IN THE spring of 1990, John Morris, a New York City firefighter and an old friend of mine, rolled up with Ladder 27 to the Happy Land social club in the Bronx, where a tragedy of unspeakable proportions had just occurred.
A jilted lover, out of his mind with rage, had splashed a couple of gallons of gasoline at the entrance. Then he lit a match. The club, which catered mainly to Hispanics, was operating illegally, with the windows boarded up and only one door operational. As the club erupted in flames, the crowd stampeded to the rear and was trapped.
When it was all over, 87 people were dead. It was the largest mass murder in the city's history. They were bringing the charred bodies out for hours. The scene was so horrific that firefighters working the job were ordered to undergo immediate counseling.
Until last Tuesday, this was the worst thing John Morris had seen in 23 years on the job.
Then a handful of madmen flew two jetliners into the shimmering towers of the World Trade Center, and suddenly Morris saw horror on a whole new level. Suddenly Happy Land became just another sad memory for the firefighters in Ladder 27 as they dealt with a catastrophe of such epic proportions it was almost unimaginable.
Now, every other day, on numbing eight-hour shifts, they report to Ground Zero and pick through the gray, ash-covered rubble where the twin towers collapsed, searching for anyone trapped there, including more than 300 of their fellow firefighters missing and presumed dead.
"We're still not without hope" of finding someone alive, Morris, 53, said over the phone yesterday, his voice thick and weary. "Over the years, we've heard stories of mud slides and collapses and of them finding people.
"We know it's a long shot to find somebody now. But it's not deterring the guys. When a brother's in need - and that's what we call ourselves, brothers - everyone pitches in."
With each day, though, the psychological strain grows. I could hear that in Morris' voice, too. He sounded different from when I'd talked to him two days earlier, when he'd pulled his first shift in the rubble and said, in an awe-struck voice: "I don't think a nuclear bomb could have done more damage."
The work continues to be hot and dirty and dangerous. The air is filled with choking dust. The smell of decomposing bodies grows stronger.
The firefighters wonder:Will we find one of our guys today? Will we find any civilians? Where are all the bodies?
There's also the constant threat of nearby buildings collapsing, of the mountains of rubble shifting and swallowing the rescue personnel perched atop them. A young firefighter slipped the other day and did a triple gainer onto a jumbled mass of concrete and steel, Morris said. Screwed his back up good.
"It's affecting all of us," said Morris, who lives with his wife, Eileen and their two kids in Middletown, 75 miles north of New York City. "I'm ready to wave the white flag in surrender. But I can't. We lost over 300 guys. We lose three guys, we're in a state of depression. We're just hoping for the little miracles now."
Less than 24 hours earlier, he'd been assigned to a 15-man team combing the underground area that had been a shopping plaza near Tower 2.
Working in the eerie darkness with two search dogs and their handlers, they followed a man armed with a sophisticated tool that was poked into crevasses in the devastation to detect sound.
At one point, as their flashlights pierced the blackness, a firefighter yelled: "Look, we're in J.Crew!" But no "little miracles" occurred as they poked into electronics closets and meeting rooms, around overturned ATMs, cash registers, cafeteria chairs and tables.
The dogs failed to react to any scents. The sound sensor picked up nothing. An hour later, the search was called off and the men were ordered above ground to sift through yet another huge pile of rubble nearby.
"At one point, someone yelled 'We think we have someone!'" Morris recalled. The men scrambled over the twisted steel, aluminum fasciae and jagged chunks of concrete to a crevasse. A search dog was brought over.
"But the dog wasn't reacting normally," Morris said. "His handler said the dog was exhausted, ready to collapse. These dogs work so hard out there, too."
So the dog was taken away, and the firefighters began digging with shovels, mindful of the training they'd received for this grisly work.
"If you find something soft," Morris said, "you put the tools down and start digging with your gloves. You don't want to damage [a body] with tools."
Despite the initial optimism, the digging turned up nothing. But a few hours later, as Morris, a former ironworker apprentice, worked an acetylene torch and the men were digging in another spot, a fire truck was uncovered.
Someone said a body was found under the truck. Someone else said it was a woman's body, curled up in a fetal position. Nobody seemed to know for sure, though.
And then a few hours later, the men from Ladder 27 finished their shift and went back to their firehouse in the Bronx, where the strain and the grief and the exhaustion came oozing out, as it always must.
"Guys are joking. Guys are crying. Guys are sobbing. And it's all okay," Morris said. "Everyone reacts differently to these things."
Morris said that he and the men of Ladder 27 will be back amid the ruins and choking dust of the collapsed World Trade Center today.
So far, he says, he's OK. Numb and weary, but otherwise OK.
It seems so long ago now, that sunny day when the first reports of a plane crash at the World Trade Center filtered into the firehouse in the Bronx.
"I thought it was some knucklehead in a Piper Cub," he said wistfully. "Maybe a student pilot who hit the tower."
If it had only been that, he thinks.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun