Sept. 11, 2001, is a date that looms large in the American psyche. For many of us, the horrific images on TV of burning and collapsing towers, civilians jumping to their deaths, and endless seas of rubble are forever etched in memory.
But for Americans born after 9/11, it can be difficult to fully comprehend the impact of a shattering event they didn’t witness.
Niels Jorgensen is a retired New York City firefighter who helped dig through the debris at ground zero in search of the injured and missing. He is also the host of the “20 for 20” podcast, a show highlighting 20 heroic stories about 9/11 for the 20th anniversary of that horrible day.
Jorgensen, now 52, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share his stories, as well as some ways that we can honor the victims of 9/11 and keep their memories alive.
Doug Blair: Our guest today is Niels Jorgensen, a former New York City firefighter of 21 years and a 9/11 survivor, as well as host of the “20 for 20” podcast, a show highlighting 20 heroic stories about 9/11 for the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Niels, thank you so much for joining us.
Niels Jorgensen: Thank you, sir. I appreciate the invite. Thanks for having me here.
Blair: Good. Before we get into your work on 9/11 and the podcast, I want to talk about something a little bit more interesting that I learned about you while I was doing some research. You’ve had some acting roles. You’ve appeared throughout the seven-year run of the FX series “Rescue Me” as well as an episode of CBS’ “Elementary.” You were a firefighter, I believe, in both of those episodes. How did you get into acting?
Jorgensen: Yes. Actually, got a chance at [HBO’s] “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” also one episode with Bill Buckner, the late baseball player Bill Buckner.
Blair: Very cool.
Jorgensen: It was a comedy gag. Strange enough, sir. I just filled in for someone one day. They needed a few guys to work as background actors on a pilot and it was really my first time on a stage and I didn’t know what to do. I was told, “Just show up, bring your fire gear.”
And it turned out the pilot was Denis Leary’s project for a [TV] show called “Rescue Me.” You know, based upon a 9/11 firefighter who was haunted by ghosts and whatnot. It showed a lot of good things, a lot of bad things, and long story, I was a fire truck ladder chauffeur, as we call it, in Ladder Company 114 for many years.
I had just recently, at that point, [been] promoted up to lieutenant, and they needed someone who drove fire trucks, who also had a commercial driver’s license, because on the outside of the film set, the truck is now considered a commercial vehicle. I was the only guy out of the crew of 12 firefighters that had the license, so they picked me to drive.
It just evolved. Denis at one point said, “Look, you look like a guy behind the steering wheel with the mustache and you don’t say anything. We can’t have you being mute all the time.” He just asked if I would feel comfortable with a couple little speaking parts and it just evolved from there.
As I tell people, it was the coolest side job I’ve ever had in my life. One of my best buddies, Big Bobby Cameron, was the guy who drove the other truck, the engine, and at times, they’d ask us to come down the street that was closed at 50 miles an hour, and come as close as we could to the cameras and come to a quick stop. We would just look at each other, Bob and I, like school kids, going, “Can’t believe they’re paying us to do this.”
Yeah. It was seven years of a lot of laughs. A lot of the guys that I worked with on a daily basis in the firehouse, actually, then, we would just finish our 24-hour shift and go to the film set and have a blast.
Denis is a wonderful guy. The other gentleman who we became good friends with is Robert John Burke, the actor, as we call him, lovingly, Bobby, who is also a volunteer firefighter. Those two gentlemen, they just do a tremendous amount for people in need. Bobby is very involved with Wounded Warriors and he’s an active volunteer firefighter.
Denis has his great Leary Firefighters Foundation that has done tremendous, tremendous work, donated millions upon millions of dollars to enhance fire department training.
He built a flashover simulator at the New York City Fire Academy, which simulates really bad fire conditions in high-rise buildings. He helped rebuild the New Orleans Fire Department after Hurricane Katrina. I was actually down there with Bobby Burke and his son and an actress, Callie Thorne, who was also on the show, and we spent a week with basically a bunch of folks just rebuilding these firehouses that were destroyed.
It really opened up a different opportunity of life for me and it was just a truly enjoyable seven years. I loved every minute of it.
Blair: Well, that’s wonderful. I’m really glad to hear that you had that experience to be able to do that. I would like to move on now to the big theme, which is 9/11, your experience with 9/11. I was reading you were responsible for helping to search through some of the piles of rubble and debris in hopes of finding survivors. If it’s all right with you, what was the atmosphere like during the initial days of the rescue efforts?
Jorgensen: It was very chaotic. It was very somber. It was really hard to fathom that it was reality.
I was off-duty that morning. I was driving an oil truck, which was one of my moonlights at the time. At the time, I drove three different trucks—a fire truck, an oil truck, and a Boar’s Head delivery truck for the Boar’s Head company.
My little daughter that morning said, “Daddy, which truck are you on today?” She said, “The fire truck, the oil truck, or the Boar’s Head truck?” I said, “No, sweetie. I’m doing oil.” She said, “OK, you’ll be safe,” because she related the danger to being on the fire department.
My father and my wife’s father were both New York City firefighters as well and my daughter at the time was 4 and a half and she understood the concept, the danger.
Anyway, long story, I was driving the oil truck on the north end of Staten Island, which overlooks the harbor. The plane struck the tower. I realized something was wrong. We don’t normally rush into events when we’re off-duty unless we’re mandated by a recall, which means all off-duty police, fire, EMS are obligated to go to their commands and await further orders for deployment.
The second plane hit and I realized, “OK, this is terrorism.” I knew right away. I raced into my firehouse, checked in with command, command said once there’s 12 off-duty members, sign into the book—the book being that we logged in, they know we’re there. God forbid, we’re lost, they know who to look for.
The lieutenant took command, an off-duty lieutenant. We commandeered a city bus and the bus driver drove us over the Brooklyn Bridge. And just prior to getting over the bridge, the second tower had come down. The first one had collapsed while we were in the firehouse getting our equipment together and mustering up. Our Ladder Company 114 had been dispatched, they were gone. The firehouse was empty and they were there.
The on-duty lieutenant, Dennis O’Berg, we heard him on the radio checking in and just … Basically, our nickname is Tally Ho Ladder 114, that comes from an old airborne ranger who jumped Normandy, Jack Carroll, and when he came back from the war, we first got radios in the ’40s on the trucks and he refused to say “10-4.” When they’d respond, he’d say, “114, Tally Ho.” To this day, it still sticks.
Dennis, we heard him check in and they said, “114, respond to the command post. Nobody left.” He said, “114, Tally Ho.” We knew our guys were there.
After both buildings came down, we assumed that Dennis and the crew were gone and, by the grace of God, Dennis had seen something wrong. He knew, he just looked up, he saw the buildings start to disintegrate, and he had the men turn around and run. They sprinted and they dove under a truck. Anyone 30 to 40 feet behind them was killed, was in the pile.
Unfortunately, his rookie son, or as we called “probie” [a firefighter who has recently joined a department], was assigned to Ladder Company 105 and Dennis Jr.’s life was taken that morning.
The strange irony with that is there’s a gentleman, Henry Miller, who is the senior man in 105 and the senior man looks out for the new guy, keeps him under his wing, keeps him safe. And I had the privilege of working in Ladder 105 as my first command.
In 1993, at the first bombing, I was under the guidance of Henry Miller. He was my senior man. I was his probie. I had only three years on the job at the time. I remember Henry looking around. It was hours later. It was that night. He said, “You know, kid, they didn’t do this right. They blew it up in the middle.” He said if they did it at a pointer, they would have dropped the building down to Chinatown, a half-mile away. He said, “But they’ll be back and they’ll do it right next time.”
The strange part about it is Henry was right. He prophesied it and he was there that morning to protect Dennis and they died together. Yeah.
Anyway, my childhood best friend, John Sharp, was in Engine Company 201 and he was on shift and he was in close proximity to Ladder 105 and John was killed.
Basically, we got in, we got off the bridge, we awaited deployment orders. It was a scene of chaos and chiefs were trying to basically get second and third waves of personnel to go in and start searching in grids. It was a few hours before everything got orderly. We spent quite a few hours and 7 World Trade Center, the other building, had come down then into that process a couple hours after the first couple towers.
We searched and we were primarily in the area of 7. We were searching the post office, which had reports of people trapped inside. There was no one there.
Then we were pulled off to the main pile, as we called it, and we were digging through the night, trying to rescue some trapped Port Authority police officers. The Port Authority police officers were the security force for the airport. They are the security force for the airports, the World Trade Center, and any ports in New York City, and the PATH rail system, which comes in and out of New Jersey to New York.
They lost 37 police officers that morning. By the grace of God, two of their officers were retrieved alive. Then NYPD in the course of the day lost 23 of their officers. There was also close to a dozen medics, I believe two or three New York state court officers, a couple of federal agents, and 343 New York City firefighters ending up dying.
At about 4 o’clock the next morning, we were literally unable to breathe anymore. Our eyes were just caked with cement, glass, concrete, dust, and we just couldn’t breathe. Our lieutenant decided to bring us for medical aid and go back to the firehouse, clean up, and come back a few hours later to start digging again.
As we got dropped off, the city bus took us back through the Battery Tunnel to get to our firehouse and he couldn’t proceed down certain streets so we had to walk up half a mile to our command up the hill. …
I think at that point, there was a dozen of us. As we were walking back, none of us could breathe and it felt like we swallowed a box of razor blades. It just felt like you were burning from the roof of your mouth down into your gut.
One of the older firemen said, “We’re all dead.” I said, “No. No. We’re not. We’re alive.” He goes, “No, kid. You don’t get it. This stuff is poison. We’re all dead men.”
Strange enough, 20 years later, I believe we just had the ninth guy out of those first 20 that responded have cancer.
One of my dear friends has had five bouts of cancer—three bouts of bladder cancer, two bouts of serious leukemia. Another gentleman had serious thyroid cancer and then a large rare tumor wrapped around his heart. He, thank the Lord, is still going. Multiple guys with prostate cancer, young men. A lot of rare cancers that are popping up that are not normally seen statistically in men so young.
We went back and we dug for three or four straight days, just eating, resting, sleeping, doing whatever we could at the site. We wanted to have a continual force of guys because the first four days we figured we had chances of pulling people out alive. Then it became obvious after about that fourth day that there was no one else alive and then it became a recovery mission. Then our focus was to bring home remains so these families could respectfully bury and just basically put their loved one to rest.
It became very frustrating because we weren’t finding fully intact human beings most of the time. I believe out of the 2,900 souls that we lost, 2,977 souls, there was approximately 293 that were found intact or somewhat intact. Unfortunately, the rest of the folks that were found were just unidentifiable by vision.
Out of all of those people who died, only half of them were actually ever recovered. The rest of them were just disintegrated, unfortunately, in the physics and energy involved with the collapse. … Everything was pulverized into dust.
We just kept the process going and then the recovery effort went on for months until the final closing of the site on, I believe, May 30 of ’02.
My lieutenant, Dennis, he spent every single day from Sept. 11 on searching for his son, and with another group of fathers who were firefighters, either active or retired, who had lost sons. And a captain, who has since passed of a 9/11 cancer, he was searching for his two sons, one an emergency service police officer and the other one a firefighter, and they both died.
… It just went on for months, the recovery. There was certain guys that were assigned permanent duty assignment at the site to dig every day for 30-day rotations. Then the fire trucks and the firehouses still had to be staffed as a normal response, as a normal shift.
I took an assignment down in southern Manhattan at the South Street Firehouse Engine 4, Ladder 15. They needed senior firefighters to redeploy and basically fill in these houses that were literally decimated by that day. South Street lost 14 firefighters on duty shift. They were all killed.
I was actually working and responding in and around the Trade Center on a daily basis to routine fires and calls. I remember there was a fire earlier on in the Deutsche Bank. There was a fatal fire, unfortunately, a few years later where a couple of firefighters actually died in what was the remains of the Deutsche Bank.
I think in November of 2001, we fought a working fire on the 12th floor of the Deutsche Bank. I just remember as the smoke lifted, looking down, and all of the guys were just digging as if it was just another day, as we were fighting a fire. For us, it was just another day and it was just a very strange scene, very strange irony of it.
But that’s it, sir. Unfortunately, it was a huge recovery site for many, many months. We did our best to bring everyone home, as we would say. We were only able to bring half of them home to their families and that’s kind of hard for us to do because we like to give families closure. We’re used to bringing home a body. Sometimes it may be burned bad or broken, but normally, it’s a whole body so the family can properly bury them. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen most of the time.
Blair: I am dumbstruck. I just can’t even think about how horrific that would be. One of the things that strikes me as sort of a light in the darkness is that you did go and do it over and over and over, as you went back and you helped dig people out, and even when you recognized it was a recovery mission and not necessarily to find survivors, you still went and did your duty. I can’t believe that you did that. It’s so incredible to me.
One of the things I’m wondering about is, how do you find the motivation and the courage to continue doing that mission after you recognized what was happening, after you had realized the likelihood of finding somebody still alive would be very low? How do you still go back? How do you find the inner strength to go on and continue?
Jorgensen: Well, I think it’s the one thing unique to, as some people call it, the warrior class or the warrior subculture—I mean, I would never put us on the same level of soldiers and Marines and sailors and airmen in combat—there’s such a tight bond.
I’ve had the honor of serving in the United States Army and I was a New York City police officer. I worked as a New York City EMT for City EMS prior to it being now part of the fire department. Then I had the privilege of being a firefighter for almost 22 years.
The one thing I’ve learned about all of those organizations, all of those communities, the military and first responder worlds—and my daughter is an emergency room nurse and a nurse paramedic—there’s such a common bond between all of us. There’s such a loyalty and respect and love for each other and a love for humanity.
What people don’t realize is being a responder is a very difficult, stressful job. Especially for a police officer. There’s life and death decisions that have to be made immediately. There’s outcomes and sometimes they’re bad outcomes.
But responders and military have such a respect for life and dignity and we hold it to such a high level that we took it as an honor to be the people that were bringing home the remains for these folks that were left behind, their survivors, to give them that dignity and that closure. None of us wants to have a loved one and never be able to give them their final rest.
We took it upon ourselves as a high responsibility to finish that job. The first job was to rescue who we could. When we realized that that was not possible anymore, that that was not a viable option, now we switched gears and said, “OK, suck it up. We need to bring everybody home.” That’s what kept people going.
I didn’t dig to the level of some guys. … I mean, I tried to put in as many hours as I could, but then in between, I was still assigned to the fire truck. Then you were going from the fire truck to a memorial and then back from a memorial to another shift.
I was gone for weeks at a time from my family, but they understood. … My family understood—my dad being a fireman for 34 years. … He had an end-stage cancer at one point, as a 38-year-old fireman, and went to work on chemo and took a test drug at the time in 1978 and he’s still alive. He’s 82. He responded. He deployed to help. He was retired. Yeah. We just take it so serious. It’s such an honor to serve in those positions.
You know, what really just, I guess, gets my goad sometimes is you have young, brand new military folks that are making $21,000 a year and they don’t care. They’re putting it all on the line, their life on the line. You look at those young souls that were just lost last week, those 13 beautiful souls. They were kids. They’re 20 years old. But they get it. We just have this understanding, “This is what we do.” We love what we do. Most of us would do it for free. You don’t want to tell the politicians that because they would have us do it for free.
… They made me retire. I have leukemia. It’s technically incurable, but I’m in full remission and I am blessed and I’m not going to complain. If you said to me today, “You can go back on your truck tonight,” I would run, I would sprint to that firehouse. And I’m in Tennessee right now so that would be a 950-mile sprint to New York City, but I would try my best to sprint the whole way because I loved every minute of riding on that truck. I loved every minute riding in that police car and that ambulance and that Army Humvee. I wish I could go back and do all of them again. Every person who has had that title would say the same exact thing.
They teach you to do everything except for retire when you’re in the military and the first responder world. They don’t teach you how to retire and you never figure it out.
Blair: I think that shows a very distinct sense of character that you would be willing to put it all on the line again and just go out and still do it. I think a lot of people could take something from that. I really thank you for the service that you did, both as a fireman, as someone in the military, and as a police officer.
Jorgensen: I appreciate it. Thank you.
Blair: Of course. You had mentioned that a lot of the men who went and did these rescue efforts then came out of it with health issues. They would come out of it with lung and heart and cancer issues. You, unfortunately, as you’ve mentioned, are one of those people that came out with a health problem. You were diagnosed in 2011 with a very rare form of cancer called hairy cell leukemia. It was connected to the work that you had done at ground zero.
When you fought back against the cancer, as you mentioned, you’re in remission, which thank God, you went through a really radical treatment program where you took two-and-a-half years of chemo drugs in a week. What was this entire experience like? Have you talked with any other 9/11 responders who are going or went through something similar?
Jorgensen: As strange as it sounds, I’m a lucky guy when it comes to the cancer because the treatment was brutal. I was trained to die. It was that strong and that vicious. They said to me, “If you live through the first two nights of the seven, you’re in a good spot.”
I had this great nurse, Mike Nunes, who I still want to meet and thank. He was my angel on Earth, my lifeline, and there were a few other nurses that were so wonderful. … Unfortunately, the chemo caused my memory back then to fade for a little while and so many names have faded.
It was so brutal that I was praying to die. Then when I got through it, I realized now I was praying to live because I said, “Wow. I think I might be able to get ahead of this and I have some life to live.” I won’t lie, the first year and a half after it, I was physically battered and beaten up. I was in a mentally bad place. I was feeling sorry for myself.
The strangest part about it, I was so sad about having to retire. They made me retire, and I begged the doctor, “Please, do not do this to me. This is my priesthood. This is what I do. Besides my family, this is what I exist for.” They said, “We’re sorry. You can’t.”
You’re a liability at that point, right? Now, if you relapse or something happens, they’re responsible. Really, what it is is the subtext is they don’t want to have to pay you while you’re home sick on treatments or this and that because now they have to pay another guy in overtime to fill your spot. It comes down to dollars and cents, right? That’s unfortunately the reality.
What would happen is I start getting other calls from other guys, some that I knew and loved and some I didn’t, I loved them because they were part of my department but I didn’t have a chance of ever knowing them or working with them.
The common theme was the fear. We were so scared because now you’re a young guy. I was 42 when I got sick. I’m laying there looking up at my three little kids, going, “Oh my God.” They didn’t even know what was wrong. I didn’t tell them. They just thought I was having a problem with my blood.
The fear that everybody shares is so overwhelming. That’s the worst part of cancer. Every person I’ve spoken to in and out of the fire department, police department, military, anyone that’s had cancer will say it’s the fear.
My dad went for treatments for four and a half years, every two weeks for four and a half years, and this guy, he would be so sick for days after it. He used to say, “I just used to pretend I was in a battle. I would lay there thinking there was just Army tanks driving through my body, shooting at the cancer, blowing it up.” And I said, “What was the worst part?” He said, “The fear.” Every person I’ve asked said the same thing, the fear.
Blair: One of the things that I do want to hit on before we finish up here is your podcast. You are the host of the “20 for 20” podcast, which, as we mentioned at the top, is a podcast by Iron Light Labs that highlights 20 heroic stories about 9/11 for the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
One of the things that you were very clear about as a goal for this podcast is that we seem to be in danger of letting 9/11 fade away from our cultural memory. There are kids today who are going to college whose only experience with 9/11 is through stories, through textbooks, through secondhand accounts. There are a lot more people who are going through the education system nowadays who don’t know what happened on that day.
I was very young when it happened and my memories of it are fading away as well.
Would you be able to go into some detail about what the podcast is, what you want from it, and then as a sort of final note, what you think would be the best way for us to teach and memorialize and make sure that 9/11 stays within the cultural memory?
Jorgensen: Yes. I recently had an experience of a young lady who was on a plane with my family. She saw my firefighter baseball cap that I proudly wear. She asked me if I was a firefighter. I said, “I used to be.” She said, “Why?” I said, “I’m sick from 9/11.” She said, “What was 9/11? Wasn’t that something with the plane that hit a building?” She was a very intelligent young lady but she had no knowledge of it.
Unfortunately, it’s because her school didn’t teach her anything about it. Through my research, I find that there is no curriculum. They are not teaching 9/11, anything about it. When I was 12 years old, I could tell you everything about Pearl Harbor because I was being taught about it. That’s the sad part about it, is it’s being allowed to fade away. And I’m not sure exactly why, if it’s for politics or political correctness, I don’t know.
It’s a shame because there’s people out there right now that are suffering, that are hurting, that are feeling that they wasted their time. … Not that we were going to be recognized and hugged and back-slapped, but we just want the record to state that great people gave everything in the process of trying to rescue people and recover the remains of people who died. That’s all they want is just that to go down in history.
We’re hoping that this project can get the word out there with people, that it will resonate and say, “Hey, listen to these stories of these brave people that have lost loved ones or other ones who put it all on the line.” It’s a cross-section, a melting pot of America and folks we are interviewing that sacrificed a lot that day and the years following it.
I mean, we have Frank Siller from the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which basically provides homes for Gold Star families, smart homes for horribly injured service members and first responders. And any first responder killed in the line of duty or military, they’ll cover the family’s mortgage, or if they don’t have a house at that point, they’ll build them a house.
Frank’s brother Stephen was a firefighter who ran through the Battery Tunnel, he drove his pickup truck to the foot of it, it was blocked, he grabbed his fire gear, and he ran 2.5 miles to the towers to try to meet up with his fire company, Squad Company 1. He died. He had five children and a wife. He didn’t have to go there. He was off-duty. He did.
We have another gentleman, Mak Hanna, he’s an Egyptian immigrant who has now dedicated his life to becoming a Coptic priest in St. Mary’s Parish in New Jersey. This man was an engineer in the building and helped rescue dozens of people and then physically assisted an elderly man down 80 flights of stairs and then carried him through the last bunch of flights and ran across the West Side Highway.
And he was the last known survivor to leave the tower. As he literally ran out with this gentleman on his back, they were the last known survivors to leave the North Tower. It fell down two or three minutes after he had just gotten out of there.
Another gentleman, Al Braca, who was a devout Christian who was on the 104th floor of Cantor Fitzgerald—they lost 658 employees that died that day, their whole workforce of that office. Al literally got 50 of them together in a circle and they prayed and he said, “I’m going to go meet Jesus today. Is anyone coming with me?” Because he realized that there was no hope of them being rescued so he tried to save their souls and find salvation in the fact that they were going to die.
I mean, these heroes, there’s many, many more that we’re going to interview that we have and just their stories are so powerful. I’m so humbled to be in their presence. I just think to myself, “Where did they find the courage to do these acts?” A lot of them weren’t even being paid. That’s the strange part about it. They had no obligation.
What we’re hoping to do, sir, is we’re just hoping to get these stories out there. There’s no angles, there’s no politics. It’s straight down the middle, fastball—as an old baseball guy would say.
And we’re just trying to say to people, “Please don’t forget, please be kind, please be generous, donate to Tunnel to Towers, to the FealGood Foundation, the Fire Family Transport Foundation, which literally brings sick responders back and forth to their cancer treatments and to their surgeries. There’s just some good people out there still 20 years later. Don’t forget them. Try to help them.”
Most of all, we just want to spread a message of kindness and love. I mean, we need it so bad right now in our country. We’re so fractured. We’re so divided. What I want to obtain is the feeling on Sept. 12, 2001. As sad as that day was, it was a happy day because when you looked up and down for a mile on the West Side Highway leading down to the towers, to the site, to the wreckage, there were people hugging and crying and flying the American flag and signs of encouragement for cops, for firefighters, for medics, and for military, for nurses.
There was this unity that was just so uplifting and so inspiring to us.
Blair: I really hope that your podcast can help. I sincerely think that stories are the best way to bring people together. With that, that was Niels Jorgensen, a former New York City firefighter of 21 years and a 9/11 survivor, as well as host of the “20 for 20” podcast, a show highlighting 20 heroic stories about 9/11 for the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Niels, thank you so much for your service, thank you so much for your story, and thank you so much for joining us.
Jorgensen: Thank you, sir. I appreciate the time. And God bless you and God bless America.
Content created by Douglas Blair
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