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NY Firefighters:  One Year Later - 2002-09-06

The New York City Fire Department lost 343 people when the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11th, 2001. One year later, the FDNY is still picking up the pieces, literally and emotionally.

Firefighter Kevin Hannafin was on medical leave in Florida when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. A few hours later, he jumped into a car and drove 25 hours straight back to Manhattan. Five days later, Mr. Hannafin helped pull his youngest brother Tommy, also a firefighter, from the rubble of the World Trade Center's north tower.

"I didn't know that the two words 'joy' and 'sorrow' could be in the same sentence... but that's what I experienced. Joyous sorrow," he says. "For me as an older brother, and also as a firefighter, it was just a moment of glory to be able to bring my brother back to my family and his family. His wife, Renee, and his daughter."

Mr. Hannafin lost many friends and colleagues in addition to his brother. Coping has been hard, but he says treating his grief like a severe burn - that will take time to heal and leave a permanent scar - has helped him get by.

Volunteer firefighter Captain Johnny Arroyo and his squad were among the first to arrive at the burning World Trade towers. They ducked into a subway station just 100 meters northeast of the second tower moments before it collapsed. They escape unharmed in what Mr. Arroyo sees as the intervention of providence.

"If that subway entrance wasn't there on the corner of Church and Vesey, we wouldn't be here now. If we had taken the West Side Highway, we wouldn't be here now," he says. "It could have been one of any number of events that would have changed that whole day for our entire department."

Mr. Arroyo says the attacks strengthened his volunteer fire house. The squad has increased almost 50 percent since last year and, thanks to contributions from a firehouse in Virginia and the Goldman Sachs Company, the department now has three trucks instead of one.

Despite the well-documented resilience of "New York's Bravest," many firefighters, like Dennis Reilly, say they suffer from "survivor's guilt". Interacting with the families of fallen comrades, Mr. Reilly says, is a struggle.

"I see the parents, I see some people's kids. It's just something you think about every day," he says. "You know, how you lived, and thinking about them [the firefighters who died] going up what you would have been doing, instead they were doing it. And they died."

Mr. Reilly says his fellow firefighters feel the same. As a means of self-therapy, he has thrown himself into training for a friendly boxing tournament between the FDNY and the New York City Police Department.

Many firefighters say public outpouring of affection has helped them deal with their pain and loss. Firefighter Hannafin is often stopped by strangers on the street.

"There's people that will come up to you and just look right into your soul," he says. "They find the right words to say to you, they're not even reaching for the words. They'll hug you, they'll want to take a picture with you. At first, I didn't know how to react to it, but I realized the sense that people have... the need to get a little closer to the real feeling. The need to hear somebody's story who went through it, just to ease a burden on their souls."

Even so, the number of firefighters retiring has doubled since last year. Pensions, based on last year's astronomical overtime hours logged during the cleanup effort, are one inducement. But Mr. Reilly says a lot of men feel their salaries do not equal their sacrifice.

"It's really depressing - they want you to break your chops (risk your life) and then all they give you is a pat on the back and say, 'You guys did a great job.' And that's basically why everybody's getting out," he says. "They just beat you down."

Firefighter Marc Ward is with Engine 7, just a few blocks north of the where the towers once stood. His battalion lost 24 men.

"It's a great job, it's a lot of fun, and then you lose someone you know. And that takes something away from the job," he says. "In one day, losing 343 firefighters, that takes something away. In one day we lost nearly half as many as we lost in the history of the department."

Even so, Mr. Ward says that the job hasn't changed much. The surprise attack of September 11 has just made firefighters more careful.

"We're a lot more cautious now, with things. Going into situations where... What's going on? 'Car fire near the courthouse,' we're looking around for panel trucks and people with backpacks," he says. "Always looking for something that might be something more than what you're going for. It's a different environment."

Marc Ward will be on the job on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, as will Dennis Reilly. Captain Arroyo and his squad will lay flowers at the subway entrance where they eluded death. Firefighter Hannafin will spend much of the day with family. Like his colleagues, however, he says he's trying not to dwell too deeply on the anniversary.

"The 11th is just like today, and it's going to be just like the 12th or the 13th," he says. "Yeah, so it's a year to the day so what? I'm not going to feel any worse then than I do today. It's been one, long day."