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Last Updated: Monday, 8 September, 2003, 17:32 GMT 18:32 UK
Firefighters feel lasting effects of 9/11
Rachel Clarke
By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online in New York

Battalion Chief Jay Jonas at his firehouse
We had the unbelievable shock of 343 guys dying, now we have the more subtle departures... the exodus continues
Jay Jonas
Jay Jonas was one of just a handful of firefighters who escaped the collapse of the World Trade Center. But for him there is unlikely to ever be an escape from the memories of 11 September, 2001.

The same is also true for the Fire Department of New York, which lost 343 men when the Twin Towers collapsed within minutes of each other.

"Everyone is waiting for the magic day when people will say that it's like before 11 September. But that's not going to come," said Chief Jonas, who heads the 2nd Battalion in Lower Manhattan.

The events of the day are still being felt - the last of the 343 firefighter funerals was being held just three days before the second anniversary.

And the losses go on, said Chief Jonas. "In the two-year aftermath, some of the sad things continue to happen.

"There are a lot of firemen who sustained lung injuries. They are having to retire prematurely, sometimes 10 years prematurely.

The names of those killed in the World Trade Center are painted on the side of engines
The names of those who died are displayed on fire engines
"I look at the Fire Department orders and see who is retiring. I see many who are my peers and that's a shock. It's a second wave. We had the unbelievable shock of 343 guys dying, now we have the more subtle departures... the exodus continues."

Reminders of the World Trade Center tragedy are everywhere in the firehouses. In Chief Jonas' office an aerial view of downtown New York shows the Twin Towers in all their glory.

As well as showing how the towers dominated the landscape, the picture also prompts thoughts of the successes of 11 September. Nearly 3,000 people died as the planes crashed, but tens of thousands were evacuated safely.

On the same wall is the roster of officers in charge on that day. "Dead, dead, dead, dead," the chief repeats as his finger points to name after name.

Prominent reminders

As he leaves his office for daily rounds of crews under his command, Chief Jonas passes photographs of firefighters who went to help those trapped in the World Trade Center and who did not come out.

The crushed remains of a door from Engine 55, part of a firehouse memorial
What remains of a fire engine door forms part of a firehouse memorial
And at each firehouse on his route, there are more plaques, more portraits of firemen who died. The Fire Department has always honoured those who fall in the line of duty this way, but the sheer numbers are overwhelming - three, four, five or more at every station.

Their pictures smile down from hallways and their names - painted on fire engines - go to every alarm call.

Firefighters around the 2nd Battalion told BBC News Online that they were happy to have the prominent reminders of their friends and colleagues.

A pervading sense of appreciation and respect for the dead seems to have settled on the firehouses of Lower Manhattan but it is not all maudlin, with the firefighters also remembering the jokes and good times they had.

"It's at the point where we see the plaques and the photos and we think of these guys - particularly if we knew them personally - for what they stood for and the good things they did; not so much how they died, but how they lived," Chief Jonas said.

Trapped by collapse

The battalion chief himself needs no photographs to remind him of what happened on 11 September, 2001, saying he has "very, very vivid recollections of that day".

Firefighters console each other in the aftermath of 11 September
Some 343 firefighters were lost in the World Trade Center attacks
He was leading Ladder Company 6 up Staircase B on the 27th floor in the North Tower when they heard and felt what seemed like an earthquake but was the South Tower crashing down.

Chief Jonas told his men to evacuate - commanders were giving the same order but the radios were not picking it up - but their exit was slowed when they stopped to help an injured woman.

As others ran past them, Chief Jonas kept his group together helping the woman go step by step until her legs gave out on the fourth floor.

He stopped to look for an office chair to carry her down when the North Tower began to collapse, with the forces generated picking up a fireman and hurling him down two flights of stairs and throwing debris at the others.

When the shuddering stopped, they found themselves hurt but not badly, and in a fairly intact part of stairwell. Yet fires were breaking out around them and they could not reach other firefighters calling out for help on their radios. And they were trapped.

After about three hours, Chief Jonas saw sunshine coming through a hole above him where there used to be 106 floors of a skyscraper. Soon after he and the 11 people with him were rescued, all alive, to emerge into a vastly changed city.

'Light a candle'

Yet the chief refuses to be overwhelmed by what happened. He calls his first fire after returning to work a "comforting" experience.

"It was a routine fire, it was one room and the fire went out and nobody got hurt and nobody got trapped. It reinforced that you could go into a serious incident without anything bad happening. That was a good feeling."

And last month, when New York along with huge tracts of the north-eastern United States and Canada was hit by a blackout, Chief Jonas was not one of the many who thought they had again been targeted by America's enemies.

"I said: 'I was at the last one. If this is a terrorist attack, it's nothing - light a candle.'"

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