The following article appeared in the October 25, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone. It is reprinted here to mark the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“I was digging, and then they told me to come here,” the firefighter said. He was dressed in a white short-sleeve shirt and a green plaid kilt, and if you think this sounds unusual then you should have been in Queens County, which is part of New York City, in the middle of September. The men in kilts are Fire Department bagpipers. This one was sent to a Catholic church in a neighborhood called Middle Village.
He was waiting around until it was time to pipe Mike Weinberg out of the church. It was a good assignment. It gave the guy a couple of hours away from digging through wreckage.
“Yesterday I found a tie that was knotted,” he said.
He took a gulp from a bottle of soda.
“You know how you get a tie that’s knotted and there’s nothing else with it, don’t you?” he said.
“I can imagine,” I said.
“I took it to the cop in charge. I say, ‘Look at this.’ What does he say? ‘We’re not interested in that.’ I told him, ‘I just found it, don’t you want to at least look at it?’ He didn’t. Dumb cop. What’s he going to say if I bring him the head?”
Inside the church, somebody was reading a eulogy. It tells you a lot about New York City that somebody named Mike Weinberg gets his send-off at Our Lady of Hope Roman Catholic Church and nobody even notices, much less explains it. “He’s a firefighter,” somebody from the neighborhood says, if you inquire. Which meant he was part of a religion to begin with – firefighting – which is itself an affiliate of the Catholic Church. “His father’s a German Jew,” somebody said, “but his mother’s name is Mary.” In the kitchen and in religion, the woman is always trump.
“On Tuesday morning,” the man in the pulpit said, “I spoke with Mike. We joked around for a little bit, and then we made plans to meet up in the afternoon, since I was working in the morning and Mike was going golfing.”
Mike was signing in at the Forest Park golf course in Queens on Tuesday morning, September 11th. He looked at the television in the office and saw the World Trade Center in flames. His sister Margaret worked there, on the fortieth floor of one of the towers.
In one move, Mike was out of the golf course and into his car and on his way into the city, which is what people who live in Queens call Manhattan. Like nearly all the other firefighters, Mike lived in a two-story neighborhood. At the scene, high above him, seventy, eighty, ninety, a hundred stories up, orange tongues licked the air that now showed between the famous silvery aluminum panels of the buildings. Then a rumble shook the sky and the street.
Suddenly, the top third of a 110-story building fell like a cigar ash.
On the street, at the foot of the building, Mike Weinberg and two other firefighters dived under a rig, which is what they call an engine. The building fell on the rig and destroyed it and the three men beneath it.
I was nearby, on Liberty Street, when that happened. People shouted and shrieked. The cops and firefighters closest to the buildings ran. What good would they do if they were dead?
One word raced up the street.
People ran from the smoke, which ran after them.
You run and then spin into the doorway of an open shop. The storekeeper is there with his hands out.
“I’m closed! I’m closed!
“Everywhere cops are waving their arms. “Keep moving!” they yell. “Run!”
“No, no!” the shopkeeper says. His assistant is standing behind him, reaching up for the aluminum gates to bring them down and cover the entrance to the store.
You decide to keep running.
A firefighter named O’Neill is standing on the corner. He got out of the building just in time. “We were on a run,” he says. “So we were first due. There were dead bodies in the lobby. We got up to the twentieth floor. There was another explosion. The chief said, ‘Out!’ We’re out in three minutes. Then it went down.”
He puts his head down. “I have one grown daughter,” he says. “She’s in college, in Baltimore.” He cries and rubs a raw hand over his eyes. “I love her.”
In the history of the city, the number of firemen who have died on the job is surprisingly small. People remember twelve dying in 1966 in a drugstore fire on West Twenty-third Street, in Manhattan. Six went when the roof of a supermarket in Brooklyn collapsed. Otherwise it’s one here, two there and long stretches where everybody lives. But firefighter memory is long.
Everybody from Weinberg’s Mass went to a big restaurant in Maspeth, not far from from the church, to drink and talk about Mike. Red Hilliard was at the bar, in a somber mood. A little while back, Red was at the saloon he owns, in Astoria, when the brothers from his old company, Engine 259, Ladder 128, called. They had discovered evidence that a man named Caesar J. Macari, who died in the line of duty in 1939, had never been honored.
Although Red had been out of the firehouse for twenty years, the members still thought of him as a brother. He made sure they put up a plaque to honor the firefighter who died in the line of duty only sixty years before.
At the bar, Red said, “I went over to the Knights of Columbus for a drink and I find out Jack Cawley’s son is missing. I go back to my own joint, the kid across the street, Edward White, is missing. He had a young baby. He loved the job. Loved it.”
Mike Weinberg’s father, Mort, was there, too. “I told my son, ‘If you have to work, this is the best job in the world. You accomplish something. You get a chance to do the most beautiful thing in the world, save a life.’ “
A firefighter named Robert Ganun is in his garage in Far Rockaway, with the Jimi Hendrix song “Stone Free” playing loudly. “What am I supposed to do?” he asks. “Work twenty-four, dig, come home, put on my uniform, go to a funeral, then back to work? I’ll be doing this until June. I’m not going to funerals anymore. It’s too much.”
Robert has twenty-five surfboards and wet suits strewn all over the garage. “The digging is for ironworkers,” he says. “They can work with steel. We don’t do that. We save lives. I’m going surfing.”
And that’s what he did, too, later in the afternoon. He went to a place in the water off Rockaway from which he always could see the World Trade Center towers. A big, wide-bodied international flight passed overhead on its way to the Kennedy airport runway. Robert went for a ride on a wave. Maybe he’ll save somebody tomorrow.