The interview that changed a life
The streets of New York City were blocked off for the funeral of 9/11 hero Jimmy Lanza. Lanza lived in Queens before his death from brain cancer which was diagnosed as a complication of 9/11. All photos by Mark DeLap
WHEATLAND – As a younger generation grows up, there are so many that don’t remember that infamous day in New York City. Some were too young. Some were not born. Some grew sick and tired of hearing about it.
A hero is someone who gives his life maybe once to a cause, an event, a generation or perhaps just one little child. Enough to earn that title. But there are some heroes who retain the title because of ongoing efforts. This is a story of 9/11 and a hero who maintained that title in his ongoing work. A man who chose to go back to relive the hell every day of his life because, in the words of Jimmy Lanza, F.D.N.Y ladder Co. 43, truck 53, “I do it so they’ll never forget.”
It's not a story about a guy who knew a guy in a coffee shop. This connection was personal and it came to fruition fifteen years after 9/11.
Sitting in an office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it was a cool September morning and I was working on rewrites for a novel I was finishing. A phone call. A plane crash into one of the twin towers in New York.
I just figured it to be a freaky, “oh that’s interesting” story, when I heard the words that took me from the pages of my passion to the front page of America. “Another plane just hit the other tower.”
America was thrown face-first into history with the rest of the country as everyone began to rewrite the memoirs that would be forever remembered simply as “9/11.”
It was a day that would forever connect every American to the same page of remembrance. A moment in time that shoots every lucid thought back to a morning when, just a hint of autumn had come calling. Fast forward to 2016 in the Midwest.
At a little County Fair in Minnesota, thousands of people came and revisited that page in America’s history as the Stephen Siller 9/11 Never Forget Exhibit arrived on a Tuesday in the midst of great pomp and fanfare. The freeways were lined with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the 18-wheeler that was carrying the remains and artifacts from that faithful day.
Watching people lined up at the exhibit all week, you saw firsthand a people who would never forget and as they exited the exhibit, it was evident that although it had been 15 years, the tears had not yet dried. Perhaps they never will. Here in 2022 there is a waning of memory as life and time has caused people to move on.
On Saturday, an incredible opportunity came forth to sit down and speak with one of the firefighters who was there on the day we all remember. He doesn’t tell stories from the stories. This man was running in as crowds were running oout. He told his story of a time that he will never forget.
Everyone had an agenda for that day. Nobody remembers what those agendas were. It was a day that took control of every schedule, every task and every thought. Certainly, it changed not only the day, but the destiny of Lanza himself. He took a path that would ultimately and prematurely take his life.
We must remember that to share again and again, the events of that infamous day, takes a special heart beating inside of a hero. To be willing to relive that day is a mantle that carries a weight that few can comprehend.
As he looked past the crowds there in Minnesota, his eyes became stoic as he traveled the familiar path back to the gates of a hell that few would have the courage to face.
Lanza is not a tall man. He is not a muscle-bound caped crusader from Metropolis. He doesn’t have a booming voice. But he exemplifies and solidifies the very fact that heroes come in every shape and size.
Lanza worked as a New York City firefighter for 28 years and on September 11, 2001, he worked in ladder 43 Co., stationed in East Harlem. He was part of one of the toughest firefighting units in all of New York – in the heart of Spanish Harlem.
On that morning, he was outside and off duty when he heard from a neighbor that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. As the questions are thrown to him, he looks away from the Minnesota eyes and squints slightly as he looks back into the distance.
“It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day, without a cloud in the sky,” he said as he begins his descent into the disaster area. “And I knew that with visual flight rules and even without the instruments on, there’s no way a plane would hit that tower. It was a clear, sunny day with no wind. Unless they had mechanical trouble. And the news kept showin’ it over and over and to me, it looked like it was intentional.”
Lanza went on to explain the fact that the city has major air traffic from LaGuardia, Newark and Kennedy and most air traffic is not over the city. He stated very clearly that planes that make that kind of a drastic change in path are duly noted and flagged.
Lanza fully believed that in the moments before impact and at the time of the crashes, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had already known what was happening. They all began to brace for the worst while hoping for the best.
“I went down to the firehouse and met up with 13 other firefighters.” Lanza said. “We got another fire truck as my own company had already left to go to the Trade Center. We got down there and they held us back until the second building came down.
“And it was like a nuclear winter with the smoke, the debris, asbestos… who knows what was in the air. Unfortunately, some of it was the smell of human remains.”
When finally released to go into the belly of this hell, Lanza’s crew was assigned to go into the stairways through the A tower and the B tower. What they encountered was something horrific. With Lanza’s words or the words in this writing and recounting of those scenes, if you let your imagination read between the lines, there is a hollowness and inadequacy to fully describe the carnage.
Lanza describes finding and aiding in the rescue of firefighters like Captain Jay Jonas from 6 truck and guys from 39 engine, like Jimmy McGlinn who had fallen down floors when the tower collapsed and was trapped below floors.
“We also found Chief Amante, unfortunately he was passed away,” he said. “And after that it was like a recovery effort because everyone you found was dead or a body part.”
As Lanza began to describe delicately the handling of the body parts found, he mentioned that a fortunate part of finding something like that was found in the faces of the thousands of people who were standing outside for days with pictures of their loved ones. Waiting for news. Waiting for confirmation. Waiting for closure.
After days of waiting, checking hospitals and piles of human remains, it gave a sense of purpose in recovering anything that could lead to some peace of mind in those who waited. And waited. And cried. And waited.
“When we found a body part or a body, we would put it on a stretcher, cover it with an American flag, march it out with honor to a temporary morgue that the city had set up,” Lanza recounts with an inflection of great pain. “They had gathered hairbrushes, toothbrushes and DNA samples from family members and tried to quickly set up a DNA database. The rewarding part of that which may sound crazy to somebody else was that we knew we were giving closure to a family or a parent or a sibling.”
Lanza, who was a steamfitter after his military experience and college career, explained his ideas behind the actual collapse of the buildings. He explained that above the impact, most likely people had been incinerated due to the explosion. Below the crash where the jet fuel began to pour down the main elevator shafts, the fire was so intense that it caused the steel to expand.
“When they put the horizontal beams to the vertical beams,” Lanza explained, “they bolted them together. When the heat from that jet fuel came down on those beams, the heat had to be 1200-1400 degrees. At that temperature steel expands. I believe that it expanded a few inches and sheared those bolts. Then you get what we call in the fire department a pancake collapse. One floor falls on the other floor.”
Lanza went on to describe the rigors of the job and the challenges that come with the calling. He described accident scenes and the baby who had died in a fire. As a true firefighter trained in his position, he reflected with a calmness and a reverent demeanor how those things impacted him but did not deter him from continuing to do a job that he was called to do.
“It’s not nice all the time, but you do the best you can,” he said.
He seemed to point toward the actual steps of the schedule and routine that at times kept him on track so that he would be able to maintain focus on “fruition of mission.” In other words, keeping busy thinking of the steps instead of the situation.
“But there’s times when you get a break,” he said. “And you look at how bad it is. And then I’m sayin’ to myself, who’s gonna want to build here again? The last thing I wanted to see was a 15-block cemetery or desolate place.”
In crisis, the mind seems to try to find a way to mentally rebuild it and to dream about restoration, but in the midst of what was happening on that Tuesday in September, Lanza was at an impasse. He had been working for 36 hours and then on again, off again shifts of search and rescue that were 12 hours in scope. Just to think of that is something people are not trained in public school in America to handle. 12 hour shifts to find remains and to try to put the pieces of “normal” back together.
“To me, if was a cemetery, then the bad guys would win; it’s sick, but they wanted to see tombstones,” he said. “All seven buildings are now built again. I go to the freedom tower every now and then, eat a hot dog, have a soda and I just watch the people comin’ out of the subway.
“Runnin’ into the buildings to go to work. Coming out to go to a restaurant. So, the bad guys really hurt us, and I feel sorry for the families of those who lost loved ones, especially firefighter friends of mine, but the bad guys didn’t win. They didn’t change our way of life.”
The day seized us, but from it, we learned how to seize the day. It was an unusual opportunity to sit with a bona fide hero. A man small in stature but huge in purpose. Sitting there behind that trailer at a county fair made you feel as if you were seated in the shadow of 9/11 itself. It brought a shiver to the crowd who had gathered to listen. It brought a new perspective to the word “sacrifice.” It brought tears.
That is perhaps the most poignant, the most powerfully simple thing to say that will leave a need to speak no more. It brought tears.
There is much more that was recorded in the live interview with Lanza and you can view that video online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ja-NSoNn0T4 It is worth a look and a moment of your day to view an honest to goodness 21st century hero who took the time, left his family, sacrificed his agenda to come and sit with Midwesterners who, on that day could only watch from a distance.
Jimmy Lanza died April 6, 2017, from brain cancer that was diagnosed as collateral complications from 9/11. More about Lanza this week’s In The Wind column on the editorial page.
Bottom Photos by Mark DeLap:
Lanza1 The sculpture of firefighters rushing in while others are running out is on display in the Stephen Siller 9/11 Never Forget Exhibit that travels around the country.
Lanza2 Mark DeLap with 9/11 firefighter Steve Lester who has retired from the F.D.N.Y. in New York City and travels now with the Stephen Siller exhibit. Shown here at the funeral for fallen firefighter Jimmy Lanza.
Lanza3 Ground Zero in New York City was the site of the 9/11 plane crashes into the Twin Towers. Names and a never-ending waterfall fills the holes where 2,996 people lost their lives Sept. 11, 2001. The 9/11 museum sits to the north of where the towers once stood.
Lanza5 The streets of New York City were blocked off for the funeral of 9/11 hero Jimmy Lanza. Lanza lived in Queens before his death from brain cancer which was diagnosed as a complication of 9/11.
Lanza6 The procession for Jimmy Lanza F.D.N.Y. in 2017. The streets were lined with grieving firefighters, port authority police and spectators.
Lanza7 Jimmy Lanza died April 6, 2017 of brain cancer, complications of contact with debris clean-up at the Twin Towers after the destruction. Lanza, who lived in Queens now has a street named after him called “Lanza Way.”