Manhattan Beach Fire Captain Tim O’Brien remembers responding to September 11

Manhattan Beach Firefighter Jeff Sanders at the World Trade Center, following the September 11 attack

Manhattan Beach Fire Captain Tim O’Brien recalls recovery efforts at the World Trade Center, during an address at the Hermosa Beach September 11 Memorial, in 2019 Photo by Kevin Cody

Manhattan Beach Firefighter Tim O’Brien at the World Trade Center, following the September 11 attack.

Editor’s note: 

Fire Captain and paramedic Tim O’Brien, a 34-year-veteran of the Manhattan Beach Police Department, spoke at the Hermosa Beach September 11 Memorial on September 11, 2019. The following is excerpted from his account of assisting in the 9/11 recovery efforts.

Eighteen years ago today, I was working at our Manhattan Station 2. Jeff Sanders came in to work early and told us to turn on the TV. Soon, we were joined by some sheriffs who had come to the Fire Station hoping to see what was going on. We watched the 9/11 attacks in stunned disbelief.

Because of technical rescue training Jeff and I had and through a relationship our former Fire Chief Dennis Groat had with a New York Fire Chief, Jeff and I were sent to New York.

We took with us a specialized extrication tool that had been designed by John Wenckus, an aerospace engineer who, in a twist of fate, happened to be on flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower. 

I remember saying goodbye to my family: my girls were 3 and 5.

I arrived to a vast sea of twisted steel, much of it too hot to touch with a bare hand. I remember smoke erupting out of different places as cars or other things deep below caught fire. I remember so much paper everywhere, all of it important at one time, but not anymore. I remember big, tough New York firefighters and cops, hugging each other crying, unable to believe that they were alive, and unable to believe that so many others were not.  

We were assigned to the New York Fire Department and the New York Police Department Emergency Services Unit (ESU) search and rescue teams. They called us “California.” “Hey ‘California,’ write your social security number on your arm with this permanent marker, we are going deep today; we are going to find someone.” We would traverse the sea of twisted steel, looking for voids or signs of stairwells and make our way down, but frequently were pushed out by smoke or gas or impassible situations. Twelve hour shifts, a couple hours to clean our equipment and shower, get something to eat, have some restless sleep, then back to the pile.

We spent a week searching, and recovering people, but found no one to rescue. On one day, I was assigned to an ESU search and rescue team and spent time with a police officer looking for his partner near West Street, across from the Financial Center. When the tower came down, the police officer ran to the bridge, and his partner did not. His partner was just gone. There was no closure. There was nothing for the police officer to tell his partner’s wife.  

The guys we were assigned to each had a story to tell, and many of them leaned on Jeff and me to tell their stories to. The coworkers they lost. The friends they lost. The family they lost. They told their stories to us because we didn’t have a story of our own to tell. They didn’t have to worry about piling their pain on ours. Jeff and I became a listening ear, and a shoulder to lean on and I believe contributed meaningfully on a human level while we worked. I think you would have been proud of Jeff and me.

I came home with images that stayed with me. In one particularly vivid dream, I am in one of the towers helping people escape as the tower begins to fall. In my dream, it doesn’t fall straight down, it falls over and the furniture is sliding past me. I know I am going to die and leave my family, but it happens so slowly that I have time to ponder the profession that I have signed up for and the oath I have taken.

Those entering college now don’t have an independent recollection of 9/11. So it is up to the older generations to remember, and explain. Memorials like this create a healing space to do so, and as the plaque in front of this memorial suggests, “Have our voices unite in a song of freedom.”   

For firefighters and police officers, there is an additional layer of meaning. Memorials like this remind us of our oath to protect and serve, and do so with courage and honor. ER



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