"I think about them every day."
Al Fuentes is lucky to be thinking of anyone. He's lucky to be alive.
A 26-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, a figure renowned around the world in rescue work, the now-retired battalion chief was in a fight for his life two years ago this week. Of all the stories told of Sept. 11, his was of a rescue the details of which few would know until long afterward. First, because his own memory of the day was shattered by tons of falling debris that buried him alive. And second, because, faced with a long recovery from injuries too numerous to count, he chose to quietly recuperate at his home along Reynolds Channel with his family, his pride in his job, and his love for the men left behind.
The rescue of Capt. Fuentes was one of the few rescues made after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. On a morning that saw some 20,000 people saved and safely evacuated before the buildings fell, Fuentes was the last man pulled alive from the rubble.
To this day, Fuentes could not be more proud of his chosen profession. As a child, not long after his family came to the U.S. from Ecuador, he watched in awe as firefighters battled a fire in a building in Harlem.
"I was amazed at what they did," he said. At 20, Fuentes took the test for the FDNY. It was virtually a no-brainer for a kid raised in Woodside. "I'm a blue-collar type of guy," he said. "In Woodside, that's what we were. Cops, fire or construction. Plus, I'm a service type of individual." It would be several years before he would finally get called, but it was well worth the wait.
Over the next two decades he established himself as one of the best that the city's "bravest" had to offer. He spent most of his career in elite rescue units, and became part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) New York task force. With that team, he worked rescue missions in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Oklahoma City.
It was there, in Oklahoma, at the scene of what was then the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, that Fuentes thought up a device to help rescue workers in building-collapse situations. The device, which he patented, involves a small camera that captures a building's image and sends it to a computer, which analyzes the image every second to detect any structural movement and signs of a possible collapse.
The irony of what happened to him in 2001 is not lost on Fuentes. "It's ironic," he said. "Here's a guy that made a patent to monitor buildings in danger of collapse, and here one collapses on me."
It's the one Sept. 11-related anecdote he can laugh about.
Having been promoted to captain, Fuentes was serving as the Acting Battalion Chief of the fire department's Marine Division when the towers were hit. He had been sent to the division four years earlier to do a study on the department's historic unit, which is responsible for some 560 miles of waterways. Under his command were three large boats and several smaller ones, and about 100 firefighters. He oversaw all of this from offices in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, just across the East River from lower Manhattan.
"From my office, the towers were close enough to reach out and touch," he said. "They were right there."
sub: 'We're at war'
"My secretary came in and said, 'Cap, a plane hit the World Trade Center!'" Fuentes recalled. "I couldn't believe my eyes. I knew we were in trouble."
Fuentes wasted no time in ordering his boats to surround lower Manhattan. He knew they'd be needed to transport the injured or deliver firefighters from other boroughs to the scene. His own boat was turning from the harbor toward Battery Park when a plane came from virtually over his shoulder.
"Then he turned, he banked ... and the plane went right in," Fuentes said. "I told my men, 'We're at war here.'"
With the fire boats in position, Fuentes went ashore to report to the brass at the scene. Then the south tower came down. Having barely survived that collapse, Fuentes and his friend and mentor Ray Downey, a legend in the department whom he served with in Oklahoma City, went to look for survivors.
"We were informed that people were trapped at what was left of the Marriott," Fuentes said. "That's when Ray and I went to assist." Experts in building collapse, he and Downey knew the risks involved, but did not expect the two towers to come down so quickly.
"We thought it'd be a partial, gradual collapse," he said. "We knew we weren't putting that fire out." Since they were unable to battle the fires, the one task left for the firefighters, he knew, was to rescue the trapped and injured.
"The people jumping ... it was just unbearable," said Fuentes. "As a firefighter, we're committed to trying to help people. We were at war at that time. We were just doing everything we could."
Fuentes and his brother firefighters went in search of survivors of the first collapse. Within minutes, the north tower came down on top of them, killing Downey and burying Fuentes.
That's where Fuentes' memory of that day largely ends, but, miraculously, he remained conscious for as long as 45 minutes, radioing for help. Members of his own Marine Division came ashore to search for him. From within the rubble, transmissions coming out over Fuentes' radio were heard by a member of Rescue 1 nearby. The firefighter, whose radio call, [ITALICS]"Battalion Chief Fuentes is trapped. I have him" [END ITALICS] made front-page news weeks later, found the chief buried up to his neck in debris, fading in and out of consciousness.
Fuentes was taken from Manhattan the same way he had arrived, by boat. His condition was critical and his only hope rested in getting quickly across the Hudson River to New Jersey, where doctors waited to treat the injured. It was the closest aid available, but it almost proved too far. Fuentes' breathing stopped when his rescue party reached land. Though he was stabilized by doctors, there along the river he was given last rites. From the dock he was taken to Jersey City Medical Center, where he was put in an induced coma to help combat his injuries, which included a fractured skull, singed lungs, a collapsed lung, broken fingers and eight broken ribs. His scalp had to be sewn back on. He remained in the coma for over a week.
From Jersey City Fuentes was taken to Montifiore Hospital, where he spent a week and a half in the pulmonary-intensive-care unit. He awoke there one night overwhelmed by all that had happened, and asked to speak with Father Mychal Judge, the department chaplain. It was only then that he learned the extent of the losses the department suffered. Judge, Downey, and 341 others.
sub: One of the lucky ones
"I needed to come home." It was barely a month after he was pulled from the ruins of the twin towers, but Fuentes knew where he wanted and needed to be if he was going to fully recover. Gesturing to the chair in his living room, he said, "I lived in that recliner for a year."
Long Beach has been Fuentes' home since he and his buddies rented a house in the West End in 1976. A year later, two great things happened: he met Eileen Malone, and got called to the FDNY. He and Malone married two years later and shared an apartment on Connecticut Avenue before buying their first home on Armour Street and raising their three children.
"I'm glad we never left Long Beach," Fuentes said. "After 9/11, it's just been terrific. The people here in Long Beach ... this city has been great."
From his home on East Bay Drive, Fuentes slowly overcame the effects of severe vertigo, saw doctors regularly, and underwent physical therapy as often as five days a week. He swam at the Recreation Center pool, and many days simply walked his neighborhood. One walk in particular, last winter, motivated him. Fuentes went out just after a recent snowfall. Across the street, he saw a blind man with a cane, apparently having some difficulty. Fuentes walked over, realizing that the snow had covered up the man's usual landmark.
"I asked him if he neeed help," Fuentes said. "He said 'Just get me to the sidewalk. I'm good here.' That's it. He said 'I got it, leave me alone. I'm OK.' I came home thinking, 'I got problems?' That was a turning point to me. That's why I don't complain."
Fuentes still lives with effects of the head injury, but has come a long way. "This was my first summer," he said. "Last summer I was still in a daze, still foggy. But I'm driving, I can walk by myself now.
"It's ongoing. But I can live this way. A year ago? I don't know."
Fuentes is now officially retired from the fire department. In his living room, not far from the recliner, old articles recall his remarkable career. On his wall, the towers still stand. And next to them, a Newsday story recounts Fuentes' calm, collected calls for help from beneath the rubble, calls he can't remember making but that saved his life. Fuentes was said to be the last man pulled alive from the collapsed buildings, saved by his radio calls for help despite critical injuries, a dispatcher who directed rescuers his way, and the colleagues -- his fellow firefighters -- who pulled him out and carried him to one of his own fire rescue boats.
Also near his chair are the photos of some of the friends he lost. It would be too much to display pictures of all of them, so some have been put away. But he will never put away the memories of them. He thinks of them every day, calling them the "first patriots" of the War on Terror. As each new monument to the fallen was unveiled in Long Beach, Fuentes was there. When a reporter came to speak to him, he made his motivations clear. "This is for them," he said. "It's not for me. It's for my brothers. It's to remember them.
"I was lucky," he went on. "I got to see my wife and kids again." The ones who didn't, he hopes America will never forget.
"They were real people. They lived in this world," he said. "The sacrifice they made that day highlighted what America is all about. They actually transformed America. The flags, the patriotism ... They raised this new-found love of America. I just want [people] to remember that freedom comes at a price. They were good people. They were fathers, sons, husbands and friends. I just want people to remember them and how they behaved."
Fuentes, who has authored a forthcoming book, "American by Choice," will always mourn the men and women who died that day. But he is determined to live as best he can. "There's still a sadness in me," he said. "I'll never be the same. Part of me died that day ... But I'm happy I'm alive."