East Meadow ex-chief recalls mayhem on fateful September day

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When speaking of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, three-time East Meadow Ex-Chief Eric Becker remembers the East Meadow Fire Department firefighters who died, either at the twin towers that day or later from illnesses caused by their exposure to toxic dust at ground zero.

Sept. 11 is a time to remember EMFD Ex-Capt. Raymond Pfeiffer from Engine 3, he said. A New York City firefighter, Pfeiffer worked at “the pile” for months, and he went to Washington to fight for restoration of the Zadroga Act, which was reinstituted shortly before his death from 911-related illnesses in 2017. The act provides health benefits for 9/11 responders.

Becker also remembers EMFD Ex-Capt. Daniel Brethel, who was crushed after diving under a fire truck and one of the towers collapsed on top of it. Although he was not a EMFD member then, he had been a captain of the department’s Engine Co. 1 from 1976 to 1986.

But Becker’s efforts should be noted, too. He arrived at the World Trade Center shortly after the towers fell and was a part of search-and-rescue teams for nine months.

A member of the specialized New York Police Department Emergency Service Unit, the East Meadow resident was in traffic court in Queens, after completing an overnight shift, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower at 8:46 a.m.

“I asked a Port Authority cop what was going on, and he said a small commuter plane had accidently hit the tower,” Becker, 61, said. “My . . . years of Fire Department experience made me realize it wasn’t good, and it was not a commuter plane. When the second plane hit, I went to my unit in South Queens.”

Then he went to Little Richie Bus Service on Atlantic Avenue in Ozone Park, explained what was happening in Manhattan and asked to borrow a bus. Given a bus, he and members of his unit stopped at Key Foods along the way to Manhattan, where they were given all of the bottles of water on the store’s shelves.

“We thought we were under attack, believe it or not,” Becker explained. “We had that school bus for a month. We’d transport guys back and forth to ground zero.”

Joining a caravan of other police vehicles, which included a decontamination trailer with showers, they drove down the Belt Parkway to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but when they arrived, it was closed because the first tower had collapsed.

They received permission to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, which was closed to most vehicle traffic because people were walking and running across it as they fled Manhattan.

“It was a slow go over the bridge, and no one talked to us or asked us questions,” he recalled. “Everyone just wanted to get out.”

They reached the other side of the bridge 20 minutes after the second tower had collapsed. “We waded through the dust and dirt,” he said. “I saw my partner [Dominick Amendolare]. He was blinking, and I could see the whites of his eyes. It looked like someone threw flour in his face.”

Becker knew Amendolare had been working that day and thought he had died at the towers. He had been on the North Tower’s 22nd floor.

“He was told to get out because the first tower had come down,” Becker said. “Just as he got out, the tower came down. He swallowed all that dust and dirt and went to the hospital because he had trouble breathing and chest pains but ended up being all right.”

A temporary command post was set up at Stuyvesant High School. “We tried to establish some kind of base of operations,” he said. “There was so much devastation and loss of life it was hard to . . . get our act together.”

ESU police train in the use of specialized weapons and scuba gear, become emergency medical technicians and attend class at John Jay College on how to deal with people who are emotionally disturbed. His training, he said, helped him to cope with the panic and stress of 9/11.

“We are used to that stuff,” he said. “When a civilian needs help, they call a cop. When a cop needs help, they call emergency services.”

He was at the Oklahoma City bombing site with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and in hurricanes, he said, though he admitted he had never seen anything like the devastation at the towers. ESU lost 14 members that day.

Ground zero was a scene from hell after the towers collapsed. Becker was at the pile when the bodies of three police officers were recovered. “I remember them picking a body up and throwing it on the pile like a rag doll,” he said. “One was the Port Authority cop Christopher Amoroso. I was there when they recovered the bodies of a couple of cops from the 1st and 13th precinct too, but what sticks in my mind was Chris.”

When Amoroso’s body was recovered roughly a month after the attacks, all work at ground zero stopped. Rescue workers performed a short, solemn memorial, draping Amoroso’s body in an American flag, and then his body was taken by ambulance to the morgue at Bellevue Hospital.

“His body was pretty much intact,” Becker recalled. “What I remembered is how flattened out his shield was, and we could see his name tag.”

Becker will never forget when President George Bush came to the pile. He said he never felt so proud to be an American. Within earshot of Bush, he heard him say, “The people who knocked these building down will hear from all of us soon.”

“We took a big blow on Sept. 11,” Becker said. “Here was the leader of the free world basically coming to tell us all we are going to get even, and that’s what we wanted to hear.”

He retired from ESU in 2002 but could have done so sooner. Sept. 11 “wasn’t something I could walk away from,” he said. “I wanted to see this nightmare put to bed.” 

Every Sept. 11th anniversary is “a day of confusion” for Becker, he said. He feels like he should be doing something or going somewhere but he doesn’t. He goes to work.

Then he attends the EMFD’s Sept. 11 ceremony, which he has chaired since its inception in 2003. Firefighters and community members gather at Veterans Memorial Park in East Meadow for a 7 p.m. candlelight vigil to honor those who died. On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, everyone walked from the East Meadow firehouse on East Meadow Avenue to the park, which they will do again this year.

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