World Trade Center: an interview with firefighter Larry Monachelli

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Almost twelve years have passed since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and to preserve the memories of that day Undicisettembre is continuing to collect direct accounts.

Today we are publishing an interview with New York Firefighter Larry Monachelli, quoted with his permission, who was deployed to the scene a little before the collapse of the South Tower.

We thank Larry Monachelli for his kindness and willingness to share his thoughts.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a brief account of what you saw and experienced? What do you remember, generally speaking?

Larry Monachelli: I remember getting there about twelve minutes before the first building collapsed. I went to the back of our car and took my breathing apparatus and then went towards the Command Post, which was on the Lobby of the First Tower. On our way there, we started noticing people jumping out of the windows. We were right on the corner of Vesey and Church Street and we could also feel the heat from the Tower: this is how intense it was! When we were like 100 feet away, the first tower began collapsing, so our natural instinct was to run towards where our car was parked. If I had run to the West side, I wouldn't probably be sitting here having this interview with you.

I was able to seek refuge in the lobby of 30 Vesey Street, which was right next to our car. I remained there about 15 minutes, then I tried to get back out, but you couldn't get back out because of the debris in front of the glass door. So I had to get out of one of the rear basement windows. It was four of us and we grouped back together where our car was. The Captain said: “Let's go see how many people we can get out!”

All we could hear was PERS Alarms. It's a device used by firefighters that, when you stay still for 30 seconds, rings like bird chirping, and gets louder and louder, then when you move it stops. All we could hear was this chirping noise so we didn't know where to start.

We went one of the first piles we saw and while we were there the second building came down. My Captain said: “Let's run!” And we ran almost to Broadway. The second collapse was much worse because the dust that was on the ground already started up a cloud that was much bigger than the first one. That's a detail most of the people who weren't there don't realize: the collapse of the second building started much more dust and debris than the first collapse.

We grouped again, my unit didn't lose anybody, and for the rest of the day we did search and rescue.

We happened to be the first team down to the subway, the reason I know we were the first is that the dust was like fresh snow and when we went down to the subway there were no other footprints. There were people in the conductor's booths and in the cashier's booths that weren't even aware what was going on. We helped them to safety and got them out through the exit towards Broadway because it wasn't possible to use the exit on Vesey Street.

At about 5 in the afternoon the third building came down. We knew it was about to collapse, it was World Trade Center 7. We knew it was about to come down, the Chiefs had pulled everybody out and we just waited for it to collapse. That building had been on fire for the entire day, every floor was on fire and there was no way to put that out, so we knew it was going to come down.

We spent the rest of the day looking for people or firefighters trapped. The radios weren't working too well, but whatever report we got we tried to get to those places. Anyway at that point there were many more rescue workers coming that weren't involved in the initial collapse.

Undicisettembre: Did you go to Ground Zero in the following days for the search and rescue activities?

Larry Monachelli: The next day we went right back to where we were and began searching on the pile looking for alive people. We were searching and covering areas that hadn't been covered yet. And for the days after.

We were in charge of putting out the fires that were burning below. We had a company called Pyrocool, based in Virginia, and they make an additive that goes into water and cools steel much quicker than if you just put water on it. So we called this company and they came over and stayed with us. We picked 55 gallons of the Pyrocool additive and mixed it with water. Construction workers put that on a beam first that was red hot and it cooled down. So we picked a big pipe and we sprayed it all over to cool down the red hot fires down there.

Undicisettembre: You were on the streets during both collapses. Did you notice anything strange such as explosions or were they in your opinion too fast to be natural?

Larry Monachelli: I didn't notice any explosions. And it wasn't fast as I expected it to be. We could here all the floors coming down, each one on the next, and we had time to run. So there were no explosions but only the noise of each floor coming down on the other. I looked a lot of times back behind me to see if it was tilting over.

There was nothing strange at all. We were in shock but there was nothing strange.

Undicisettembre: After the collapse of each tower did you get a chance to see how severely damaged the other buildings all around were? In particular, would you like to elaborate about building number 7?

Larry Monachelli: I remember being with a Battallion Chief in front on WTC7 after the second collapse and we stared at each other, then he looked at the building and said: “There's no way we can put this fire out” It was in the morning and there were 15 floor on intense fire burning. You would stop there and ask: “Where would you begin putting out a fire like that?” it was completely engulfed with fire. Not even a tower ladder could put that fire out. I can see why they made the decision to clear the area. That building was going to collapse, it was totally engulfed.

Undicisettembre: Before collapsing did the towers give any sign of being on the verge of collapse or did they just collapse at once?

Larry Monachelli: They came down at once. There was no warning. The only warning was that the top floor started to come down, they gave way.

Undicisettembre: What are your thoughts about your colleagues who climbed the stairs in WTC Towers 1 and 2 during the evacuation? Most of them died, but they died while trying to save people who would have died instead of them.

Larry Monachelli: Many of them were my friends. I don't think they hesitated. I think they would do the same if they had to. The Fire Department would react today as it did that day.

My team also created a radio for the Fire Department. It's called Post Radio and it's mentioned in the “9/11 Commission Report”. We developed that ourselves. It's a pretty good radio. It's a combination of a 12 volt battery and a radio that belongs in the fire truck. I remember when we had a working model, everyone said: “It's not going to work. It's not going to work.”, even Motorola said: “It's never going to work”. Now every fire battalion in the city is using it. It also works to talk to ground units from the helicopter.

Undicisettembre: Has this experience give you a new insight into being a firefighter?

Larry Monachelli: Oh, yes! Consider that I've always been a firefighter and also my father was a firefighter. I loved my job, I worked for a busy Fire House. I still look at the guys I worked with as heroes and they did everything possible that day. God spared me, I don't know why. I went right instead of left and if I had gone left I wouldn't be here. It's an experience I'll never forget, I didn't realize it was history unfolding as it was happening. I think that people watching it on TV might have seen much more dramatic things than I saw, so I think people who were watching it might have been more affected than I was because to me it was my job. We weren't very aware of what was going on, we didn't know the Pentagon had been hit.

I have a few problems now, I have some lungs problems but I'm still here.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about conspiracy theories that claim 9/11 was an inside job? Most of these theories believe the Towers were intentionally demolished with explosives. What's your opinion?

Larry Monachelli: They are definitely not true. There were no explosions. No explosives in the building. It was just a collapse. If explosives were in the building we would have heard them; there would be evidence.

In one way conspiracy theories amuse me, but a part of me is angry that someone could make up something as fictitious as that. I saw things on that day and someone tried to tell me: “No, that's not what you saw.” You almost have to laugh at it. In some form it makes me angry but mainly I just think it's silly, it's ridiculous with all the proof that we have.

Undicisettembre: How do your colleagues feel about conspiracy theories? Are they irritated, indifferent? A lot of conspiracy theorists claim the most New York firefighters believe it was a conspiracy by the Government.

Larry Monachelli: I don't think I've ever met a fireman that believes in any kind of conspiracy. No one believes them, and I'm sure the Police Department feels the same way. And so does anybody that was there.

Undicisettembre: Have you ever tried to debate with some conspiracy theorists?

Larry Monachelli: No. I don't think a conspiracy theorist could look me in the face and sustain his theory. I would reply to him: “Were you there? I was!” Have you ever met a conspiracy theorist that was there? I guess not, I haven't either.

No, I've never confronted one, but I don't think any of them would confront me. I would just have to say: “You are totally wrong. 100% wrong. And what you are doing is wrong because you are taking away a lot of credit and credibility to people who were there. What you are doing is wrong because that's surely not the truth. You are distorting it.”

Undicisettembre: How did 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Larry Monachelli: For the first year it was very hard to go back and forth to the pile. We went from September to June, every day. From June I started working on the radio project. I had post traumatic disorder and I searched counseling for it and it helped a lot. Everything that I saw in 9/11 I had already seen in my career, I've worked up in Harlem in a busy firehouse. I've seen people jumping out of the windows before, I've seen people hit by trains, I've seen bad car accidents, I've seen collapses. But on 9/11 what hit me most was the magnitude of what happened, the magnitude of so many firefighters and so many civilians being killed. The magnitude of it affected me for a long time.

I went through a tough time with post traumatic stress and sometimes every now and then it still bugs me. But I have a wonderful family and they helped me through it.

Undicisettembre: How's life in New York 12 years after 9/11?

Larry Monachelli: We had our share of hurricanes and problems. I retired in 2006 but my wife and I were invited by the Fire Department to see the Freedom Tower and they had a beautiful ceremony that night, to me it was almost like closing and putting it behind me.

It put a little closure for me. There was the new tower. I'm not saying I want to forget because a lot of my friends died on that day, but I'm saying the city is healing its wounds.

Undicisettembre: Do you think the nation is still living in fear, or has it regained its standing in the world?

Larry Monacehlli: I don't know about fear but I think we are living consciously. Every time a year goes by, New Year's eve in Times Square goes by and nothing happens, I think it gives us a pat on the back, because nothing has happened since.

I think the best expression would be consciously optimistic.

2 commenti:

Kuz ha detto...

Ciao ragazzi, segnalo solo un piccolo refuso: all'inizio c'è scritto "An Italian translation in available here" anziché "is".

Complimenti come sempre per lo splendido lavoro.

Un saluto,

Leonardo Salvaggio ha detto...

Grazie Kuz!