Tom Fenech was on the Brooklyn Bridge traveling from his home in Brooklyn to the fire station that he worked at in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 when he first noticed a ball of smoke and fire coming out of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
At first, Fenech, who has lived in Lake Havasu City since 2003, said he thought a boiler must have exploded. But when he turned on the radio he heard reports that an aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Center.
“I didn’t even bother going to the firehouse,” Fenech said. “I had my white van and I pulled up to St. Pete’s. There was people injured on the streets and the first thing I did was tell everybody that we needed to set up a triage center. That day was totally chaotic. I can only remember segments.”
After working on the lower levels to help evacuate the building, he eventually decided to try to find some gear that would allow him to help out on the higher floors. It wasn’t until he stepped outside that Fenech became aware that the South Tower had also been hit.
Fenech said he started searching a fire engine to try to get the gear that he needed when the South Tower collapsed.
“A police officer slapped me on the back and said, ‘It’s coming down,’” Fenech recalled. “I looked up and I could see the first 11 stories break off the top and start to come down in slow motion. There wasn’t enough time to run around the corner and hide behind a building.”
The policeman took cover underneath the fire truck while Fenech ran to the back and hid underneath a rubber fire hose. After the collapse of the South Tower the policeman headed for the hospital, but Fenech turned around and went straight back to the North Tower.
“By the time I got there, the north building went down in front of my face and blew me off the street with all the compressed, pancaked air coming out from the upper floors,” Fenech said. “It knocked me unconscious.”
Fenech woke up in a hospital, but after receiving some minor treatments he checked himself out and took a cab back to ground zero.
“I could not bear the fact that I left my people behind,” he said. “You don’t leave anybody behind. It isn’t a regular job where you check out at 5 o’clock and you go home. Some of these guys are your cousins, they were your best man, you go to their kids’ graduations and they come to your kids graduations. It is a family.”
Fenech said that the whole experience was surreal.
“Nobody will ever use the word animated, but that is how you are living. You are not living in the real world,” he said. “You are doing what you’ve got to do, but everything is animated – you are not really feeling and you’re not thinking about yourself. You are just moving where you have something to do and as soon as you turn your head there is somebody else that needs help, then somebody else, then somebody else.”
Fenech said he spent the next nine months running a repair and equipment shop at ground zero to aid in the cleanup efforts.
“Other firefighters asked me, ‘How are you doing,’ and I said, ‘I don’t feel like I am living my life,” he said. “I feel like things aren’t real.’ What would normally take me an hour to complete would take me four or five hours. I lose my concentration, my vocabulary shrank, my sleeping was terrible, I was constantly coughing and I was in a lot of pain. Breathing was practically impossible in the winter time. I had glass, cement, and all kinds of things that I put into my lungs that day.”
It was about six months before Fenech started to feel like himself again. Even then, he said he didn’t really talk about what he experienced on Sept. 11 for quite a while.
“It took years for me to come out of my shell,” he said. “I had what they call survivor’s guilt – where you lose so many friends and you are still walking around and living.”
Although New York City was hit hardest by the events on Sept. 11, the terrorist attacks sent ripples throughout the country. Even Lake Havasu City, roughly 2,500 miles away from New York, had several residents impacted on that fateful day.
One Lake Havasu City couple lost a son and another family was left in limbo for two full days as the chaos surrounding the event made it difficult or even impossible for many people to contact loved ones in the area.
According to an article that ran in the Sept. 16, 2001 edition of Today’s News-Herald, Lake Havasu City residents Patti and Richard Ramsdell had a son who was on American Airlines Flight 11 – which crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. David DiMeglio, who was 22 years old, reportedly never lived in Arizona but he visited Lake Havasu City frequently to see his mother and stepfather who had been in the area since 1997.
Today’s News-Herald reported that Patti Ramsdell had booked her son on the flight. DiMeglio’s obituary published Sept. 13 in The Boston Globe said he was heading west to help his mother move.
DiMeglio had recently graduated from a computer school and had just started up a business in computer services prior to his untimely death.
Jan Brown and her son Justin Zamarra, who were living in Lake Havasu City in 2001, didn’t experience the same level of loss on Sept. 11 but the attacks thrust the two into agonizing uncertainty. They waited for 48-hours before they got word from Brown’s stepson, 26-year-old Galen Zamarra, informing his family that he was OK, according to an article in the Sept. 19, 2001 Today’s News-Herald.
Galen Zamarra was working as a chef at a restaurant two blocks away from the World Trade Center and lived above the restaurant.
“I was horrified (when I saw it on TV),” Brown was quoted in Today’s News-Herald in 2001. “I couldn’t believe it was happening in my country. (It was hard) until we heard he was OK. Those (48 hours) were long. I tried to send him an e-mail, but it came back. Then I saw that the company that handled his e-mail was in one of the towers. I attempted to call him only once because I didn’t want to plug the lines.”