by Associated Press
August 12, 2005
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In thousands of pages of oral histories released Friday, firefighters describe in vivid, intimate detail how they rushed to save fleeing civilians from churning smoke and fire before the World Trade Center collapsed in a monstrous cloud of debris and choking dust.
The histories, recorded in the weeks after the September 11 attack, offer some of the most detailed descriptions of the day's horror as seen through the eyes of firefighters who lost 343 of their brethren.
Firefighter Maureen McArdle-Schulman recalled hearing someone yell before the collapses that something was falling from the towers.
"It turned out it was people coming out, and they started coming out one after the other," she said. "We didn't know what it was at first, but then the first body hit and then we knew what it was."
"I was getting sick. I felt like I was intruding on a sacrament. They were choosing to die and I was watching them and shouldn't have been. So me and another guy turned away and looked at a wall and we could still hear them hit."
September 11 family members pored over the records Friday, some tearing up at descriptions and sounds of the attack and response. At an office building in midtown Manhattan, a half-dozen family members and two fire officers bent over laptops to examine the material.
Fire Lt. Jerry Reilly, who escaped the trade center, said the transmissions were almost too painful to hear. "I never heard any of this before -- the chaos," he said, his eyes tearing up.
Another firefighter who was in the north tower, Paul Bessler, recalled seeing a fellow firefighter going up the stairs as though he were "on a mission."
"Just at that point, my radio came clear as day, 'Imminent collapse. This was a terrorist attack. Evacuate."'
"We relayed that again, hoping that the brothers would hear it above us, and I remember the look on Andy's face, like apprehension that we were going to leave this building," he continued. The north tower collapsed moments later.
Timothy Burke of Engine 202 said a firefighter from another company had a cell phone, and he and others used it to call their families.
"It seemed pretty bad that everybody was willing to get on the phone and try to call their wives to say goodbye or say whatever," he said. "Just the faces of people -- you kind of knew that some of us were going to get hurt because it was too too too much going on."