World Trade Center: an interview with firefighter Frank Papalia

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

World Trade Center 7 has always been one of the favorite topics of conspiracy theorists, who for years have imagined that it was demolished with explosives because, they allege, fires would not have been sufficient to cause it to collapse. To clarify what really happened, Undicisettembre has interviewed New York firefighter Frank Papalia, who has already debunked conspiracy theories on previous occasions. His words join those of firefighters and witnesses who confirmed that there were no mysteries in the collapse of WTC7.

In addition to refuting conspiracy theories, Papalia reports many touching and little-known details of the events of 9/11 and his testimony is an important contribution towards keeping alive the memory of those tragic days.

We thank Frank Papalia for his kindness and willingness to share his thoughts.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on that day?

Frank Papalia: That day I was working at my side job. I found out that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, I saw the second plane hit on the TV and at first I thought it was a replay of the first one. When I realized what was going on I knew they would call in all the firemen in, so I went to my firehouse which was in Queens.

We knew we would be going into the site and we got there after both towers fell. The first thing that we had to do, which is the one that really sticks to my head, is that we got sent into building 5, which was one of the smaller buildings to the east of the Towers, only eight stories. When the South Tower came down it actually ripped a part of building 5 and it was completely engulfed with flames from the ground up. When we got there, there was a chief who had been in communication with another chief who was trapped in the building and he asked us to get him. We went into the building with no tools, no breathing apparatus. We were trusting that the building was going to stay up; we went down to the basement and into the PATH train, which was an underground train like a subway, through a gigantic escalator and we made our way into the building through the smoke and as we were making our way through this you could hear something collapse and things falling on the ceiling above us, you could see the ceiling all bowed down and fire was dropping onto the floor.

We ended up about half way to were the chief was but they starting yelling to get out because the building was coming down. So we turned and ran towards the escalator and got outside. That was the most frightening thing that has ever happened to me in my life, I don't think I'll ever be that frightened again. Going up the escalator I knew I was going to die, fortunately it didn't happen. We got outside, we regrouped and the chief told us: “It's not the building coming down, it's something else on the outside. So, go back.” We went and we got the trapped chief out and he was okay.

After that we had to search these areas and it was horrible because we were finding pieces of guys we worked with. I found the top half of a guy I worked with.

It was a horrible day, I saw things no human being should have to see.

There are so many things in my head. In the afternoon we were in the Telephone Building which is close to World Trade Center 7 and we watched building 7 which was on fire. I know there are conspiracy theories about that.

Undicisettembre: What happened in the next days? Were you part of the search and rescue effort?

Frank Papalia: I was not involved as much as other guys were because in my fire house I was a regular chauffeur that meant that I normally drove the firetruck. So while all the firemen went every other day, with 24 hours on and 24 off, I went every third or fourth day; I wanted to be there but I couldn't because I still had to drive my firetruck. I went back the next day and we were trying to find people, looking for void holes hoping against hope that you were going to find someone that was still alive. We were looking for people and picking body parts and anything else that we could find. I found a briefcase with photos of a family, we gave them to the Police hoping that they could contact someone. We did that for a few days.

For the first days we breathed without any apparatus and we breathed as much stuff as was there because they told us not to worry because the air was fine, then they gave us paper masks which didn't stay on your face anyway because the elastic came off and they were useless. For a couple of weeks we didn't use any breathing apparatus.

In the first days it was still pretty warm and while I was looking for people one of the guys showed us how to do it. While looking at the pile he said “Stop and look for the flies” because the flies went for the bodies, and that's how we started to look for people.

The first day that we went we took magic markers and we wrote our Social Security Numbers on our forearms and we wrote our names on our coats because we thought “If we are going to get killed we want them to know who we were.”

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.

Frank Papalia: I have a real problem when people say “Oh, you are a hero”, if you want to call me a hero for something else I did it's fine, but I don't think I'm a hero for that day. Those guys are the real heroes.

With all what was happening, people diving out of the windows, they were beyond brave. I know in my heart I would have done the same thing but those guys who didn't come out knew what was about to happen.

You know about those guys in the Stairwell B, right? While coming down the building they stopped at every floor to make sure that everyone was out and they knew that the first tower already fell and they kept stopping. They could have run out and run for their lives but their bravery was just beyond.

This is what I think of them: they are the bravest men possible.

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

Frank Papalia: Absolutely, 100%. I always wanted to be a fireman, I became a fireman and I loved my job. I went to a lot of fires and car accidents because I wanted to help people. Firemen love being firemen, it's something you cannot even explain. It's not even a job, I say I never worked a day in my life. But from 9/11 on the whole world changed, I wasn't fighting fires anymore because we had a new entity which was terrorism. I retired a few years ago and all the training we took was all about terrorism, and this is what I do now: I teach now. I teach those classes now and it's a scary world.

I always wanted my kids to be firemen, but from 9/11 on I told them I don't want them to be firemen anymore because it's too dangerous now.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about conspiracy theories that claim 9/11 was an inside job? Most of these theories believe the Towers and WTC7 were intentionally demolished with explosives. What's your opinion?

Frank Papalia: I think those people suffer from mental disease or defects. I think they are crazy. I was there and I saw things happening. I was standing in the building next to 7 and the whole bottom was gouged out from being hit by the other building. The whole building was on fire, the windows were popping out. Buildings aren't made to be on fire like that, because if there's a fire they are designed to have sprinklers system that is supposed to put it out, so they are not meant to burn indefinitely. If they do steel softens. Steel softens at about 950 F. That's what happened, buildings were not built to be on fire like that.

People even say “Oh, buildings don't fall like that”, what do they expect? Buildings to just fall off like a cartoon?

I also heard theories that when they were built the construction crews put explosives charges in the buildings “just in case”... come on, come on...

I watched it happen: it wasn't an inside job. Two planes crashed into these buildings, come on.

Undicisettembre: I would like to go into details about WTC7. You saw it burning, can you confirm it was burning out of control?

Frank Papalia: Oh, absolutely! There was an incredible amount of fire, and plus the whole bottom was ripped out. That building was severely damaged on the bottom. If you destroy some of the columns in a building you put more stress on the ones that are still there and if you also start heating them up with 100 to 200 feet of fire from one side of the building to the other the weight of the building is on fewer supports and weaker supports. There's no way that building could have stood up.

And it fell the way it was supposed to, even if folks say “Oh, it fell like buildings fall when there are explosive charges.”

Undicisettembre: What's your reaction to being a witness of such a huge tragedy and then hearing the so-called "truthers" claim it all was fake?

Frank Papalia: I was more angry in the beginning, because I used to take them seriously since I lost many of my friends on that day. Now I think of them as a joke and a lot of them were kids back then, it would be as if I was saying there was a conspiracy in WW2 when they bombed Pearl Harbor. They weren't there; I don't pay them much mind any more.

I don't think they are very intelligent. Anyone who comes up with an idea like that is not very intelligent. Some even say that the plane didn't hit and that it was an optical illusion. They are just a joke to me now. I haven't thought of them for a long time before you asked.

You cannot have a serious conversation with these people.

Undicisettembre: Have you ever met one of these guys and tried to debate them?

Frank Papalia: We have a saying in the firehouse that says “You cannot have a battle of wits with an unarmed person”. You cannot have a serious conversation with those people. So, I generally don't, I don't think it's worth my energy.

Undicisettembre: Do you know any of your colleagues who believe these guys?

Frank Papalia: No, not even one.

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

Frank Papalia: I'm more conscious and nervous about the world. When you hear about ISIS or Syria and the fact that terrorists use chemical agents I know that some days these things will happen here also. It's not a matter of if it's going to happen, but when it's going to happen.

And I'm nervous for my country, and for all good countries. Globally I'm more concerned than I was.

Undicisettembre: How long did it take you to get back to normalcy?

Frank Papalia: I got promoted little after and I started working in a firehouse in Manhattan that lost everybody on that day and I tried to steer them into the right way and teach them to care for themselves physically and mentally and it ended up that I had to do that for myself too.

It took me a while, I went to mental health counseling for a while. It took a while but it was good. But I don't know if I ever got totally fixed.

Undicisettembre: Have you been to the 9/11 Memorial Museum yet?

Frank Papalia: No. I have no desire to go. A few friends of mine went a couple of times. But I will not go. I spent enough time there. It's still a construction site and I don't want to smell the concrete or steel cutting because if I smell those again – boom! A flashback! So I don't really feel like going.

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