9/11 survivors share one common bond

Tony Magnanti, of the Village of Tamarind Grove, was a firefighter with FDNY Ladder 42. Magnanti served in the FDNY from 1962 through 1975.

It was like losing a brother. It was like losing 343 brothers. Nineteen years ago today, airplanes flown by terrorists slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Another plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field when heroic passengers foiled the terrorists’ plans for that airliner. Among the 2,977 people who died in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were 343 New York City firefighters who raced to the scene aiming to rescue those in the towers. The FDNY 343 Memorial Club, founded by Bob Kane, of the Village of Piedmont, exists for one purpose: To honor the memory of the firefighters who died that day or subsequently succumbed to injuries and illnesses caused by rescue efforts. Kane was a member of the FDNY from 1962 to 1987 and retired as a lieutenant in Ladder 123. As they do every year, members of the 343 club will gather today at St. Mark’s the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Summerfield to remember those who died. Club members and others will read the names of firefighters, other public safety personnel and airline personnel who died in the attacks. Because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, however, only those with tickets will be able to attend.

One of the club’s members, Andy Trabanco, of the Village of Poinciana, had retired from FDNY in 1997 but worked as a fire safety officer at the World Trade Center in 2001. He wasn’t on duty at the time of the attacks, but left his Staten Island home that morning with bunker gear — the protective clothing a firefighter wears — to do what he could to help in lower Manhattan. For Trabanco, to do otherwise would’ve been like abandoning family.

“There’s a tremendous bond. There’s a brotherhood, indeed,” he said. “It is literally like a family. That’s why it was so devastating.”

How close were the firefighters? Many of them socialized together and even coached in the same Little Leagues. Tony Magnanti, of the Village of Tamarind Grove, served in the FDNY from 1962 to 1975, mostly in the South Bronx. One of the kids who played in the league Magnanti coached in was Brian Ahearn, the son of one of Magnanti’s fellow firefighters.

Ahearn grew up to be a firefighter like his father. On 9/11, he was a lieutenant on Engine 230 out of Brooklyn. Ahearn and five others from that crew died that day. Magnanti almost always is at the club’s memorial service to read Ahearn’s name.

The reading of victim’s names is a tradition that has ceased in many places in the nearly two decades since the attacks, but not for the 343 Club.

“We have to make sure everybody knows what happened that day,” Kane said.

The tragedy of 9/11 spread from the firehouses out to the families of those killed trying to rescue people in the towers.

“It is a very devastating thing,” Trabanco said. “These men died honorably. Over 800 children lost parents from FDNY.”

Ladder 11, the firehouse where Trabanco had worked before moving over to his job at WTC, saw seven of its members killed in WTC’s South Tower. Trabanco stayed at the firehouse for a couple weeks after the attacks, helping as he could.

As are many firefighters of his generation, Trabanco is a Vietnam veteran, so he had experience with death. The younger firefighters had not.

“When you’re a Vietnam veteran, you’re used to seeing death on a grand scale. These guys were shaken up,” he said. “You can only equate it to a war.”

The attacks happened to be timed for the hour when shift change happens in FDNY firehouses. Thus, in many cases, two shifts’ worth of firefighters jumped on trucks headed for the scene of the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil. Many never returned.

The cores of the WTC buildings held elevators and staircases. Instead of being built with steel girders, each floor was hung from the metal superstructure of the building. The fires, fed by jet fuel as well as paper and other flammable items in the towers, weakened the supports of the floors, causing the superstructure to bend and the buildings to collapse, according to studies done after the attacks.

As large as the death toll was in the towers, it could have been even worse. A few separate events were at play to keep the population of the buildings when the planes hit lower than it might ordinarily have been, said Trabanco, who works as a docent at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum during his summers in New York.

It was the first day of school for many in the New York area. Parents seeing their children off for the first time that fall were late coming to work. In addition, it was Election Day in New York City, with a primary contest for who would replace Rudy Giuliani as mayor of the nation’s largest city. Some of those voting early in the day were late in getting to the office. Finally, the New York Giants, the NFC champions the previous year, had played the Broncos in Denver the night before in their season opener on Monday Night Football. The game went past midnight, meaning some football fans who could do so planned to show up a little late for work on that Tuesday morning.

Perversely, another tragedy that likely saved lives on that September day had happened more than eight years before. A truck bomb was detonated in a parking garage under the North Tower, killing six people and injuring hundreds. The bomb, planted by al-Qaeda members, was supposed to send the North Tower crashing into the South Tower, killing thousands. The garage was severely damaged, but the main buildings remained intact.

In the wake of the bombing, safety improvements were made at the World Trade Center. The Port Authority spent $100 million on improvements, including a fire command station in each tower. Twice-a-year drills also were instituted.

Jack Boland, of the Village of Virginia Trace, saw some of those changes as a chief inspector for the Port Authority Police. Boland knew the structural makeup of the towers well.

Boland had retired by the time of the attacks and was living in Sarasota. He went up to New York within about a week to help as much as he could. He stayed with his daughter in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he said the ash and particles from the buildings made it look as though it had snowed.

Thirty-seven members of the Port Authority Police were killed on 9/11, and Boland said he knew all but two of them. One death hit him particularly hard.

Jim Romito had been Boland’s replacement when he retired from the force. Boland said Romito, by then a chief, had come over from the department’s offices in New Jersey and went into Building 1, the North Tower. Romito’s body was found five months later.

Boland said the eulogy for Romito, as is traditional, was a pipe band playing “Amazing Grace.”

“When I hear it now, it still bothers me,” Boland said.

Although he’s not a member of the 343 group, Boland said he has been invited in the past to read the names of the Port Authority fallen at the annual memorial service.

“I couldn’t,” he said.

Some firefighters who made it through 9/11 still show the effects, physical and mental, of the day. Bill Sarro is a member of the 343 group who lives in Dunnellon. He had been assigned to Ladder 105 for about six years but was on light duty in September 2001. He was at a medical appointment, with an IV hooked up, when a nurse told him about the attacks. Sarro told the medical personnel to remove the IV so he could go help. When the doctor initially declined, Sarro threatened to take it out himself and the doctor relented.

Sarro called his wife to say goodbye and raced to the department’s Brooklyn division headquarters where he’d been temporarily assigned, getting there about an hour after the second tower came down. He grabbed his bunker gear and headed for lower Manhattan.

“I went on the pile and started digging,” he said.

It wasn’t long before Sarro learned that five of his colleagues on Ladder 105 were killed. Sarro said they were in the hotel that was part of WTC when the South Tower came down.

The loss, and the fact that Sarro wasn’t in the Ladder 105 house when the call came out, continue to bother him to this day.

“This time is always a very tough time for me,” he said.

Sarro says he suffers from survivor’s guilt. He also has breathing problems that he traces to working on the pile for 12-hour shifts in the aftermath of the attacks.

Whether they were on the scene after the attacks or had been retired by 9/11, those who worked with those killed that day share a bond.

“There’s a lot of old guys like me who weren’t there — but we were there,” Magnanti said.

“It’ll never go away.”

Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or steve.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.