Steve Sullivan lost all his friends and the crew he was sent to cover for died too
Exhausted and utterly drained, 9/11 fire chief Steve Sullivan slumps among the rubble to snatch a few seconds’ rest. When this photograph was taken, no one knew the extraordinary circumstances that led him to Ground Zero.
He should not be here now to explain what happened that day. Quite simply, he was the luckiest man alive.
And now, ahead of the 12th anniversary of the terror attack, he breaks his years of silence to reveal for the first time what really happened.
Dad-of-three Steve was travelling between fire stations in New York. He had been transferred from his usual Squad 41 to help another team out and had just set off when the attack began. The rest of his team were sent to the Twin Towers. Not a single man survived. By the time he got to Squad 288, 20 minutes away, that group had already left to tackle the nightmare, too.
When Steve arrived at Ground Zero an hour later, all those colleagues and friends were dead too, except one – the fireman he had been meant to replace. Steve’s name was on the official list of dead and missing, and for hours his family had no idea where he was.
The firefighter, now 47, says:
“I still can’t believe what happened that day. I have never spoken about it publicly before. I fully understand how lucky I was. I am so grateful. I lost so many friends that day and spent a lot of time with their families in the following months. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about how lucky I was with so much sorrow around me. People who know me well are still surprised to hear about my experience. We lost some real characters that day, and some of them were like brothers to me.”
Steve, now Chief in Charge of the New York Probationary Firefighter School, spent weeks at Ground Zero helping at first with the rescue effort, then later with the recovery of bodies. He clambered over huge slabs of concrete in a bid to find survivors of the al-Qaeda attacks, which started at 8.46am and killed almost 3,000 people.
Remembering the day, he says:
“I was the extra man that morning and I received a call to go from my usual work at Squad 41 in the Bronx to Squad 288 over in Queens. They had some men having medicals and needed cover so that was the reason I was switched and that decision obviously saved my life. I was driving and I had a music station on and it was interrupted to say a plane had gone into one of the World Trade Center buildings and there was a fire. They said that it was a private plane so I assumed it was something like a Learjet or a Cessna. I was on the BQ Expressway and I had a hit a ton of traffic. I had my cellphone with me and I tried to call both firehouses, but there was no answer from either. I was closer to Squad 288 so I continued driving in that direction.
That was when the second plane hit and I realised that we were being attacked. I got to the firehouse and climbed in a window. The other guys had already gone and I started to load one of 288’s vehicles with tools and masks. From our quarters we had a clear view of the burning buildings. When I saw the South Tower come down it was by far the worst moment of my life. I knew that not only had many civilians died, but many of my friends and colleagues.
I rode into lower Manhattan with other members of Squad 288 who had come in and we were almost there when the North Tower came down. I was in the back and couldn’t see anything, but we heard it and the driver and captain told us what had just happened. I prayed that everyone had been pulled from the building when the first tower came down, but I was sure that we had lost more guys.”
When Steve arrived at Ground Zero he had left his mobile at the firehouse and could not contact his wife, Patricia, who was at home with their three young children. She thought he was dead. Steve says:
“We were ordered to go in to one of the smaller World Trade Center buildings, which had a huge crater in the middle and was burning. There were reports of people trapped. I searched that building, but found no one. I spent the rest of the day searching around the site and removing firefighters and civilian victims.
My wife thought I was dead and I couldn’t call her. It wasn’t until about 4pm that day when I managed to find a payphone which was working and I called her to tell her what had happened. We still don’t talk about it much even now. There was a 9/11 documentary on the TV the other day and we were talking about it. The kids know the full story now – they were just so little at the time.
At one stage I thought about quitting the fire service. I was a lost guy for a while, but I was lucky to go back to work so quickly. There was a lot of black humour and that helped.”
Steve and his wife Patricia have twin daughters Erin and Colleen, 16, and 14-year-old Bridget. They now live in Valley Stream, New York. His Irish parents come from Co Kerry but emigrated to the States in the 60s. The day after 9/11, Steve finally made it home to be reunited with his family. He says:
“The next day when the list of missing members came out my name was on it, because I was listed as working at my firehouse. That whole day I had friends running up to me, hugging me, crying, so happy for some good news. I later found out that all the members of Squad 288 and Squad 41 and all but one member of the hazardous materials squad, who were also based with Squad 288, were among the missing.”
He adds: “The one firefighter who survived was the guy who was waiting for me to arrive to relieve him. It has always been some consolation to me that he did not die waiting for me to arrive.”
Chief Steve Sullivan
- At the bottom of Ground Zero, powerful artifacts rest inside Sept. 11 Museum (globalnews.ca)
- Sept 11 Museum putting hallowed artifacts in place (news.yahoo.com)