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Firefighters, police toil on despite grief

FiresDeathJoseph Potasnik

At Hook and Ladder Co. 3 of Battalion 6 on East 13th Street, Mike Moran's tired, sad, bloodshot blue eyes only begin to tell the story.

Two-fifths of the firefighter's 25-man company was unaccounted for Wednesday, presumed buried under the rubble that used to be the World Trade Center. The battalion chief and his aide, who worked at the same firehouse, also were missing. And Moran's 41-year-old brother, John, a fire battalion chief: also missing.

"I'm still numb," said Moran, 37, in a soft, almost shell-shocked monotone. Having worked through the night in shifts, he was to return home to Queens to rest, but like the others in his company, he was frustrated he couldn't do more. "You want to get put to work, especially when you know your brother, they can't find him, he's missing."

With a staggering 200 to 300 firefighters missing, the scene at this Greenwich Village fire station was familiar at neighborhood firehouses throughout New York City. Firefighters standing around or slumped in folding chairs with empty stares, all of them waiting. Waiting to go back to the site. Waiting to hear if another surviving firefighter has been found.

"All the big chiefs are missing," Moran said. "Some of them have been found dead. I don't know who."

Among those confirmed dead are the department's chief, Peter J. Ganci; William M. Feehan, first deputy fire commissioner; and a Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Mychal Judge. The late fire chief's son, a firefighter, was among those working amid the rubble Wednesday, aiding in a slow, difficult, desperate rescue effort.

"When this is through, every station, every department within the department, will know tragedy, unfortunately," said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, a Fire Department chaplain, whose local fire station near his Brooklyn Heights home was missing eight firefighters.

"It's devastating," said David Billig, spokesman for the Fire Department.

For police officers, too, work continued as they had to contend with the grief of having lost as many as 70 members of their force.

"Everybody knows someone, somehow that was affected by this," said 15-year veteran police officer Maggie Lange, taking a short break at East Bay Diner and Cafe on East 29th Street and First Avenue, near the city medical examiner's office, where hundreds of relatives and friends of the missing converged Wednesday.

A friend of Lange on the force was missing, one member of an entire emergency medical unit still unaccounted for. A former partner of Lange's narrowly escaped from the first building collapse, crawling for three blocks as she choked on soot: "She inhaled so much smoke and dust," Lange said, "she actually reached in (her mouth) and gagged herself so she could breathe."

Firefighters were still in danger Wednesday, at the forefront of a rescue effort that put them near and at times inside still-faltering buildings.

The work, Billig and firefighters said, is excruciatingly slow.

"They have so many volunteers, they need you for short periods of heavy labor," Moran said. "You take a beating from the smoke, because everything's still smoldering. They don't seem to be able to get enough water anywhere because they keep having to disconnect hoses to (make way) for heavy equipment."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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