'Count us in': How four Elgin firefighters delivered a ladder truck to ground zero after 9/11
Twenty years ago, four Elgin Fire Department firefighters set out on the most important road trip of their lives.
Days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Anthony Bialek, John Fahy, Jim Mulvihill and John Tobin drove to New York City to deliver a desperately needed ladder truck to replace one of the FDNY rigs destroyed in the collapse of the World Trade Center's twin towers.
A part-time employee of Seagrave Fire Apparatus, Tobin learned from a colleague the Wisconsin manufacturer couldn't find anyone to drive the truck, which had been ordered a year earlier, to New York after Seagrave's regular drivers got stranded around the country when airlines suspended flights.
"Count us in," he told the company representative. "We'll drive out."
Returning with the Seagrave truck to the firehouse, he encountered a host of volunteers ready to make the trip.
"I remember saying back then I'm glad we had a task," he said. "A lot of people were frustrated there wasn't anything they could do."
Especially first responders like Bialek, Fahy, Mulvihill and Tobin, who, to a man, cited helping people as the reason they joined the fire department.
From Elgin officials and residents to the fire department and the union, everyone supported their efforts, said Fahy, a now retired former chief.
"Everybody was wrapped up in the emotion," said Tobin, who's also retired.
That included fellow travelers who cheered them on as they drove the fire truck east, trailed by Tobin's SUV emblazoned with a sign that read: "Special Delivery F.D.N.Y. New York City."
"That's what first responders do," Fahy said. "They head into the danger and take care of what needs to be taken care of."
Stopping frequently to refuel, they encountered people who offered to pay for gas or buy them lunch. Fahy recalled a woman, her eyes streaming tears, patting his arm and mouthing, "Thank you."
After about 20 hours, they arrived at ground zero in the early morning of Sept. 17.
"It was fairly chaotic still. I remember the smell of burned flesh and the sight of absolute destruction," Fahy said, adding, "This is what they must mean by 'war is hell.'"
Pulling up to the site with Mulvihill behind the wheel, the rig passed a New York City firefighter driving a flatbed on which rested the demolished remains of a ladder truck similar to the one they were delivering. Mulvihill and his NYC counterpart got out of their cabs.
"The fireman had that shellshocked look on his face," Mulvihill said. "I nodded at him. He nodded back at me, popped open a door and pulled out a fire hydrant wrench and handed it to me. Not a word was spoken. There were tears in his eyes, tears in mine. He got back in the flatbed truck and drove away."
"I still have that wrench," said Mulvihill, who later learned the truck the Elgin men delivered replaced that same crushed rig, whose entire crew died in the attacks. He vows one day to return the wrench to its home.
Navy veteran Bialek was better prepared than most for the devastation of crushed emergency vehicles and still-burning fires.
"We knew whoever was in or near them wasn't alive anymore," he said.
"It was very eerie," said Tobin who recalled the acrid smell and remembered entering the command center to find "people walking around like zombies. Tired, demoralized. It was just devastating."
They realized early on their job would be recovery, not rescue, said Mulvihill, the only one of the four still serving as an Elgin firefighter.
"I only found pieces of people," he said, describing the experience as humbling and emotionally draining. The search effort was also inspiring.
It was "amazing to see all these different people -- firefighters, port authority workers and medics from fire departments from all over the country -- working side by side." The group included at least 87 firefighters from Chicago and the suburbs who volunteered to assist.
After delivering the truck, the Elgin firefighters stayed to help with the recovery, which included passing buckets -- white for debris, red for human remains, Bialek recalled. At one point, he noticed at his feet what appeared to be a mannequin's hand. It wasn't.
"I've been in some really nasty situations. This was different," Bialek said. "The destruction was surrealistic. There was no screaming, no one crying 'help me,' because it was all over with."
After three days working 12- to 18-hour shifts, the men piled into Tobin's car for the ride home. On their way out of New York City, they came upon a woman with a brace around her leg, carrying luggage while struggling to cross a busy street.
The quartet pulled up and offered her a ride, Bialek said.
"At the end, we were able to help somebody, even if it was just giving them a ride home," he said.
It was a poignant coda to a heartbreaking mission. And yet their efforts and the efforts of first responders from all over the country after the attacks confirmed "the strength and size of the brotherhood (of firefighters) we have in the U.S. and how we're born of the same mettle," Mulvihill said.
The experience "drove home the idea of how mankind can be tremendously good and loving to each other and tremendously evil to each other," he said.
For Fahy, serving at ground zero "galvanized my belief that I worked in the greatest profession in the world," he said. "It made me more proud to be a firefighter.