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Rescue 5: Ten years later

By Gary Friedman and Christopher Goffard

For nine months, firefighters from Rescue 5 dug through the ruins of the World Trade Center searching for bodies. Among the dead were 11 men from the elite Staten Island rescue company who had raced toward the smoking towers on Sept. 11.

Few remains were ever found. Flags covered empty caskets. Basic answers – such as where they were when they died – proved elusive. New faces filled the firehouse, and now only six men who worked there at the time of the tragic event remain with the unit.

Here are the stories of three people linked to Rescue 5 whose lives were forever altered in the attacks on Lower Manhattan.

Rescue 5: A lone survivor

Firefighter Bill Spade was one of 12 men who went to the World Trade Center site after the planes hit Sept. 11, 2001. He’s the only one who left alive.

Go together, stay together, said the men of Rescue 5 when they went into harm’s way. Eleven of them climbed onto the heavy rig headed to the World Trade Center, and 11 pairs of boots, a pair for each of the lost men, are now painted on the doors of their Staten Island firehouse.

But there were 12 men on duty Sept. 11, 2001. The 12th was Bill Spade, a 10-year veteran of the elite rescue company. He had arrived at the firehouse about 6:30 a.m. for a 24-hour shift, and he knew who was there even before he saw their faces. Dougie, because rock ’n’ roll was blasting. Nicky, because there were bagels and French vanilla coffee. And there in the kitchen stood Joe, not known as a terrific cook, trying his hand at French toast. It was a raucous banter-filled place where men showed their love for each other with merciless pranks and ribbing.

When the planes hit, Spade went separately. It was his turn in the one-man tactical truck, crammed with pavement breakers, search cameras and other special tools.

He was in the north tower, guiding people out, when the collapse of the south tower plunged him into darkness and silence. He escaped the north tower seconds before it too fell, hurling him 40 feet and burying him under wreckage. His eyes full of pulverized glass, he used a finger to scrape debris out of his mouth so he could breathe. He clawed his way free and found a stairway to the street. At the hospital, he called his wife and said, “I’m going to live.”

The others never emerged from the pile.

His lungs ruined, he went on light duty, then retired. Now it hurts to breathe in cold weather, and pneumonia keeps coming back. He gets nervous going over bridges. At Yankees games and Broadway shows, he reserves aisle seats, anticipating the need for a quick escape. At the local swim club, he trims the plants and cheers the younger of his two sons, now 10, during meets.

Spade, now 52, is glad he lived to see his family — he fought for it — but it’s hard to understand why there aren’t 12 pairs of boots glowing on the firehouse doors under the orange street lamps.

“Maybe God was looking out for me,” he used to say. Then someone asked, “God wasn’t looking out for the others?” So he stopped saying that.

For years, he resisted talking about Sept. 11. He thought he should be happy to be alive and “just go off in the distance and kind of fade away.” Then he realized “that if people like myself, who lived through it, didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t get out there.” Every week now, he talks about the men of Rescue 5 to tourists gathered near the place where they died. It probably does more for him, he says, than his four years of therapy. Behind him, cranes are raising the Freedom Tower.

Rescue 5: A widow’s twist of fate

Madeline Bergin lost her husband at the World Trade Center; his body was never found. Now she is married to one of his best friends, a fellow firefighter.

“Don’t come home till you find him,” Madeline Bergin told Gerry Koenig.

Her husband, John, was missing at the World Trade Center, and a group of firefighters was gathered at her home.

Gerry, one of John’s best buddies, had been off-duty on Sept. 11. The two men had joined Rescue 5 in Staten Island on the same day seven years earlier. Now she was begging Gerry to rescue the father of her three children.

Gerry promised to try, but John’s body was never found. He walked behind the empty casket.

Gerry had been a boy, only 8, when he lost his own father in a car accident. He and other firefighters started helping around the Bergin house. He installed windows and helped put up a memorial to John in the basement. He grew close to John Jr., Katie and Shannon. He would drop Katie off at school. As a teenager, she’d argue with her mom and storm away and call Gerry for comfort.

Gerry proposed to Madeline Bergin in summer 2004, and they were married the following summer in St. Pete Beach, Fla. The kids added their signatures to the wedding license.

“It gave our family a second chance,” said Madeline, 50. “He’s been a blessing.”

She had plenty of experience being a fireman’s wife, but she found herself in a panic when Gerry went to his shift at the station house. “I can’t be married to another fireman,” she would say.

So Gerry, who had logged 20 years and whose health had suffered because of the dust and fumes he’d inhaled digging through the World Trade Center wreckage, retired.

She believes John sent Gerry to her, but “it’s not a fairy tale. It just cost too much. When people say, ‘I’m so glad you’re happy again,’ it’s like a knife in the gut. Happy is an awfully strong word.

“Ten years later, I still don’t have answers. I don’t know what his last moments were like,” Madeline said. If remains from the site are ever matched to John’s DNA, she knows firefighters will appear at her door in full uniform, with white gloves, to inform her. “I fear that it won’t happen, and I fear that it will happen.”

She can’t wait for the Sept. 11 anniversary to be over. It’s worse this year because of the buildup. “It brings back so many things, that knot in your stomach, and you don’t sleep anymore.”

John Jr. carried one of his father’s helmets at the funeral. Now 19, he tells his mother he wants to be a fireman, just like his dad, just like his stepdad. He will take the entrance test in January, and when he graduates from the academy, he will get his father’s badge number.

She doesn’t want to crush his dream, so she’ll try to swallow her terror. Her voice trembles. “His father loved being a firefighter. Up until Sept. 11, it was the best thing that happened to my family.”

Rescue 5: A brother’s agony

Joe Esposito followed his older brother into firefighting, only to dig for months trying to find his body in the World Trade Center wreckage.

Every day, Joe Esposito went to The Pile. When he thought of what he might find, it scared him less than having to face the wives of his buddies from Rescue 5. He would have to shake his head once again: nothing yet.

His older brother, Michael, a firefighter from another unit, was somewhere in that pile, too. Joe told himself a strong man could survive a week in the rubble. A week went by as he dug, and then a month. Fifteen hours a day, five days a week, thinking of his brother and talking to him. Telling himself: “The minute I find my brother, I’m done.” After so much death, Joe thought 16 years with the New York Fire Department was enough.

Michael had joined first, and had urged Joe to take the test. Joe was making good money in construction and took a pay cut to be a firefighter, but loved it. Joe was working his side job in construction when the radio carried news of the attack on Lower Manhattan. The towers were already down when Joe got there. “You see Mike? You see Mike?” he asked, and found his brother’s name written in soot on the side of an engine car, along with the names of other missing firefighters.

Two months of digging, then six, then nine, and finally they closed the site. Later, DNA testing confirmed his brother’s remains had been found.

Joe decided to return to work at the Rescue 5 station house in Staten Island. “They were going to need all the experience they could gather. I realized the department needed me, and my brother would have wanted me to stay.”

Of two dozen men assigned to Rescue 5 at the time of the  Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, 11 died that day. Others would retire with ruined lungs or ruined nerves.

Joe, now 48, is one of only six from the original group who still work there. People joke that he’s the unofficial captain.

Along with his brother and the men from his company, Joe lost a cousin, Frank, also a fireman, on Sept. 11. He lost six civilian friends. He lost dozens of other firefighters he knew. “All these psychiatrists wanted to talk to me. My therapy was in the back kitchen of the firehouse. That’s where we have our coffee and eat together and watch the news.”

But he wonders whether he got enough time to grieve. “There’s a lot of times I’m not as strong [as] everyone thinks I am when it comes to this stuff. You try to be strong for everyone, especially the families and especially the women, the widows.”

When Oliver Stone made the film “World Trade Center” a few years back, Joe and other firefighters were flown to a California soundstage to reenact the rescue of a Port Authority police officer trapped in the wreckage. Joe, who had helped with the real rescue, was skeptical of Stone’s intentions and made it clear he wouldn’t tolerate any “political twist-around” of the events of Sept. 11. He thought the film got it right.

He’s got a few years left at the station and wonders how he’ll feel when he leaves. “When a lot of guys retire, they feel like they’re not part of anything anymore.”

At the firehouse this Sept. 11, the bells will ring, timed for the moment the first plane flew into the first tower. They will ring again, timed to the tower’s collapse.

“Ten years? What does it mean to me? To me, it’s like it’s yesterday.”

In this From the Archives post, Friedman explains how he met and followed members of the Staten Island fire company.

Tell us where you were on 911.

12 Comments

  1. August 30, 2011, 9:37 am

    I was in bed, groggily listening to the radio when the towers were hit. I thought the comments about the attack were a joke but when I realized it wasn't, I rushed to turn the tv on and immediately knew dark days were ahead.

    I suppose I am fortunate to not have directly known anyone in the towers, Pentagon or the planes but I know people who did lose loved ones. I am an emotional widower of two years and it pains me to read this story and I agree that being described as "happy" is very unpleasant. I wish the very best all the survivors of 9/11

    By: Norge
  2. August 30, 2011, 3:24 pm

    I was on a plane from Burbank to toake Weapons of mass desturction training. I spent 5 weeeks at ground zero helping with the recovery efforts

    By: Amado2316@aol.comc
  3. August 30, 2011, 3:57 pm

    If I remember correctly there was a news story regarding Gerry Koenig leaving his wife and children and assume responsibility for his fallen buddy's family. Quite a few firemen also did this. 9/11 split apart families in a number of ways.

    By: bab
  4. September 1, 2011, 11:02 am

    I was at my fire departments training center getting ready to teach "Building Collapse/Building Shoring" with our Heavy Rescue Team. All 24 of us had our eyes glued to the television. We did finish our drill but it wasn't easy as our hearts were with our brother firefighters. We will NEVER forget!

    By: R. Cohn
  5. September 3, 2011, 6:54 am

    I was still in bed when I received a call from a friend firefighter in Montreal who said to me, turn on your TV on CNN right now. A few minutes later I saw the second plane crash on the second tower. Working at the time for a news paper in Montreal as a staff photographer, I phone my boss to tell him, if you need me I'm ready to go! What a day it as been!

    By: Gilles
  6. September 6, 2011, 4:11 pm

    Across the bay from NYC where I grew up in Port Monmouth, N.J… I was back visiting family & friends for a week. Since the Giants were on Monday Night Football I decided to postpone my 9/11 flight back to LA to 9/12. My girlfriend at the time (now wife) called in a panic around 9 a.m., saying that NY is being attacked? I went down to the bay where you can see the Twin Towers & all you could see is smoke. No air traffic execpt for F16's…. At the time I did not know if my friends who worked in the city were alive or dead? My hometown was now a war zone! I'll never forget the people at the bay looking across to NYC – silent anger & shock.

    By: buysocal@aol.com
  7. September 9, 2011, 4:07 pm

    That happened, shattered the lives of thewife and 2 boys.
    They will never forgive or forget.

    By: mg80011151@aol.com
  8. September 10, 2011, 10:21 pm

    On 9/11, my company was having a sales & marketing meeting on the west coast. One of the marketing guys had traveled out from Boston and was with us that day. He had a brother who worked in one of the towers and I'll never forget him sitting across from me all day and hitting redial over and over. He never got a response and later his brother was confirmed as passing away that day. What made it even harder was the shutdown of air travel. He was basically stuck in California for about a week before he could get home. I'll always remember the pain I saw in his face.

    By: Rinduck
  9. September 11, 2011, 11:00 am

    The word hero has taken on a whole new meaning since 9/11. The firefighters are always called the "heroes" of 9/11. But if that is true, why aren't the other first responders (doctors, policemen, normal civilians, paramedics, canines…) also called heroes? I sincerely doubt it if these firemen were regular civilians on 9/11 that they would run into the burning towers. If they did that, now that would be considered an intrepid effort. But when they did run into the towers, they were fulfilling their job description. This is what they signed up for; they are on the States payroll to do their job. FIREFIGHTERS ARE NOT HEROES! It is their job to fight fires (hence the word "firefighter") and rescue people and animals.

    By: CarringtonLaura
  10. September 11, 2011, 11:00 am

    There are many people who are true heroes and perform heroic duties on a daily basis; yet, we hear no mention of them. Since 9/11, firefighters have become arrogant to the point of treating people poorly when a taxpaying citizen calls 911 for help (this happened to me when I needed to be rushed to the hospital for an illness a few years back). They even exploited 9/11 with shows like “Rescue Me” and they posed for photographs with their uniforms on for a book. Totally disgusting! They earn no respect from me. I get a paycheck to perform my duties and firefighters are no different. Here is an excerpt from Mariah Carey's song "Hero." "There's a hero / if you look inside your heart / and you'll finally see the truth / that a hero lies in you." RESPECT THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES ON SEPT 11 AND THEIR FAMILIES! RESPECT THOSE PEOPLE WHO CARRIED A WOMAN IN A WHEELCHAIR 68 FLOOR S DOWN! WAKE UP AMERICA!!

    By: CarringtonLaura
  11. October 7, 2011, 11:58 am

    Joannahere.____Not a bad guess, but no that is not Durante. The 'shnozzle' wasn't that tall.

    By: moggeroo
  12. May 20, 2013, 7:33 pm

    Laura you are an angry witch and speak from the wrong hole! Firefighters are heros and would die even to save your sorry @ss. We didn't take the job for the paycheck like you, we did it because it is a calling, and when you love your job, you will never work a day in your life!

    By: Nortonl157@yahoo.com

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