Fire chief recalls 9/11
CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Coaldale Fire Chief Richard Marek sits with his dog, Shiloh, as he recalls watching the World Trade Center towers burn after terrorists deliberately crashed passenger jets into them on Sept. 11, 2001.
For Coaldale Fire Chief Richard Marek, Sept. 11, 2001 started off as typical day as he headed off to New York City with a truckload of oxygen to deliver to hospitals.
"I left home for work around 4:30 that morning," he recalls. "I was working out of a terminal in Bethlehem, hauling liquid oxygen for AGA gas company. I had two stops in New York, one in Brooklyn, right off Arizona Bridge and the other at Roosevelt Island.
"After I made my first delivery, to Brooklyn, and I had no idea what was going on. I was back on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and I heard on the radio something about a plane flying into one of the World Trade Center towers, but they didn't have any idea of the magnitude. I could see across the bay area, the Hudson River area, to Manhattan. I could see the towers in flames."
Marek, now a firefighter for 36 years, watched as "fire trucks and ladder trucks responded on surface streets."
"I looked down at these guys ... high-rise fires are difficult to begin with, and nobody does high-rise firefighting better than New York City. They wrote the book on it. But when you look at something of this magnitude, I thought, somebody's not coming home today," he said.
He later learned that 343 firefighters had sacrificed their lives that day.
Marek, stunned, grabbed the disposable camera required to be carried by AGA drivers, and started snapping pictures.
Still unsure of what was going on, Marek started on his way to the second stop, calling his wife, Roxanne. At the time, there still cell phone service because the antennas on the towers were still intact.
"Turn the TV on, there's something big going on," he told her.
Suddenly, the cell service dropped as the towers collapsed.
Marek arrived at the second stop, where he heard staff talking about two jumbo jets flying into both towers, and learned that the crashes were deliberate acts.
"It was a gorgeous day. Not a cloud in the sky - a beautiful day," he says, still marveling at the incongruity.
"I was just taken aback. How could something like this happen? Until you got more information, and realized exactly what is was, that it was jumbo jets, full of fuel, I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was just awe-struck. I couldn't believe it. This just wasn't happening.
"Then, to find out how it happened, and how well it was planned. That's the frustrating part, when you think of all the people who died, and you think of the missed information - the people who went to pilot school and all they wanted to do was learn how to fly, and not to learn how to take off and land. My God, that should have been a red flag. That's the part that hurts the most. I think the United States had a lot more opportunities to stop this before it happened."
He made his delivery - spraining his ankle in the process.
"I heard a pop, and thought I broke it," he said.
Staff offered to get him to the emergency room to be treated, but Marek declined.
"With everything that's going on, I hardly think they're going to worry about my ankle," he said. "I'll just tough it out."
Being unable to leave the city because all the bridges had been closed, Marek made his way to a surface street in Long Island City, north of Brooklyn. He parked, munched a deli sandwich as he listened to radio reports of the attacks.
He called Roxanne collect from a landline and told her not to expect him home anytime soon.
At around 6:30 that evening, he was finally able to get onto the Cross-Bronx Expressway. But then, authorities had received a bomb threat concerning the George Washington Bridge and shut down the Cross-Bronx.
Marek sat for hours. He finally arrived back at the Bethlehem terminal at about 4:30 a.m., where Roxanne picked him up and took him to the hospital.
"I had a 24-hour work day before it was all said and done," he said.
Now, 10 years later, Marek believes measures that should have been put into place are still not functioning.
"I think there's still a lot of misinformation. There's information that isn't being passed on like they promised they were going to do after 9/11 - pass it on, be more open with information between agencies and it's not happening," he said.
"And as far as communications go, they said that one of the biggest things firefighters didn't have was good communications in the Trade Center Towers.
"Well, here's a news flash: Any firefighter has a job to do when it comes to rescuing people. Their mindset is on their job. Their mindset isn't on radio communications, their mindset isn't on 'it's time to get out of the building'. If they feel they can grab somebody first before they get out of the building, they are going to do that.
"Even if they had excellent communications, I don't think those firefighters would have come out unless they were carrying somebody with them," he said. "Because that was their duty, that was their job. And they did it."