembered. “Some guys were saying the Our Father (prayer).”

As Asklar and Williams made their way to ground zero, MacKay was at his HAZMAT command and began calling in more specially trained firefighters

“We didn’t know what we were dealing with,” MacKay said. “We didn’t know if we were under attack from just airplanes or airplanes carrying (toxic chemicals) or something worse.”

When MacKay and his crew finally arrived at the Pentagon, the soon-to-be Falls fire chief could barely believe what he saw.

“It was eerie,” he said. “The building was bathed in spotlights and there was this big gapping hole and smoke coming out of the hole.”

It took Williams, Asklar and their fellow firefighters almost an hour to get from their Queens classroom to the World Trade Center site. By then, the north and south towers were gone.

“There was so much smoke, we couldn’t see that the towers had fallen,” Asklar said. “Paper was floating everywhere and there was this fine dust, it was like snow. There was a bright light in the sky, but it was blocked by the smoke and dust.”

The van parked about a quarter of a mile from ground zero and Asklar, Williams and the other firefighters got out. When their boots hit the ground, the enormity of what had happened hit them.

“There was so much apprehension, so much anticipation, we approached on foot and thought where do you start,” Asklar said. “It was just blocks and blocks and blocks of devastation.”

Much of the New York Fire Department’s top brass had been killed in the collapse of the twin towers. Most of the fire hydrants in the area had been crushed by falling debris.

Asklar said there was just one word to describe the scene: Chaos.

Williams and Asklar pitched in, helping to fight the fire in the smoldering rubble and burning fiercely in Tower 78. They also assisted in moving debris in a desperate search for survivors.

“Fire was just pouring out of (Tower 7),” Asklar said. “And then, all of a sudden, they told us to get out of there.”

As Williams and Asklar took refuge behind another building, they watched Tower 7, all 42 stories of it, pancake to the ground.

“I don’t think any kind of training could prepare you for that,” Asklar said. “The magnitude was just horrific.”

Even in the horror, Asklar said there were incongruous moments. Decked out in their Falls Fire Department gear, some New York City firefighters wondered where they had come from.

“They said, ‘Niagara Falls Fire? How’d you guys get here so quick?’,” Asklar recalled. “They appreciated that we were there. This is a brotherhood.”

Around 9 p.m., Williams, Asklar and the other out-of-town firefighters were told to go back to their hotels and get some rest. Even that became a challenge.

“The guys from (New York City) Engine 65, their rig was crushed, so we told them to take our van (to get back to their fire hall),” Asklar said. “Then we just started walking, north, back to Queens.”

Williams had hurt his back and knee at ground zero, so Asklar was carrying his gear and his partner’s as they trudged through Manhattan.

“The power was off, it was black in Times Square, no one was out,” Asklar said. “We saw a police substation and we went in and asked if anyone could give us a ride.”

Asklar said the cops had good and bad news.

“They said they could give us a ride in the back of their horse trailer,” he said. “So we got in their with the hay and the (manure) and rode back to Queens.”

The next morning, Asklar and Williams returned to ground zero. The reality of what had occurred hit home again.

“The night before (Sept. 11) we had gone to dinner at Engine 54 and Ladder 4,” Asklar said. “We spent most of the night there, having dinner, watching TV, having coffee.”

Engine 54 and Ladder 4 were among the first crews to reach the Word Trade Center after the planes hit. There were 15 New York City firefighters on those rigs that day and most of them were inside one of the towers, attempting to free people trapped in the elevators.

When the towers came down, 12 of those firefighters were killed and Engine 54 was driven 50 feet into the ground.

“We had just spent time with those guys,” Asklar said. “We were really in shock. But we though the (firefighter deaths) would be in the hundreds.”

Down in Washington, MacKay was on his way back to the Pentagon. As he approached a structure he had always imagined as a bit invincible, he saw the roof of the area where the plane had hit collapse.

“Fire just shot back up into the air,” he said.

By the end of Sept. 12, Williams injuries were becoming worse and Asklar had broken his ankle while moving through the twin tower rubble. The pair were ready to head home to the Falls.

“We were exhausted and we knew (the New York City firefighters) could do what they had to do,” Asklar said. “I wanted to get back to my wife and kids and normal.”

Yet while Asklar and Williams left Ground Zero, MacKay, part of Federal Emergency Management Agency team, started to head there and arrived on Sept. 13.

“You just looked at that void where the twin towers had been,” MacKay said. “The air was just permeated with the smell of smoke, death and destruction and lower New York City was covered in this very fine dust. It almost looked like snow.

MacKay spent the next 38 days in lower Manhattan, working as a peer counselor dealing with mental health issues that were affecting first responders. He called it, “taxing, but also rewarding.”

Now, a decade later, Williams has passed away from complications connection to the injuries he suffered at Ground Zero. MacKay served time as the Falls fire chief and is now in a similar position in a town just outside Richmond, Virginia.

Asklar remains the Falls Fire Department’s institutional memory when it comes to 9/11. Many of those on fire line in the city now were just kids in school when the tragedy happened.

“All lot them don’t even know I was there,” Asklar said. “It seems like (the time) has flown by, but I don’t know. Sometimes it seems like it was yesterday.”

Both Asklar and MacKay say there are images from Sept. 11 that are burned in their memories. Asklar marvels at the efforts that day by New York City firefighters.

“I can’t imagine, knowing so many of own had been killed, how they kept going,” Asklar said. “That’s dedication. That’s selflessness. Your hats off to them. They had to do so much in the face of that grief.”

For MacKay, the imagine that will never leave, is the one he watched on his TV, just after getting home that day.

“My image was seeing hundreds of firefighters walking into (the World Trade Center), knowing that they might not come out alive,” MacKay said. “And they freely and willingly did that.”

Original article located here: http://niagara-gazette.com/local/x1095945506/A-decade-later-Falls-firefighters-recall-their-roles-in-Sept-11-attacks