On a perfectly stunning morning in late summer, Aaron McClamb was walking to work at the Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower building in Brooklyn Heights.
It was a shady, leafy neighbourhood of century-old homes and buildings, and streets with names like Pineapple, Cherry and Cranberry. It was just after eight o’clock and, as he always did, McClamb turned down Middagh Street. He had always secretly wanted to be a fireman, and enjoyed walking past the Middagh Street firehall to see the big red trucks. The historic firehall housed two Brooklyn Heights fire companies – Engine 205, and Hook & Ladder 118
Once on the job, McClamb was soon swept up in the drama unfolding outside his 10th floor window facing the New York City skyline and, in the foreground, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
Hearing sirens from the Middagh Street firehall, the amateur photographer picked up his camera and snapped one of the most famous photographs taken on 9/11. It captures the high-rise expanse of New York City, with the two burning towers in the background. A red fire truck is depicted, racing across the deserted Brooklyn Bridge towards, as a local priest would later say, “the gates of hell.”
Two weeks later, the photo appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News, titled “The Last Run of Ladder 118.” The six men on the truck never returned to Middagh Street. They were among the 343 New York firemen who died on 9/11. Three of the six were finally recovered from the ruined lobby of the Marriott Hotel, WTC 3, in January of 2002. The others were never found.
Of the nearly 3,000 dead in the 9/11 attacks, 1,000 were of Irish descent. Among the firefighting and police fraternities of the city, the toll was even higher. Of the 343 dead firemen, fully 245 belonged to the NYFD’s Emerald Society.
Billy Nolan, the Dublin-born president of the fire department’s Emerald Society, said that more than 7,000 of the department’s approximately 11,000 firefighters were of Irish origin. “The Irish had a tough time getting work,” explained Denis McCool, the captain of Engine Company 92 in the Bronx, whose parents came from Donegal and Galway. “They just gravitated to the fire department. Dads brought their sons and brothers. The culture of the FDNY became Irish.”
There were 372 fatalities from 89 non-U.S. nations on 9/11, including 24 from Canada, yet Ireland was the only other nation to proclaim a national day of mourning. The Irish, it is said, demonstrate a traditional proclivity for strength in dealing with death and tragedy, but that Tuesday in September, the shared grief was extraordinarily devastating. In the days following the terror attack, some New York fire captains delivered eulogies at as many as four funerals a day. One day, there were 23 funeral and memorial services.
Additionally, this was truly the terror attack that kept on killing. By one estimate, there are 30,000 people receiving medical treatment for illnesses relating to toxic exposure in Manhattan following the attacks. More than 100 New York City firefighters have died from 9/11-related illnesses. Over 1,000 have contracted a cancer related to 9/11.
One of the eight firemen from Ladder 118 who died that day was Captain Martin Joseph Egan. I stumbled across his name while trying to research my grandfather online. My father’s name was Joseph Martin Egan, and Martin is a name that has been in our family for generations. It was my great, great , grandfather’s name, and is also the middle name of my grandfather, brother and son, in addition to my father.
I did not know him, but I feel an overwhelming kinship with this brave firefighter who, with his brother firefighters, raced into the gates of hell and saved 25,000 people from the burning towers on that horrific day.
We can only look at the images of those massive, burning towers, and marvel at the heroism and courage of those who rushed in and began climbing those doomed stairs while others were streaming out. In one sense, it is a blessing that the towers fell when they did. One hour later, and there likely would have been over 1,000 firefighters in the towers.
This St. Patrick’s Day, when we “hoist a jar” to the Irish, let us spare a moment to remember the utter valour of the 343.