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By Shawn Raymundo
Like millions of other Americans, Gary Walsh was fixated on the news on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
A pair of airliners had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. As smoke billowed from the upper levels of the burning buildings, hundreds of New York’s first responders leapt into action, working to save thousands.
Alongside his wife, Walsh watched as Building 2, or the South Tower, began to collapse. As a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department at the time, Walsh knew that hundreds of firefighters had just lost their lives while trying to rescue others.
“I knew where I would be if I was in that situation; you know, we would be going up those buildings to rescue people,” said Walsh, now 64 years old and a retired San Clemente resident. “To me, I knew, I had this sickening feeling in my gut, and of course it all came true.”
A total of 343 New York City firefighters and paramedics died as a result of the terrorist attack in New York City that day. In total, the events of 9/11 claimed the lives of 2,977 people—2,753 in New York, 184 at the Pentagon, and 40 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
It was the deadliest assault on our nation’s soil.
This Saturday marks the 20-year anniversary of the day’s tragic events that unfolded after 19 men hijacked four commercial airplanes, using them to murder nearly 3,000 people—a plan orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, the leader of the terrorist group al-Qaida.
While the country mourned and faced one if its darkest hours in its history, it also saw shining moments of heroism and humanitarianism.
“There was a huge sense of mission to avenge all of this and clean it up, and redetermine that we weren’t going to let this bring our country down,” Walsh said. “We’re not just going to take this and say there’s nothing we can do.”
Walsh, who had a 29-year career with LACoFD, was formerly a police officer before changing careers. He said he made the switch because firefighting was more in tune with “the way I wanted to commit myself to public service.”
In the days immediately following the deadly attacks, Walsh, being here on the West Coast, felt helpless. He wanted to be in New York, assisting in the rescue efforts or helping in any way he could. Talking with colleagues, it was apparent that he wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“After a couple of days, I went back to work and started talking to some of the other captains in nearby firehouses at a drill we had. All of us were just bugged,” Walsh recalled. “We all kept saying we have to do something.”
The Southern California firefighters, however, were told that they weren’t needed, nor was there a mission for them out there. To many of those first responders who were trained to rescue and help those in need, sitting on the sidelines wasn’t an option, and neither was waiting on FEMA and the fire department to authorize aid teams.
“Some of the other guys I had been in contact with there at my department, we all said we know if this happened here in LA, there would be 500 guys from New York showing up here to come help do something,” Walsh said. “That’s just the way we are; we respond and we do stuff. We find ways to help. So, we just decided let’s go out there and figure it out ourselves.”
Without the department’s official blessing to go to New York, Walsh and four other LA County firefighters planned to travel to the East Coast on their own time and dime.
“We didn’t even know where we were going to stay, we didn’t know exactly what our mission was going to be, but we knew there was a mission there for us; we just had to go find out what it was going to be,” Walsh said.
The band of five LA County firefighters—Walsh, Jeff Duran, Tom Ewald, Craig Ross and Ted Garcia—landed in New York on one of the first airlines to resume flight operations in the wake of 9/11. There, one of the group members contacted a Brooklyn firefighter he had met during a nationwide firefighters’ sporting event.
“We drove over to Firehouse 252 out of Brooklyn. We arrived at this place, and again, we still didn’t know where we were going to be or what we were going to do,” Walsh said. “We brought sleeping bags, thinking we might need to sleep on sidewalks.”
At the firehouse, Walsh noticed that 252’s fire engine was gone. It had been destroyed, he said, in the devastation at WTC. But even worse, Walsh and the others were told, five firefighters from the 252 squad had lost their lives.
When the firefighters of 252 asked the West Coast visitors what they were hoping to do, Walsh and Co. said they wanted to provide any type of support that was necessary.
“We told them, we’re just here to support you guys, whatever you need us to do; if you want us to come out and help you, yes, that’s what we’d like to do, go find survivors out there at the World Trade Center, bring you water or equipment,” Walsh said.
The LA County crew even offered the Brooklyn firefighters to go to their homes and help with any projects they may have had, knowing that they’d be spending much of their time in the coming weeks at Ground Zero.
“We’ll do whatever you guys want us to do; you tell us what your needs are,” Walsh’s group had offered the 252 Firehouse.
“They were so taken aback by this, they just said, ‘Well, where are you guys going to stay?’ and we said, ‘Well, we don’t know; we’ll figure that out,’” Walsh recalled.
With the 252 crew unable to run calls out of the firehouse because they didn’t have an engine, they were primarily working at WTC in two shifts—a day shift and a night shift. The firehouse dormitory would be free to use, so the 252 firefighters insisted that Walsh and the group reside there for the time being.
RESCUE AND RECOVERY
As a thank you for giving them use of the dormitory, Walsh’s group offered to cook the Brooklyn firefighters meals and even clean their firehouse.
However, it had only been a day that they were there before the 252 crew asked the LA firefighters to join the rescue efforts at Ground Zero. Each morning, an FDNY van would come by the firehouse to pick up Walsh and the rest of the group, taking them to Lower Manhattan.
“Our first time driving up there, it was just so surreal,” Walsh recalled, further noting that “it was such a surreal scene, because there’s a big cloud kind of still over, with the dust still in the air and everything, even days later.
“And as we got closer, you begin to notice everywhere around Lower Manhattan, everything is covered in dust; it’s like this grayish effect,” he continued. “Everything is just gray, because of all the dust, all the debris; and there’s debris everywhere, the trees and up on fire escapes.”
Walsh also recalled seeing people on the street holding up signs with photos and descriptions of their loved ones who hadn’t been accounted for yet. They were holding out hope that rescue crews would be able to find those people alive, trapped somewhere under the rubble.
“We came across the corner, I took one look at that cement pile of stuff and thought, ‘I don’t think anyone is going to survive this,’ and I think the next day it was announced that it was changing from a rescue to a recovery operation,” Walsh recalled.
The LA crew, Walsh said, had expected to find a lot of bodies amid the debris.
“But we didn’t find anything,” he said.
While working at what was referred to as “the pile,” Walsh said, crews would dig and dig, but on occasion, they’d find only a shoe or a tie. A few times, he added, the partial remains of a firefighter would be found.
“We’d stop all operations out there while we removed that part in the most dignified way we could,” Walsh said. “That’s why in pictures you’ll see people standing and saluting while a crane lifted it, and it was generally just a small body part.”
Day in and day out, Walsh explained, the LA County crew would work at “the pile,” helping the New York City crews.
“Those guys are very strong,” Walsh said of the New York first responders. “What grit, they were so determined to find their brothers.”
After a shift, they’d return to the firehouse, where they listened to the 252 firefighters share stories of their fallen comrades.
“It was amazing how many of these guys had close ties to somebody who had died that day … every one of them: ‘Oh, that was my father-in-law, or my brother or the best man at my wedding,’ ” they would describe to Walsh. “Every one of them seemed to know somebody who passed away. So, we just listened to the stories … different stories that reflect back on ‘Oh, remember when he did this or did that?’ ”
Being there for the 252 Firehouse, Walsh said, allowed both crews to grow close to each other. The five Los Angeles firefighters would even join 252 crew members whenever they attended funerals for many of the New York firefighters who died on 9/11.
“They really appreciated that,” Walsh said. “We got really tight with these guys, and we’ve been part of their (memorial) ceremonies for quite a while. Since then, 2001, they invite us back every year.”
During one of the earliest memorial ceremonies, Walsh said, he was gifted a small metal cross by the 252 crew. Only about 45 crosses were made.
The metal for the crosses had come from a beam recovered at Ground Zero. It was that beam, researchers believe based on DNA evidence, that had pinned the five fallen 252 firefighters.
“They surprised me by giving me one of those crosses. It was one of the most cherished things I have,” Walsh said, adding: “That was kind of their way of saying we recognize all you’ve done.”
Over the years, the bond had continued to stay strong, as Walsh has kept in touch with the guys from 252. Some have flown to Southern California and stayed at his home. And in 2013, they also came out to attend Walsh’s retirement party.
Walsh admits that he hasn’t been back to Brooklyn since the 10-year anniversary. But with this being the 20-year mark, Walsh and most of the guys he went with in 2001 will be making the trip to participate in 252’s ceremony on Saturday.
“They’ve indicated that this is their last big one, just because of the 20-year mark, and because, frankly, a lot of the firefighters who were there at the time have passed away,” he said. “I think they told me like 90% of those firefighters who are on the job now weren’t on the job in 2001.”
A FIREFIGHTER’S COVENANT
After returning to Los Angeles, several firefighters looked to Walsh and his team for advice on ways they could also help. He noted that in the wake of 9/11, hundreds of Southern California firefighters made similar trips to assist the New York City firefighters.
Asked what his biggest takeaway was from working at Ground Zero, Walsh, who previously sat on the city’s Public Safety Committee, said the experience was a lesson in community service and the commitment all firefighters make with the people they’re sworn to help.
“Your community counts on you, and you need to answer the bell when it rings. That’s our covenant,” he said.
“When people tell you that there’s nothing for you to do, do what you believe you should do,” he later added. “Take risks, and be kind and be helpful for others. When something happens, think about ‘How can I help?’”
To learn more about the tragic events of 9/11, as well as to look up victims’ names, find ways of commemorating the 20th anniversary and even donating to The Never Forget Fund, go to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum website at 911memorial.org.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.