‘There was a sense of urgency’

9/11 responder recalls long days, weeks, months at ground zero


Seventeen years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, former New York City police officer Darren Brennan still vividly remembers not only the overwhelming smell of a lethal cocktail of still-burning jet fuel, plane fuselage, computers, steel and asbestos, but also the “eerie” silence.

“It was the strangest smell — it’s hard to describe,” said Brennan, now a member of the Long Beach Police Department, who was 22 when he rushed to “the pile” that day. “It was the most distinct smell ever — it wasn’t disgusting, but it just stayed on you. You still had the smell, but also the awkward silence — there was no heavy machinery yet. It looked like it was snowing, and in the beginning there were no masks.”

In those first few days, Brennan said, the silence at what became known as ground zero was pierced only by the sound of buckling steel and the persistent alarms from breathing apparatus worn by firefighters, signaling that there was no movement as they were trapped beneath the rubble.

“That signified all of the trapped firemen — that’s all you could hear,” said Brennan, who spent the better part of six months, working 18 hours a day, sifting through the debris in search of survivors after the attacks on Sept. 11. “We were climbing over tangled steel everywhere, you could still hear it twisting. There were talks of voids all over — some of them were 30 to 40 feet deep.”

Brennan, who was stationed at the 105th Precinct in Queens Village at the time, had been a police officer for only 11 months when the towers fell. He said he was among about 12 current Long Beach police officers in the roughly 70-member department who responded that day as members of the New York City police or fire departments or other agencies.

“We didn’t know what we were walking into,” said Brennan, who went on to become a New York City firefighter before he joined the LBPD in 2006. “There was a sense of urgency to get in there. A lot of guys didn’t make it out that day, some really good friends of mine. But a lot of guys from my firehouse and police department, unfortunately, had gotten very sick years later.”

Seven Long Beach residents lost their lives in the attacks, and many firefighters and first responders from the area developed, and later died of, illnesses from working amid the World Trade Center wreckage, including William Quick, a 27-year FDNY veteran and a 23-year volunteer with the Long Beach Fire Department who died in 2011 of lung disease.

Quick, who played a large role in the rescue effort, was the second firefighter to die after Congress passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act that year, providing health care and compensation to first responders and their families.

A full schedule of services

On Tuesday, memorial services will be held across the barrier island, honoring those who lost their lives on 9/11 and in the years since (see calendar, page 10). “It’s a tragedy that we never want to forget,” said Long Beach Fire Department Commissioner Scott Kemins, who worked with former City Manager Ed Eaton to create the Firemen’s Memorial at Lafayette Boulevard and Park Avenue in 2002. “We always want to honor those who perished that day, whether we knew them or not. It was a tragic loss of life.”

Kemins said that the LBFD had an ambulance stationed at ground zero after the attacks to treat victims, and that a number of Long Beach firefighters responded that day.

“For days we were sending people to ground zero to assist in the searches,” Kemins said. “Guys are coming down with different ailments every day — you hear from someone every day. It’s going to be going on for years.”

Brennan said that some of his fellow Long Beach police officers have been diagnosed with illnesses directly related to their exposure at ground zero, but he declined to go into detail.

Help from the governor

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation championed by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, that provides sick time for those who worked on the rescue, recovery and cleanup after the attacks. The bill — which applies to active police officers — helps ensure that they don’t exhaust their accrued personal time and aren’t subject to financial penalties as a result of their efforts.

Although the New York City police and fire departments provide unlimited sick leave, Kaminsky said, first responders who served on Sept. 11 and left city agencies to pursue other public service opportunities on Long Island and elsewhere were ineligible for “line of duty” sick benefits because their illnesses were contracted while they were employed by the city.

‘It’s getting worse and worse’

Brennan said that the bill helps officers who are already sick as well as those who may develop illnesses in the future. “That bill really helped a lot of people,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people are having the physical ailments that are going around from it — thousands of people are getting sick. COPD, different types of cancer, sleep disorders, PTSD and depression. It could set in at any point. It’s getting worse and worse.

“It’s helped quite a few people in the LBPD and a lot of other police officers I know,” Brennan added. “The Long Beach Police Department has been very accommodating and understanding of any sickness or illnesses that their members experienced due to the World Trade Center attacks. Police Commissioner Mike Tangney and Lt. Mark Stark, in particular, have gone out of their way to assist members with any issues.”

The bill requires the state to pick up the tab for rescuers’ sick days so they do not use their accrued personal time.

“They’re still on the front lines,” Kaminsky said. “These are not guys who want to go away. They’re still out there protecting communities. We have to remember, especially on the anniversary of 9/11, that there are still people suffering from its effects. It was not a one-day catastrophe. It continues to have tragic consequences.”

He added, “In this case, we have police officers who are having multiple surgeries, who are still sick, who are still committed to the communities they work in and live in, and we should all do whatever we can to try to make it easier for them to do their jobs and to have quality time with their families, and to have all the protection that the law in our society can afford.”

On Tuesday, Brennan said that he and a group of police officers he worked with after the attacks would reunite to remember the friends they lost. “Every anniversary, we get together,” he said. “It’s a time for reflection on the people you lost, but also celebrating who they were, as well as those of us who are lucky enough to still be here.”

Ben Strack contributed to this story.