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The Ones Who Ran Toward Danger

Slide THE ONES WHO RAN TOWARD DANGER

Studies assessing the health of 9/11 first responders conducted over the past 20 years are driven by data and as a result are inherently dry and impersonal. Yet such studies can have profound effects—on health policy as well as on the health of the people studied. Here are the stories of three World Trade Center first responders, whose health data was used to inform studies performed by David Prezant, M.D., and who benefited from their findings. The three men ran toward Ground Zero while most others fled, but they paid heavily for their heroism.

By Gary Goldenberg

A DAY OF TWO ‘HAIL MARYS’

In the span of 29 minutes on 9/11, Capt. Alfredo Fuentes, the acting chief of the marine division of the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY), escaped death not once but twice.

His first brush with mortality occurred at 9:59 a.m. While awaiting orders at a command post next to Ground Zero, the then-50-year-old Capt. Fuentes noticed that the South Tower had begun to buckle. He warned his colleagues and then sprinted into an underground parking lot. “There was a noise like an oncoming freight train, and everything turned black,” he remembers. “I bent down, put my hands over my head, and said the ‘Hail Mary’ because I thought it was over.”

Miraculously, Fuentes emerged unscathed, ready to resume his duties. He then heard that people were trapped inside the Marriott Hotel, and he joined the rescue efforts there. Standing in the middle of the street, he used hand signals to let the other rescuers know when debris from the North Tower had temporarily stopped falling and it was safe to evacuate people from the hotel.

When one group struggled to make its way across the street, Fuentes started toward them—and then at 10:28 a.m. came a second roar. “I looked up and the North Tower was collapsing,” he says. “I couldn’t run because of all the rubble. I just bent over, covered my head, said the ‘Hail Mary’ again, and got ready for the hit.”

Slide

Capt. Alfredo Fuentes emerged unscathed from the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center but was buried by debris when the North Tower fell. (Photos by Jorg Meyer)

I bent down, put my hands over my head, and said the ‘Hail Mary’ because I thought it
was over.
— Capt. Alfredo Fuentes

Rescued From the Rubble

That was Capt. Fuentes’ last memory of 9/11—which is just as well. The avalanche of debris broke nine of his ribs, collapsed his left lung, scorched his airway, fractured his skull, and nearly tore off his scalp. Somehow, he managed to radio for help. FDNY rescuers, including Lt. Terrence Jordan (see below), dug him out from the rubble and sent him to a Jersey City, New Jersey, hospital, where he was put into a medically induced coma for two weeks.

Meanwhile, the FDNY’s then-deputy chief medical officer, David Prezant, M.D., who was recovering from his own 9/11 wounds, arranged for Capt. Fuentes to be transported to Montefiore, where it was thought he’d get better care.

One of Capt. Fuentes’ first requests on awakening was to see the FDNY chaplain, the Rev. Mychal Judge, a close friend. “I said, ‘I need to talk to somebody, about the people jumping and everything.’” When his wife started crying, Capt. Fuentes knew that Rev. Judge hadn’t survived.

Then came news of the death of his friend and colleague FDNY Deputy Chief Ray Downey, who was near him when the North Tower collapsed. It was more than he could take.

Capt. Alfredo Fuentes at Montefiore, where he was treated for his injuries.

Still Struggling 

Sept. 11 would be Capt. Fuentes’ last day on the job. In the months that followed, he underwent numerous surgeries and procedures—more than he can remember. He spent the better part of a year confined to a recliner because of inner-ear damage that had compromised his balance. He’s still recovering 20 years later, struggling with lung disease, chronic sinusitis, and memory loss.

“With help from the World Trade Center Health Program and Dr. Prezant, we’re keeping everything at bay,” says Capt. Fuentes, who was born in Ecuador and lives in Woodside, Queens. “Dr. Prezant sees me once or twice a year, goes over my case, and makes sure I get to the right doctors. I have to credit him for the quality of life that I have now.”

Capt. Fuentes has every right to be bitter about the day that cost him so much, but he sees only the good that came of it. “What I witnessed that day was incredible, the way people responded, and not just the firefighters but also the civilians. I can’t say enough about the City of New York and the country,” he says.

“Who’s got it better than me?” he asks. “I survived. I got to see my wife and family and my grandson.”

‘I’M LUCKIER THAN SO MANY OTHER PEOPLE’

Like thousands of other first responders, Lt. Terrence Jordan of the FDNY would never be the same after 9/11.

Lt. Jordan, then in his early 40s and a member of the FDNY’s Marine Company 9, was on Randall’s Island for compulsory training when the planes hit the towers. He made his way to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, commandeered a boat named (of all things) Smoke, loaded it with medical supplies, and raced at full throttle to the North Cove Marina near Ground Zero, arriving shortly after the buildings collapsed.

“The air was filled with an incredibly thick cloud of dust—you couldn’t see two feet in front of you,” Lt. Jordan recalls. He had bypassed his firehouse and so hadn’t brought his mask and respirator. That hardly mattered to him in the heat and dust of the moment—especially after overhearing radio calls from a fellow FDNY mariner, Capt. Alfredo Fuentes, who was buried somewhere under the rubble.

Slide

Lt. Terrence Jordan arrived shortly after the World Trade Center towers collapsed and pulled a fellow first responder, Capt. Alfredo Fuentes, from the rubble. Lt. Jordan’s respiratory problems started that day. (Photos by Jorg Meyer)

The air was filled with an incredibly thick cloud of dust—you couldn’t see two feet in front of you.
— Lt. Terrence Jordan

A Search for Survivors

Moving through the eerie quiet, Lt. Jordan and his team followed the periodic beeps of fire safety equipment programmed to emit a distress signal when the wearer stops moving. The rescuers found Capt. Fuentes, pulled him from the rubble, administered first aid, and carried him to the docks for transport across the Hudson River to a New Jersey trauma center.

Lt. Jordan returned to the debris piles to search for more survivors. “We’d find an arm or a leg,” he says. “It was horrible.” A few people were found alive, and so he pressed on, staying on site for three straight days.

His own troubles started on day one, with an asthma-like attack. Lt. Jordan gulped a few mouthfuls of bottled oxygen, caught his breath, and rejoined the rescue effort. More asthma attacks followed, prompting him to contact Dr. Prezant, who implored him to come for testing at the first opportunity.

“I made him promise he wouldn’t put me on medical leave,” says Lt. Jordan. “There was so much work to be done.”

But when Lt. Jordan went for testing a few days later, the news was grim. His lungs were severely damaged, probably beyond repair. “Dr. Prezant told me, ‘Terry, you won’t be going to another fire. You’ll have to retire.’”

Lt. Terrence Jordan on a visit to the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. (Photo by Theresa Jordan)

Tethered to a Tank

Twenty years of service in the FDNY were followed by 20 years of pain and suffering. Since 9/11, Lt. Jordan has struggled with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, severe emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma. In 2010 he had a stroke, which partially paralyzed his right side. “I go to more doctors than you could imagine,” says Lt. Jordan, who is tethered via a tracheal tube to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day. “It’s like I’m 140 years old.”

Yet he remains remarkably upbeat. “I have my issues,” says Lt. Jordan, the father of seven. “But I’m in reasonably good shape because of the World Trade Center Health Program and Dr. Prezant, who stays on top of my health. Just this past November, I had another breathing episode, and he treated me over the phone for 10 weeks until it resolved. He never gives up.”

And neither does Lt. Jordan. Three years after his stroke, he participated in the annual Stephen Siller Tunnel-to-Towers Run & Walk, pushing a walker with a battery-powered oxygen concentrator. After last December’s nor’easter, he could be found clearing the driveway of his Floral Park, Long Island, home with a snowblower, over the objections of his wife and neighbors. And he still rides his motorcycle.

“I don’t want my life to be defined by a terrorist incident,” he says. “I have a pretty good life. I just had my ninth grandchild. I never would have seen any of my grandchildren had I not survived 9/11. I’m luckier than so many other people.”

ASSIGNED TO THE MORGUE

One thing was clear after both World Trade Center towers collapsed on 9/11: The tragedy would claim the lives of many firefighters. Fire Marshal Conrad Tinney of the FDNY was dispatched to the chief medical examiner’s office in Manhattan later that day to expedite the handling of the remains. Mr. Tinney had seen his share of death and destruction as a Navy sailor in Vietnam and then as a firefighter in New York. Yet nothing he’d experienced had prepared him for the task at hand.

“It was pure madness, like a scene out of the movie M*A*S*H,” he says. “We identified the first 20 bodies by sight, because we had worked with these guys before.” The remains kept arriving at the morgue, body part after body part. A total of 343 firefighters died that day.

Mr. Tinney stayed at the morgue for five days, until Charles Hirsch, M.D., the chief medical examiner, threatened to have him physically removed if he didn’t go home.

“I gave the neighbors a free show,” he says. “I took off all my clothes on the front steps, walked into the house, and showered. After I started shaving my beard, which had absorbed the smell of death, I looked in the mirror and broke down.”

Slide

Fire Marshal Conrad Tinney spent weeks shuttling back and forth between the morgue and the tons of smoldering debris left from the towers’ collapse. He was diagnosed with a cancerous lung growth seven years later. (Photos by Jorg Meyer)

It was pure madness, like a scene out of the movie M*A*S*H. We identified the first 20 bodies by sight, because we had worked with these guys before.
— Fire Marshal Conrad Tinney

Working on the ‘Pile’

Mr. Tinney soon returned to duty and spent the following weeks shuttling back and forth between the morgue and the “pile”—the term coined by rescue workers to describe the 1.8 million tons of smoldering debris left from the towers’ collapse. He didn’t wear a mask or respirator. “We were told [by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] that the air was fine,” he says.

It wasn’t, of course, and neither was Mr. Tinney. “Every morning, I’d walk over to my kitchen window, where I could see the smoke from the towers—and I knew I had to go down there,” he says.

Three months in, disobeying direct orders, he reported to headquarters instead of to the pile—no small decision for a person in uniform. “I told them I just couldn’t take it anymore—that the human mind is not meant to handle such traumatic events,” he says. “It took me two years of therapy to come to terms with it.”

As fall turned to winter, Mr. Tinney came down with bronchitis, which persisted for months. A scan administered the next spring picked up a small nodule in his left lung. Dr. Prezant recommended that Mr. Tinney undergo periodic scans to keep a close eye on the growth.

A Battle With Lung Cancer

Seven years later, soon after he retired, Mr. Tinney was told that the growth on his lungs looked suspicious and would have to be removed. “Let the dance begin,” he said, the fight still left in the firefighter.

A biopsy confirmed that the growth was cancerous, and a surgeon successfully removed it from Mr. Tinney’s lung. But his ordeal was just beginning.

After enduring several rounds of chemotherapy for the lung cancer, Mr. Tinney went into renal failure. Then his immune system crashed, and he was prescribed an experimental immune-boosting therapy that saved his life. Next came 36 rounds of radiation therapy aimed at eliminating any lingering cancer in his chest.

All the while, Mr. Tinney strove to live as fully as possible, indulging in his passions of photography and travel, including journeys to Vietnam, Kenya, and Namibia. That all came to a halt last year, and not just because of the pandemic. His “good” lung started filling with fluid, which doctors found was the result of lymphoma. The dance continues.

“I’m still here,” Mr. Tinney says. “You have to look at the good part of it. People ask, ‘How’s your day?’ and I say, ‘I got up this morning.’”

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