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Firefighter will talk about hell of Sept. 11



Published: Mon, July 8, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The firefighter said he has cried every day since the attacks.

By JoANNE VIVIANO

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK -- Lt. Scott Maxwell feels like he just fought the first battle of World War III.

"I know how the Vietnam veterans felt now," the New York City firefighter said. "War is hell.

"... The things that I saw, I could never really tell you about because you have to see it, you have to smell it, you have to feel it ... the steel vibrating, the aura of being among 3,000 dead people."

Where he was

Maxwell was on the 219 engine in Brooklyn on Sept. 11, coming upon the World Trade Center towers through the Battery Tunnel just as the first tower collapsed.

Engine 219 had been traveling to the WTC site with a ladder truck from the Brooklyn station when a dispatcher redirected it to another call -- a bank was on fire. When the engine arrived, Maxwell and his crew discovered it was a false alarm -- a false alarm that saved the lives of Maxwell and the five others on the truck.

They headed back to the towers, emerging from the tunnel about five miles behind the ladder truck.

That's when everything went black and day turned into night.

The firefighter will bring his amazing story to the Mahoning Valley on Saturday.

Slide presentation

A friend of Western Reserve Fire District Chief David C. Comstock Jr.'s, Maxwell will show a 15-minute slide presentation, tell his story and answer questions during the 7 p.m. talk at the Poland Public Library. The free event is co-sponsored by the Poland Firefighters Association and will be preceded at 6:15 by a social time. Tickets are required; call (330) 757-8268.

The scene Maxwell describes is one Americans have heard about hundreds of times since Sept. 11: People ran for their lives, covered in soot and glass, people fell from the towers, emergency radios were going crazy.

When the second tower collapsed, Maxwell and his crew dove under their firetruck. Twenty minutes later, after hearing debris pound onto the truck overhead, they emerged.

'Overdrive'

"You kind of go into this blurry, fast-paced overdrive. You focus on what you have to do. You know what you have to do," Maxwell said. "Nothing else matters. You don't eat. You don't sleep. You don't use the bathroom. You just go."

Buildings were on fire, vehicles were exploding. The firefighters unburied their truck and starting putting out fires.

"It was an amazing two hours," Maxwell said. And it was just the beginning. He didn't arrive home until 1 p.m. on Sept. 12. From then on, he was placed on a special operations unit, scouring the debris for survivors and, finally, bodies during 24-hour work shifts. His service at the site finished about two weeks ago.

"I liken it to the first battle of World War III. I liken it to Pearl Harbor. It completely changed my life, my family's life, my friends' lives, anybody that knows me," said Maxwell, who is married with a 12-year-old daughter. "It changed me as a person."

Still fighting

Maxwell is still fighting the war. While a false alarm saved his life, 124 of Maxwell's friends didn't make it. Six men from Squad 41 in the Bronx, where Maxwell had worked until last June, were lost. Also, 11 from Rescue 5 in Staten Island, where he has been since late December, were lost.

"We go to funeral after funeral after funeral," he said. "Every day."

Another thing Maxwell does every day is cry.

The tears first came Sept. 12.

Maxwell was driven home because the concrete dust had blinded him and he couldn't drive himself back to his tight-knit, working-class neighborhood. His wife, Linda, came outside and three or four neighbors left their homes and moved toward his stoop. Maxwell said nothing but went inside, grabbed his American flag and returned to raise it.

He then went inside and sat down with Linda, waiting about a half an hour before deciding to go to the hospital to have his eyes checked. When he went outside, he saw that every flag in the neighborhood was raised. And it brought him to tears.

Maxwell isn't quite sure how he feels about the experiences he's come through in the past 10 months and isn't sure he'll know in 10 years. He says he may be like men who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and still cry 50 years later.

"I haven't had a chance to reflect on it yet. I'm still taking care of families. I'm still burying friends," he said. "You just kind of ask, 'Why? What's the sense of this whole thing?'"

viviano@vindy.com




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