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Blue Sky, Black Smoke: One Connecticut Native’s Journey Beneath the World Trade Center on 9/11

One of the things Howard Blythe remembers most about September 11, 2001 was how bright blue the sky was that morning, and the plume of black smoke contrasting so sharply with that sky after a jetliner slammed into the North Tower at the World Trade Center in New York City.

Howard, now a 23-year veteran with Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, had just finished a 24-hour shift as a firefighter in Brooklyn, part of a year he was spending in Brooklyn as the Ladder Company shifted resources around the city. He was waiting to be relieved to go home to his apartment in Astoria when the city-wide alarm went off in the firehouse. The news feed running in the fire station reported that a plane had hit the North Tower.

“I presumed it was a smaller plane like a corporate jet,” Howard said during an interview. “The first presumption was it was an accident, and I found it hard to believe. It struck me because it was such a clear day out. I remember the sky being just crystal-clear blue, it could not have been a brighter blue, and I remember that specifically contrasting with the black smoke coming out of the building. That’s one of the vivid things that’s stuck in my head and to this day, whenever the sky is that bright blue, it takes me back to that morning instantly.”

Like much of the rest of the nation, Howard and his fellow firefighters were watching the live news broadcast on television when the second jetliner slammed into the South Tower, sending a massive fireball into the sky.

“At that point it became very, very obvious to us that one, the whole thing was an intentional act, and the second thing we said instantly – knowing what was going on and knowing the fire department operations at the initial incident – we knew that firefighters on the ground were killed,” Howard said. “There was no chance that everybody on the ground was fine. We knew that there were civilians, police officers, firefighters who at that moment were killed.”

A second fifth-alarm transmitted across the fire station radio specifically to respond to the South Tower and, even though Howard was technically no longer on duty, he joined Engine Company 249 to respond.

Howard is the first to say that his story is a very, very small piece of a much larger picture, that he is alive today as a matter of sheer luck and the team of firefighters he served with on that day. To him, his own story about the events of 9/11 – a day that saw 2,977 lives lost, more than 6,000 injured, shifted geo-political forces around the world, changed the culture, launched the War on Terror and set in motion massive changes to life in the United States for the following two decades – is just smallest tip of an iceberg. 

“Not one part of this is about me as an individual in any shape or form, and I’m sure my involvement pales in comparison to many other people in Connecticut who maybe lost a loved one,” said Howard, a native of Higganum, Connecticut, who was 30 years old at the time of the terrorist attacks that sent him into the under-belly of the World Trade Center searching for survivors. 

“I lost friends and co-workers. Other people from the Connecticut area lost mothers, fathers and children and suffered unspeakable suffering and pain and anguish,” Howard said. “To kind of boil it down to one little thing or my part of it, is uncomfortable.”

Nevertheless, Howard says he feels an obligation to share his small part of the story to help keep the memory of what happened that day, and the memory of those lost, alive for future generations. He doesn’t look forward to speaking about it and is still, at times, haunted by the memory, but when and where he can shed light on the events of that day from his perspective, Howard takes the opportunity.

“It’s an obligation I have and that those of us who were there and experienced certain things, you have an obligation to our friends and coworkers who didn’t make it to make sure their memory and sacrifices are not forgotten or lost,” Howard said.

Howard and Engine Company 249 were initially stationed on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, a staging location where they awaited further instructions. The emergency response coordinators didn’t want everyone descending on the scene at one time. They didn’t even know what their role would be, and from their staging area outside the tunnel they could see the two towers, and they watched, along with the rest of the world, as the South Tower’s top tipped and then collapsed.

“We saw the top of the tower tip and we saw the building start to come down but everything was just enveloped with a cloud so quickly that you lost sight of basically everything, so we had no idea how much of the building came down,” Howard said, but they knew the other truck company had already been sent into the World Trade Center. “We had no idea what happened to them and, quite honestly, the command and control, the leadership of the department when the South Tower collapsed was understandably taxed and information was a little bit hard to come by.”

But that was when people started emerging from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, some by car, some by foot. “We were told not to use our medical supplies on them right away because it was presumed we would be sent in and would need our supplies for the more seriously injured,” Howard said. So, they began to gather what they could from surrounding businesses, helping to rinse out people’s eyes from the dust and ash, making sure they could breathe and helping to calm them down.

Unsure whether the Manhattan side of the tunnel was blocked by debris, Engine Company 249 was rerouted over the Brooklyn Bridge toward the scene, arriving in the Broadway area of Manhattan before the fire truck had to stop and they were forced to proceed in on foot. 

That was when the North Tower came down. “We were lucky enough to not be that close to it, but again the debris, the cloud was so thick that we couldn’t really see anything,” Howard said. “I’m one hundred percent sure that every person in the United States had a much better idea of what was going on than we did.”

“One of the things that really sticks with me is the sound,” Howard said. “There was almost a complete lack of sound at that point because everything was covered with this concrete dust. I can only liken it to a winter morning when snow has just fallen, and you go outside, and sound does not travel at all. It was honestly like talking in a soundproof room. Sound just got absorbed into the dust so there was no echo, there was no reverberation, there was no city noise.”

“It was an atmosphere devoid of sound as well as any appreciable sight,” Howard said. “It was unnerving, completely not knowing what you’re getting into.”

The march toward the towers, through that now unrecognizable city-scape was punctuated with different ominous warning signs the closer Howard and his dozen fellow firefighters came to Ground Zero. 

At first there was the dust coating everything in a thick layer, blocking out the sound, and then there was the paper. “There was paper just flying around everywhere. The closer you got, the more and more paper there was.” 

And then came the metal; first sheet metal from the outer sheaths of the buildings, and then heavier, larger pieces, but they still had no line of sight to the towers, they had no idea that the structures had collapse in their entirety. Howard says he presumed parts of the building were still standing, but it was impossible to tell because of the dust, smoke and debris.

One thing they did know is that there were people injured and trapped in the rubble, driving an “unstoppable desire to help whoever you possibly could,” Howard said. “I wasn’t thinking about anything other than our immediate surroundings. You just knew people were in trouble and collectively it was our job and responsibility to take care of that.”

“It was definitely scary, but you know that what you’re doing is the right thing, and you’ve got faith that you’re going to pull it off and help people who need it the most.”

Blythe and his team approached 4 World Trade Center on foot, a nine-story building that housed The New York Board of Trade and Deutsche Bank and included an entrance to the subterranean mall beneath the World Trade Center that housed a myriad of shops and restaurants, as well as access to the New York City subway. Upon arrival they were told there was a man still alive and trapped in the rubble of the mall and they were assigned the task of rescuing him.

Still unable to make out the extent of the damage to the Twin Towers, unsure if there were still sections of those buildings yet to come down, the rescue team entered 4 World Trade Center and descended an escalator to the mall level.

It was very dark at the mall level, the air filled with smoke and dust and they had only the equipment they could carry for the rescue. The team tied off a 150-foot rope at the base of the escalator and walked south as far as they could until the rope ran out near the Tie Rack store in the mall. At that point they positioned a flashlight on the floor pointing straight up, figuring if they could find their way back to the light, they could follow the rope back to the escalator.

At that point, they turned right and continued on until they reached the Golden Nugget, just at the edge of the South Tower. The South Tower had collapsed all the way down to the bedrock, into a portion of the construction known as “the bathtub,” which was designed at the very bottom of the World Trade Center to prevent the Hudson River from potentially flooding into the subway system.

“We didn’t realize it at the time but the whole tower, basically all 110 stories had compacted to its maximum compaction and gone right down through where we were, but that was the collapse we had got to, Howard said. “The gentleman we were called to help was trapped at the edge of where that collapse happened.”

The man they had been sent to rescue – Howard never learned his name – was buried chest deep in the rubble with a severely broken leg. He was conscious but obviously very scared and unable to move. “We told him we weren’t going to leave him and we were going to stay until we got him out,” Howard said. 

The firefighters removed emergency lights from the walls, which function on batteries, and set up a makeshift lighted work area, and began taking shifts digging the gentleman out from the rubble, but time was running short and there was impending danger. They could smell leaking gas in the air; there were pockets of fire surrounding them in the mall and starting to block their route out. 

While some of the men were digging out the rubble, the others were going into mall shops, emptying bottles of water into pans and trying to put out the small fires that stood between them and their exit.

They dug for roughly forty-five minutes and during that time, besides the gas leaking into the air and the fires encroaching on their position, they heard “really, really loud noises, banging,” Howard said. A fellow firefighter, who also happened to be an iron worker, said it was really large pieces of metal falling.

“When he said it, it dawned on me that there were parts of the building that were fragments that were sticking up and they were falling down and it was still a very active scene,” Howard said. “When we were down there, I resided myself to the fact that there was a really good chance that I wasn’t coming out of that basement. That we were going to be down in that mall level and that was going to be it.”

“The only thing that got me through was the people around me, the individuals who trust you with everything and you’re just not willing to be the person to let them down,” Howard said. “I’m not going to be the first person to quit and say no. We’ve committed to helping this individual and we’re going to do that if that mean that all 12 or 13 of us, if that means we don’t make it out, we’re in for a penny were in for a pound.”

Finally, however, the encroaching fires around them and the metal falling from above became too dangerous to continue digging. They’d removed about half the rubble and debris necessary to fully extricate the trapped man and decided they couldn’t spend any more time digging.

“Finally, we told him he wasn’t going to like what was going to happen next, but we were going to have to just pull him out. We had to go with what we had, and it was going to be painful for him,” Howard said. “I gotta give to the guy, he took it like a champ. He wasn’t complaining, he wasn’t carrying on, he was doing everything he possibly could to help us.”

Having pulled the man from the rubble, they tied some webbing to a stokes basket and “basically pulled him like sled dogs” through the mall back toward the flashlight they’d left at the end of the rope and followed it to the escalator. 

“The escalator looked like a damn mountain at this point. You got nothing in the tank and you’re like, you got to be kidding me. Keep in mind, we’re down here for 45 minutes or an hour in horrible conditions as far as breathing and workload. We’re pretty much shot,” Howard said. 

“The bosses did a great job, they really did,” Howard said. “We had a couple officers with us, and they really did motivate us. They were like, one last push boys, we got this guy, we got it, just gotta grin and bear it a little longer.”

The team made their final push pulling the rescued man up the escalator until they reached the plaza level before they collapse onto their hands and knees trying to catch their breath. At this point, they’re still beneath 4 World Trade Center and they can see other firefighters across Church Street yelling and screaming, waving their hands for them to come across the street, while Howard and his teammates are frantically waving for the firefighters to assist “because we’ve got nothing left to carry this guy the remaining several hundred yards.”

The firefighters across Church Street weren’t in a rush to come over, however. Because unbeknownst to Howard and his teammates, the top floors of 4 and 5 World Trade Center were engulfed in flames. “I don’t blame them,” Howard said. “They’re waving for us to get out, meanwhile we’re on our hands and knees, no idea what’s going on above us.”

But the firefighters from across the street did come and they were able to move the man to more safety in an adjacent building where all the windows had been blown out. From there, they were able to do a head count and make sure the whole team was accounted for and get the man with the severely broken leg to medical rescue.

Then they went back to work.

It wasn’t until 4 a.m. the following morning when Howard and his teammates were finally sent back to their firehouse in Brooklyn. A fire chief had taken one look at them and could tell from the dust coating them they had been operating for a long time. He told them to get their men back to the firehouse and let some fresh operators take their place.

During that time, Howard and his teammates participated in helping rescue a Port Authority officer from the rubble, a scene depicted in the 2006 film World Trade Center, starring Nicholas Cage. 

By that point, Howard had been going for 48 straight hours. “Honestly, it was so much adrenaline that I wasn’t really thinking about it,” Howard said. And the work wasn’t constant, he says. Following their initial rescue, the team pulled back to the Woolworth building on Broadway and held there, anticipating the collapse of the 7 World Trade Center building, which came down at 5:21 p.m, according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration. And then they went back to work.

“You got relieved for a little while and were sent to grab something to drink and grab a protein bar or whatever you could get,” Howard said. “It was an alternating work cycle that whole initial time.”

After being relieved at roughly 4 a.m., they took a bus back to Brooklyn. The firefighters at the firehouse had no idea what had happened to them and neither did Howard’s family. “I had gotten a phone call out to them late in the morning, but a lot of stuff happened over the course of the first day,” Howard said. “I’m sure there were many, many hours when they weren’t sure what happened.”

The firefighter team was now split in half, with each team working for 24 hours and then off for 24 hours. “You’re covered in dust and debris right down to your pores. It’s everywhere, it’s disgusting and it’s horrible,” Howard said. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken a shower that felt that good in my life.” 

He went home to his apartment in Astoria and fell practically unconscious, rising the next day and going straight back to the firehouse for another shift. One thing he remembers after his initial sleep, was that in the following days, sleep was less comfortable; the dust and debris had found its way into his bed sheets. “It felt like sleeping in insulation,” he said, adding that he would shower again, and change the sheet. “That first time I slept, it didn’t even register how uncomfortable it was.”

“This was one tiny, tiny part of an effort that went on and on,” Howard said. “We weren’t finished down there finding firefighters and people who were lost until June of 2002.”

The aftermath of 9/11 remains; for the older generations who lived through it, the date sometimes seems like a marker between the world as it once was, tinted with nostalgia, and the world as it is now. For younger generations, many will have to learn about it in history books, films and documentaries about the deadliest terrorist attack in American history. And while the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center that fell that day remain emblematic of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, they were, of course, not the only attacks that day.

Terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 that day and slammed the jetliner into the Pentagon killing 184 people; another set of hijackers took control of United Airlines Flight 93, but were ultimately downed in a field in Pennsylvania following an uprising by passengers, taking 44 lives aboard the flight.

For Howard, who lived through that day, reliving the events of 9/11 in New York City through watching those films and documentaries remains an obligation, albeit, one he doesn’t enjoy but one that he feels is a necessary burden upon himself to ensure the true events of that day are told.

“For me, there’s almost this obligation to stay informed as to what’s being said about it and what’s being taught about it and disseminated about it,” Howard said. “The most recent National Geographic one they did last year, it took me several attempts to sit down and go through it all. There were times when watching it got to be a little too much and I had to turn it off, walk away and come back a day or two later.”

“There are graphic parts of it that I avoid extended contact with. I don’t like to get caught up in it,” Howard continued. “Anytime you have someone who’s a cop or a fireman or something like that, there are people that fish for information from them because they want the gory details of incidents. They’re looking for that kind of stuff and I pull away from that because, to me, it’s not important, it’s not what the whole thing was about.”

To Howard, what the whole thing was about, was the very best of humanity coming together on that day to confront the very worst of humanity. He says he often thinks about former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s framing of the events of 9/11 as the most successful rescue operation in history. “There were 20,000 civilians saved, evacuated from those towers,” Howard says. “So, from that perspective of 20,000 lives saved to the 343 firefighters and 23 NYPD police officers who were lost, you have to look at that and say we succeeded.”

“I was an extremely small part of a tremendous response, and every single one of us was doing the absolute best we could and willing to give everything for the people who were victims, and that’s what it works out to,” Howard said. “When you have a group of people who are very determined to do something very negative to society or culture or what-have-you, the only thing you can do is stand up for the people you can and oppose it and give the very best you can.”

Now, 21 years on, Howard says he was never promoted in the department, remaining a firefighter throughout his career. Now one year away from retirement and living in Jackson Heights, Queens, he hopes to retire back to Connecticut with his wife whom he met after 9/11 and who was also lucky that day: she worked for a bank in 2001 and had an office that was destroyed in the carnage. She had been at a meeting in Queens at the time.

Most of the men Howard worked with on 9/11 have since retired and moved on. While Howard never had children himself, he does love seeing the families of the firefighters who were lost on that day and watching their children grow up and start families of their own. “The families are still very, very attached to the firehouses and the firehouses, in turn, are very attached to the families.”

“I think as the children got older and they’re at a point where they’re married and having kids it’s, you know, still a connection,” Howard said. “It’s nice to see them come around and you look back as an older guy and you’re like I remember them when they were little, little kids, but in a way, they look at you and they’re seeing someone who knew their dad and worked with their dad, and it means a lot.”

Howard does say he has one regret from that day: he never found out what happened to the man they pulled from the rubble in the mall beneath the World Trade Center.

“That’s really my one regret of the whole thing, is that I have no idea what happened to that guy,” Howard says. “I’m sure that he survived just based on his injuries were not life-threatening once we got him unstuck, but I really have no idea, I’ve never seen him in any of the documentaries or TV shows. I have no idea what that guy went on to do or how he ended up making out. His leg was in fairly bad shape but I’m presuming they were able to square him away and he went on to live a fairly normal life.”

In the 21 years since that day, however, the death toll has continued to rise. The very dust that silenced one of the busiest cities in the world that day and caused Howard’s bed to feel like sleeping in insulation has contributed to disease and illness among both first responders and survivors.

According to the World Trade Center Health Program, as of 2021, 4,627 people who were at Ground Zero have since passed away. While not all of those losses can be attributed to the dust, chemicals and fumes from the wreckage that day, medical conditions, including cancer, have been tied to 9/11 aftermath.

In 2011, Congress enacted and President Barack Obama signed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which was renewed in 2015 for the next 75 years. Under that act, the World Trade Center Health Organization will continue to provide medical monitoring and treatment for first responders, clean-up crew and survivors who were present “in the dust or dust cloud” on September 11, 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“We will never forget the selfless courage demonstrated by the firefighters, police officers, and first responders who risked their lives to save others,” Obama said upon signing the Zadroga 9/11 act. “I believe this is a critical step for those who continue to bear the physical scars of those attacks.”

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Marc E. Fitch, Senior Investigative Reporter

Marc E. Fitch

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels, along with numerous freelance reporting jobs and publications. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University.

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