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Remembering The Firefighters From Midtown Engine Company 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We devote our program to marking the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. And we start in New York City.

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JOHN FILA: This is our memorial wall of the pride of Midtown, Engine Company 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 - Battalion Chief Ed Geraghty, Captain Dave Wooley, Lieutenant Dan O’Callaghan.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They should go down. They should go down.

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SIMON: Fifteen firefighters from this firehouse, the entire shift, answered the bell when the first plane struck the first of the Twin Towers - 8:46 a.m., September 11, 2001. None of them came back.

FILA: Firefighter Sam Oitice, firefighter Carl Asaro, firefighter Alan Feinberg.

SIMON: The firehouse still sits just off Broadway on a block with a diner, shops that sells small souvenir Statues of Liberty and T-shirts, a bar and a grill in these days, lots of shuttered storefronts.

FILA: Firefighter Michael Lynch, firefighter Jose Guadalupe, firefighter Leonard Ragaglia.

SIMON: This memorial is on a wall of the firehouse - no photos allowed - where the portraits of those who died hang just across from where today's firefighters hang their heavy black waterproof coats. John Fila is a member of Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, just as he was 20 years ago today.

FILA: On Sept. 11, I was actually scheduled to work, but I had switched shifts, which was a very common thing within the fire department. I had taken my children to school, and I heard on the radio that, you know, there was a plane crash in the city. And then one of my friends call and says it's a lot bigger than just a plane crash. And at that time, I just got in my car and headed into the city.

We got our gear. We went out into Eighth Avenue, which is a street in front of the firehouse, and we stopped the first city bus we saw. As we were heading down the West Side Highway, the second tower was just coming down. Everything was in the air - ash, dust, smoke, papers. Things I remember vividly is people's papers from their desks just floating down and out of the air.

SIMON: You knew that people you knew were inside that building...

FILA: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Those buildings, didn't you?

FILA: You know, in this job, you know that you're responding into this, and you know that the guys that were working - and you know what they were doing. They were going inside to try to save people. That's what we do. And to know that our guys were in there and they were doing theirs and we felt, well, we're going to go find our guys that are missing and anybody else that's there and we're going to bring them out. And that's - you know, that was what we were focused on. As soon as we got there, we just started digging by hand, you know, and then we found buckets and whatever else you could do to try to uncover anything.

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FILA: Firefighter Joseph Angelini Jr., firefighter John Tipping, firefighter Mike Brennan.

SIMON: John Fila is a stocky, sturdy-looking gray-haired man who still pushes out the chest against his FDNY blues. We sit in the back office of the fire station, where speakers crackle with fire calls from across the city and fire trucks back in with beeps. He's talked about these events a lot over the last 20 years, but his blue eyes still water.

FILA: They put their life before somebody else's life, and that is the most noble thing anyone could ever do. I talk about them because they deserve to be talked about. They did something extraordinary. People ask us now, they say, would you ever do the same thing again knowing that that building could come down? And I always say, well, absolutely. I says, that's why we're here, because we're not going to stand outside and say, oh, you know, your brother or your child is upstairs. We're going to go back in and it's - you know, and they say, wow, that's, you know, something. I says, well, that's why we do this, because we're here to help people. We're here to be the guiding light for people to come out. And that's why I say their names all the time because their children, their grandchildren, their neighbors and people that have never heard of Sept. 11 need to know what they did that day. And it's a remarkable thing. It really is.

SIMON: May I ask, how are your kids?

FILA: They're great. They were 5 and 3 on Sept. 11. (Crying) Excuse me. But I get to see them.

SIMON: How are you doing?

FILA: Good, good. I'm doing good. There were times when I wasn't doing good. Yeah, I can tell you like a few years after that you get frustrated sometimes because sometimes when newer guys come in, they're not really doing the right thing as far as you're thinking what they should be as far as respectfulness towards, you know, the guys that were lost or whatever or the job. So you become short-tempered. You become basically disassociated with a lot of things because your anger is taking over. And this is another great thing. Our fire department has a wonderful counseling unit. And I can tell you, I took advantage of it, and they talk you off the ledge. They're good.

SIMON: Have you stayed in touch with families, children...

FILA: Yes.

SIMON: ...Over these past 20 years?

FILA: Yeah. Every year we have our little in-house ceremony on September 11. We have a park dedicated across the street on 48th Street. So every September 11, we have our families, you know, of all the guys that we lost come in and we have a breakfast here in the firehouse where we all catch up, and then we have a formal ceremony across the street. And then a lot of families will pop in and out during the year. And, I mean, one of the most fantastic things now is that we have a brother and two children in this firehouse whose brother and father was killed Sept. 11. They're actually firefighters here, which is just, you know - overwhelmingly, we're so proud. It's like, you know, you're - you know, Rebecca Asaro is our newest one. She was 9 on Sept. 11, and she's in this firehouse now. And Lenny Ragaglia, he's in here in this firehouse. And just listening to him, he sounds exactly like his father. And it's just such an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride that their children wanted to work in the firehouse where their father and their brother worked. It's just great.

SIMON: Are anniversaries hard for you?

FILA: Extremely. You know, every day we come to work, you've seen our pictures of our guys in the memorial wall. When we come to work every third day, we see that, and we're reminded of it. So it's a good motivator for our young guys. It's a remembrance for us. But the actual anniversary date, I can tell you that starting in August, everybody gets a little bit more, you know, tensed up because we know we're going to be hosting all the families, you know, on that day. And, you know, you get a little bit, you know, on edge. And this is our obligation to do, and we don't take it lightly. We take it very serious that this is our time to honor those people that were just so awesome.

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FILA: Firefighter Paul Gill, firefighter Michael Haub and firefighter Christopher Santora - those are our heroes of 54, four and the ninth and FDNY, always remembered on Sept. 11, 2001. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.