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'We've survived the collapse. Now we're going to suffocate'

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A New York firefighter salutes during the singing of the US national anthem during the September 11 memorial ceremony in New York

A New York firefighter salutes during the singing of the US national anthem during the September 11 memorial ceremony in New York

A New York firefighter salutes during the singing of the US national anthem during the September 11 memorial ceremony in New York

In the East 2nd Street firehouse in Alphabet City, a once-gritty neighbourhood in downtown Manhattan, plaques line the walls in memory of the six colleagues from Ladder 11 who died on 9/11. There are photographs of Lt Mike Quilty, a big moustached character in his white officer's hat; and of Mike Cammarata, a baby-faced figure under his new fireman's helmet, just a few weeks on the job and, at 22, the youngest firefighter to die that day.

Above the two engines stationed there now hangs the blackened sideplate of the Ladder 11 engine, all that was recovered. And in a mural on the back wall, a five dice and six dice are superimposed on the Ladder 11 emblem with the motto "Lucky Eleven".

Kevin Murray looks at the words with a rueful shake of his head. "That was us, always Lucky 11," he says. "Until 9/11."

Yesterday, he carried one of 343 Stars and Stripes flags into a packed and emotional memorial service for the victims of the attacks at St Patrick's Cathedral. That was one for each member of the New York Fire Department (FDNY) killed that day -- the most lethal and heroic in its history.

He still recalls every moment of 9/11 vividly. As the sun rose on a cloudless morning, Murray, then 27, picked up his father, also called Kevin, and a neighbour on Staten Island, for their regular early-morning commute to Manhattan.

First came the routine stop at the World Trade Centre (WTC) to drop off his father, who worked for a financial services company. As the younger Murray drove on to the firehouse on East 2nd Street, he could never have dreamt it was the last time he would see the towers that dominated Manhattan's skyline.

At 8.47am, he was eating breakfast with colleagues when a stunning announcement from the control room came over the PA: one of the WTC towers was ablaze after being hit by a plane. Like most New Yorkers who heard the news that morning, Murray presumed a small commuter plane had somehow flown into the skyscraper in a freak accident.

The firefighters switched on the television and watched the flames, even as they scrambled to deploy.

In one of those twists of fate that still disconcerts Murray, there were seven men there for the six places on Ladder 11 after a routine shift rota swap fell through.

'Ladders' are the search and rescue teams that break down doors and look for those trapped by fires, while 'engines' are the units that carry the hoses and put out blazes.

Because of the extra man, it had already been decided that if there was an emergency call, Murray would join a crew from a nearby station -- an arrangement that was to save his life.

His second life-saver would soon come in the form of a close colleague, Roy Chelsen. Murray grabbed his uniform, said a rushed goodbye to friends he presumed that he would see again a few hours later, and sped off to join his substitute company. It was on their engine, roaring towards the WTC at 9.03am, that he watched the second plane swoop low over the Manhattan skyline and smash into the South Tower.

"After the first call came in, I was really excited to get to the fire. As a fireman, you want to be where the fire is. That's the action, it's instinctive. But after the second plane hit, the excitement disappeared. I realised we were under attack. Then it was just our duty."

And, of course, he also knew that his father had been at work in the WTC. "I just remember turning to the guy next to me and saying: 'My father's in there'."

Carnage awaited them. "Sections of burning plane, a wheel still on fire, debris everywhere and pieces of people, people still in their seats. It was like nothing I had ever seen before."

Ten years on, he is still chilled by one of the most harrowing memories. "There were these mounds of mush. I didn't know what they could be, they were unrecognisable. And then I looked up and saw the people falling from the skies."

By the time Murray's company reached the North Tower, Roy Chelsen and the team from Engine 28 were already inside. A gentle giant with a cleft chin and thick moustache, Chelsen was a friend and colleague of Murray's.

Ladder 11 -- Murray's usual unit -- had already made their way up to the top of the neighbouring Marriott hotel to assist rescue operations there by the time he arrived.

"There was mayhem in the lobby of the North Tower. The chiefs were trying to get the situation under control, but radio communications were a disaster and it was complete chaos.

"We were told to forget about fighting the fire -- just to get people out. We were assigned to cover the floors from the 10th to 15th, while Engine 28 was sent up to the 40th floor."

With the lifts out of action, that meant a heavy slog in full uniform and equipment up stairwells packed with people fleeing downwards. "We made it up to the 10th floor. Every floor was more damaged than the one below. The water pipes were broken and there were pockets of fire and an overpowering smell of aviation fuel in the elevator shafts."

They were directing evacuees down stairwells to safety when a huge blast knocked them to the ground just before 10am. "It felt like an earthquake. There was panic on the radios and we heard that several fire chiefs had been killed when the command post was taken out. But we didn't know that what we'd felt was the South Tower coming down.

"There were shouts coming up the stairs that another plane was coming in and that rescuers were trapped in the shaft above us. All the power had been knocked out and we were funnelling people down the stairs with our lights.

"When there were no more civilians coming down, we headed back down to the lobby. But we met this guy covered in blood from one of the FDNY rescue teams. He said, 'My guys are trapped upstairs'. So against our better judgment, we started to go back up.

"We got up to the 10th floor, which was now fully on fire from the jet fuel. That's when we met Roy and the guys from Engine 28 coming back down from floor 40. He insisted we had to head down fast."

Back in the foyer, they looked out and saw that the Marriott had collapsed, unaware that the entire company from Ladder 11 had been wiped out in the process.

The bodies raining down outside prompted many to decide that they would take their chances inside the building.

Fatefully, amid a situation where life-or-death decisions were being made by the second, Murray made a different call -- but only thanks to Chelsen. His colleague was convinced the structure could not survive after what he had seen above the 40th floor.

"Roy said: 'We've got to get the hell out of here now,'" Murray recalled Chelsen insisting.

Senior officers were telling the men to await instructions as the "thump, thump, thump" of bodies pelted down outside in scenes so gruesome that another firefighter said it seemed as if a "meat locker had exploded overhead".

But Chelsen would not follow orders. "In an act of complete insubordination, Roy said 'I don't care what you're saying. Believe me, we have to get out of here. Now!' He overruled two lieutenants."

Chelsen led out 13 men, while many more stayed behind. "We hugged a wall as there was less chance of being struck by a jumper," says Murray. "It was only some 30 seconds later when we heard a giant roar. I looked round and saw the North Tower starting to come down.

"We had got about one-and-a-half blocks away when we threw ourselves under a rig [engine]. We were immediately hit by the thick choking cloud.

"I couldn't breathe and I remember thinking: 'That's it, we've survived the collapse, now we're going to suffocate.'"

Yet even as he was accepting that he would never see his new wife Stephanie, or his family again, the worst of the plume started to thin out.

Murray made his way to an Emergency Medical Service station where he was hosed down and his eyes rinsed out. With mobile phone communications down, he broke into a school auditorium to find a landline and got a message to his mother that he was alive. Amazingly, his father had survived, too.

But he was desperate for news of his colleagues. As he returned to the firehouse, the charred metal engine sideplate bearing the company's name was being carried back into the station. "I just lost it. I knew from the looks on the guys' faces that the others were dead. And I would have been one of them if it hadn't been for the rota that day. I felt a real guilt that it was me who had taken the detail at the other firehouse."

Roy spent the next few weeks working with Chelsen and colleagues sifting through the rubble, but unlike so many firefighters his health seemed unaffected.

However, in 2006, Chelsen was feeling increasingly weak and his wife, a nurse, persuaded him to take a blood test. The diagnosis devastated everyone: he had multiple myeloma (cancer of the marrow). The FDNY recognised the condition as WTC-related and awarded him a World Trade Centre disability pension when he retired in December 2006, 21 years after starting the job he craved.

Murray's final gesture of gratitude and respect was to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of the man who saved so many lives on 9/11 through his sheer force of willpower and whom he loved like an older brother.

"Losing Roy was the worst for me," he said, his voice shaking. "If he could have beaten the cancer, that would have been one victory to come out of 9/11."

Yet there has been some good to emerge from all the tragedy. Like many firefighters who were also at home for medical reasons, he and Stephanie soon conceived a son, also called Kevin. "There was a real FDNY baby boom," he says, adding ruefully: "A lot of us were thinking about our own mortality at the time." (© Sunday Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent