‘Is Anybody Else Out There Still Alive?’
The day that almost ended their lives began differently for each of the four Broad Channel Volunteer firefighters and EMTs, Chris (Bubba) Kalisak, Fred Grey, Robert Nussberger and Ed Wilmarth, III.
For Kalisak and Grey, it was a Tuesday like most others. Kalisak was at the end of his overnight tour at the Noel Road firehouse of the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department. Grey had just reported in.
At a little after nine that morning, the emergency phone began to ring.
“I was listening to the alarms at the house and they went from first alarm to fifth alarm right away,” Grey told The Wave. “I thought to myself, how could a fire get out of control so quickly.”
Just as Grey finished his thought, the Mutual Assistance Radio Service (MARS) began to broadcast for ambulances all over the tri-state area to respond to the World Trade Center.
“We logged on that we were responding with our Basic Life System (BLS) ambulance and put out a call to our ambulance crew to come to the firehouse,” Kalisak says.
Nussberger was at home asleep when the first plane hit the tower.
“My wife woke me up and told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center,” he remembers.
He got dressed, grabbed his equipment and went to the firehouse. The fourth man, Wilmarth, joined them and the four took off for Manhattan, hitting the Belt Parkway from Cross Bay Boulevard.
“You could see the smoke and the fire from the Belt,” Nussberger says. “It took us 17 minutes to get to Manhattan.”
“Everybody was pulled over, just looking at the buildings in the distance,” Grey added. “We hit the city quickly and the police had opened a tube in the tunnel just for emergency vehicles.”
Grey, who was driving the ambulance, was directed to park at Liberty and Rector Street, about 200 feet from the lobby of the North Tower.
“When we got there, bodies were coming down from above and there was lots of debris falling,” Grey says. “We decided to put the ambulance under the overpass that ran from the World Trade Center across West Street to Battery Park City.”
The four men were told that they were going to go into the building right after a Hatzolah crew that was next to them. They got their equipment ready and put on their bunker gear.
“We thought that we might be going up into the fire, not just acting as EMT’s,” Grey says. “We wanted to be ready.”
From that point on, the stories of the three volies who spoke with The Wave differ.
From Chris Kalisak:
“The crew in front of us went into the building. We got ready to go, when an NYPD Lieutenant standing nearby told us to fall back. We walked back a few feet and I heard a noise that I still can’t get out of my head. It sounded like the Concorde passing over, except it was much louder. I looked up and the side of the building was coming straight down on me. There was nothing to do but run. I ran in between the ambulances and then a warm, white tidal wave of soot came right up Rector Street and it was coming right for me. I looked behind me and saw the truck from Ladder 15. It was sliding sideways towards me. I kept running, but the tidal wave hit me in the back and knocked me right out of my boots. I did not realize that I did not have my boots until I was on a NYPD harbor launch moving towards New Jersey. I dug myself out. I could not see anything, it was pitch black. My throat was clogged. I could not breathe. I yelled out, ‘Is anybody else alive out there.’ I managed to get to an ambulance and clean out my eyes. I moved towards the water. Small boats were taking people off and taking them to Jersey. It was totally quiet, totally black and there was ash falling everywhere. They took me to Liberty State Park, where they had a triage set up. Ed was there as well, and we were both treated. Then we began to help out. There was no way for us to get back to the city, nevertheless to Broad Channel. This was just something out of a war zone, and I hope I never see anything like it again.”
From Robert Nussberger:
“I really did not know that this was a terrorist attack until we parked under the overpass and people were talking about it. We set up our equipment and got ready to go in. There was debris falling and we stopped for a moment. Just then, the second plane hit the towers and the top of the building came off. I looked back and there was a wall of white gaining on me. There was no way to get away from it. I was picked up and hurled through the air. I was thrown at least one block. Then, something hit me in the back and knocked me under a truck. It was like I was in a box. I crawled into a building. I am not sure which building it was, but it had a circular lobby. I could see the water and a marina a block away. I had trouble breathing. I had trouble seeing. I was exhausted. Some people picked me up and took me to a fire boat. The boat took me to Liberty State Park, where I was cleaned up. I feel that I am split in two halves. One half is here, but the other is still back there. I didn’t know whether the others were alive or dead until I got to Liberty State Park. I worried about how I would go back to Broad Channel and tell their relatives that they didn’t make it. My bruises will go away and my hearing will come back, but I will never lose the memories – they will stay forever.”
From Fred Grey:
“When we pulled up, I said to Bubba, ‘people are jumping out of the building.’ I couldn’t believe it. We were ready to go in when a police Lieutenant yelled, ‘move back.’ He wanted us to move the staging area back a couple of feet. That saved our lives. Just then I heard a noise like a Concorde a million times over. I paused and looked up. The building was coming down, right at me. I think that I called in a ‘Mayday’ on my radio, but I might have just done it in my head. When the building hit the ground, it sent out a warm, white cloud that hit me and threw me to the ground. I was saved by the bunker gear that I was wearing. It was so dark, that I thought, ‘where in Heaven is it so dark?’ Engines were blowing horns, people were screaming, I couldn’t see or hear. My nose and mouth were full of ash. I made my peace with God. I put my hand on something for balance. It turned out to be a steel I-Beam. If it had hit an inch to the side, I would have been dead. I will live with that for the rest of my life. I dug myself out and found an EMT who gave me sodium chloride to wash out my mouth. I think that I collapsed and a cop and a firefighter dragged me to the water. An EMT lifted me and carried me to the boat. Just then, the second building collapsed. It was pitch black as they put me on a harbor launch. The cop who drove the launch just took us out of the harbor full throttle. All of a sudden, we went from pitch black to beautiful sunlight. They took me to triage at Liberty State Park. There was a woman there from Ditech who was using a cell phone to call relatives for the people in triage. She called my dad and told him that I was alive. My leg got numb and they took me to the Jersey City Medical Center. My knees were black and blue and my back was hurting. I had shrapnel in my head. The Lieutenant who saved our lives back in the city was with me in the hospital. We were on the same floor. Everybody in the hospital was great. Everybody was pulling together. I was in the hospital for a little over two days. I didn’t find out that the other guys were alive until the second day.”
The ambulance was crushed when the second tower came down.