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Wednesday, 19 September, 2001, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Fighting fires, not rubble
Fire-fighter walks past messages of thanks
A New York fire-fighter captured as a ghostly figure
Ryan Dilley

After searching the ruins of "ground zero", the men of fire engine Ladder Six have returned to normal duties for the first time without their missing comrades.

The streets of the financial district are clearing of smoke. One week after the twin towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down, it is sightseers, rather than ash, clogging the pavements.

Ladder Six
Fire engine Ladder Six lost four crew members
One group eat pizza, resting the box on a National Guard jeep. Cheap snapshot cameras heavily outnumber the long lenses of the press. A souvenir T-shirt hangs from shop awnings where yesterday police cordon tape was strung.

In a side street sits Ladder Six, its cab facing away from "ground zero" a block away.

The fire engine's crew congregate around the entrance to The Beekman bar, resting against the window or leaning on a telephone booth.

The missing from Ladder Six
Paul Beyer
Thomas Holohan
William Johnston
William O'Hagan
While their legs are still lost in the dusty folds of their protective dungarees, the day's muggy heat has obliged them to strip to their blue T-shirts.

Their voices remain low, apart from to offer a dust mask to a young woman passing with her sleeve clamped over her nose and mouth.

Rescuers have come to Lower Manhattan from all over the United States, but for Ladder Six these streets are home.

A model fire engine among the tributes at London's US Embassy
A model engine amongst the tributes in London
"We are the 'second due' engine. If there is a fire at the World Trade Center we are the second team there," says Pete Rodriguez.

The young fire-fighter was off duty on the day the hijacked airliners ploughed into the twin towers. Had he been on call, he too might have suffered the same fate as his colleagues.

"We lost Tommy, Billy, Pauly and Billy. Four guys out of 20 on our ladder."

Daunting task

Mr Rodriguez reached the wreckage that had engulfed his engine mates within minutes of the buildings collapsing and has spent every day helping remove the tonnes of concrete and steel which lies on top of them.

Rescue worker dwarfed by rubble
"The slabs and girders to be moved are so big"
One member of the crew abandoned his holiday and rushed the length of the country to join the search for his comrades. Mr Rodriguez motions to a colleague who swapped his Tuesday shift with one of the missing men.

"We sometimes have to physically restrain him from going too deep into the rubble and putting himself in too much danger," he says.

"Some days I'm there until I'm totally exhausted and can't physically lift another thing. One day I came back to the fire house after three hours.

Fire-fighters asleep on their rig
Exhausted fire-fighters sleep on top of their rig
"There was nothing I could do, the slabs and girders to be moved were so big. You need guys who can operate bulldozers and cranes. I'm just a fire-fighter."

A woman stops to thank Ladder Six for their efforts, and grips Mr Rodriguez's powerful shoulders. "We're so proud of you," she says.

Fire-fighter in WTC rubble
A fire-fighter calls for 10 more rescue workers
"People have been just great, amazing," he says.

"I tried to go out with my friends, to take a break. That was a miserable failure. You forget for five minutes, then catch yourself having a good time and you're straight back here."

The men of Ladder Six have been taken away from the digging for the first time since the attack, charged instead with attending emergency calls from the buildings still standing in the financial district.

Scared going in

"It's not back to normal, I can't think when I'll have a normal day ever again," says Mr Rodriguez.

It was so scary to be going into a tall building again

Pete Rodriguez
"We were called to a fire in a high-rise this morning. It was so scary to be going into a tall building again.

"It turned out to be a simple cooking fire, but it really freaks you out. You have to do it, though."

Mr Rodriguez and the other crew members of Ladder Six have 17 hours of their shift left to serve. Sunday is their next scheduled day of rest.

"I'll most probably be back here digging," says the young fire-fighter as he returns to his knot of comrades.

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