Valley Stream fire chief recalls dark days of 9/11


On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, current Valley Stream Fire Chief Eugene O’Brien II was at his home as he watched on TV as the World Trade Center’s North Tower burst into flames after a plane struck it at 8:46 a.m., followed 17 minutes later by a second plane that slammed into the South Tower.
At 10:30 a.m., a general alarm was transmitted, calling O’Brien and his fellow Valley Stream firefighters to report to their respective firehouses to provide mutual aid to New York City. From there, all department firefighters gathered with their trucks at Valley Stream Fire Department headquarters, on East Oxford Street and Rockaway Parkway, where a command post was set up.
Once the three fire chiefs at the time arrived at headquarters, head counts ensured that all personnel were present, and each volunteer was assigned to a truck. Meanwhile, radio communications were taking place between the Nassau County Fire Communications Bureau and all Nassau County Fire Departments to determine the number of available volunteers and equipment that could be sent into the city.
At 11:30 a.m., Chief Petry assumed command of the department and dispatched one engine company, one truck company and a heavy rescue company to the Brookfield Blvd. firehouse in Rosedale. Shortly after arriving there, they were relocated to the firehouse of the FDNY Princeton Street Tigers, Engine 303 in South Jamaica, Queens. O’Brien, a lieutenant at the time, manned the rescue company’s tower ladder. During their 14-hour stay in South Jamaica, O’Brien and his fellow firefighters responded to all alarms of fire in that area, one, a serious building fire. They were eventually released back to Valley Stream at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Chief O’Brien recalls watching the noticeably distraught faces of the FDNY firemen coming back to the firehouse. It was “hard to describe how you felt for these guys coming in knowing that their friends may have died.” O’Brien remembered a Queen’s lieutenant named Brian Hickey who was an old colleague of his and asked if he was still working at the fire house. He later learned that Hickey, 47, had been promoted to captain, joining the Rescue 4 company at the WTC site, and was one of the 343 firefighters that died that day. Hickey had kept a photo of his family inside his helmet.

At around 2 p.m. Tuesday, three Valley Stream engines were sent to Belmont Park for possible duty.  At Belmont, the company joined 1,000 other firefighters from Nassau and Suffolk county fire departments who were being readied for assignment, yet only a few engine and ladder companies were sent to ground zero. All units at Belmont were eventually released at 10:30 p.m. on the day of the attacks and returned to Valley Stream for a continued standby at their local firehouses. 
Although Valley Stream firefighters were not initially called directly to the ground zero disaster site, they were indispensable in providing fire protection to residents and businesses in Queens and continuing to protect residents and businesses in the village and its neighbors, areas that were left under minimal protection because so many resources were sent to New York City.
O’Brien and several other of his fellow firefighters collected large bundles of food, water and medical supplies, and donated them to the Red Cross to aid in the relief efforts. O’Brien was also among several volunteers who lent their support at ground zero in the bucket brigade, passing buckets of rubble to clear the area in search of potential survivors and those fallen beneath the debris.
“It was a solemn feeling because you knew there were hundreds of firemen in those buildings when they came down,” O’Brien said.
While much of that time feels like a chaotic blur to O’Brien, one thing he starkly remembers was “the eerie feeling” one had walking into a city reduced to what looked “like a war zone.” 
“I couldn’t tell you where I was if I was standing there right now,” O’Brien said.