Hardest hit firehouse still recovering 10 years later


No firehouse was hit harder than the one in Midtown Manhattan.

Fifteen members of Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battlaion 9 were killed.

That firehouse was the only one to have an entire shift killed that day. Those 15 firefighters were among the very first responders to get to the World Trade Center, and none of them made it back.

It was a devastating loss for the FDNY, and even more profound for the firefighters left behind.

"The word closure, I don't understand that word whatsoever," Chief John Joyce said. "Because there is no closure."

It is a feeling that 10 years later has become a part of them. That feeling of life on the pile, the smoke, the mangled steel, the hopelessness and overwhelming grief.

For the firefigters of Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battlaion 9, September 11th is far from just a grim anniversary. For the firefighters who survived, the horrors of 9/11 never go away, like a terrible scar they carry with them every day.

They have learned to cope and they are still, without a doubt, ready, willing and able to run into a burning building without hesitation. But scratch beneath the surface and the emotions are still so painful.

"Some of the firefighters have never been found, which leaves an empty hole for a lot of the guys," Joyce said.

For some, what weighs heavier than the grief is the guilt.

Firefighter John Fila was scheduled to work that fateful day, but he switched shifts with firefighter Christopher Santora.

"He was our newest guy in the house, 23 years old," Fila said. "I think about Chris all the time. I think about what his life would have been, what he should have accomplished by now. It' a huge weight to carry around."

Firefighter Mike Lynch filled in for Joe Ceravolo.

"He worked," Lynch said. "You know, they call it fate, and said well, it's in God's hands. I don't know about it being in God's hands. But the guilt that I should have been there, it was hard to face."

The firefighters who died - their presence here is everywhere. The station has transformed into a functioning memorial, adorned with loving, if not haunting, tributes to the fallen 15. There are pictures at the door and memorial plaques on the wall.

But perhaps more importantly, the memories of the men are indelibly ethched in the hearts of the men who survived.

"Certain guys that I was close to, you still hear them laughing in a crowd," firefighter Andrew Sforza said. "When you hear comments, you turn around and look."

There is now more laughing than crying. The men say they were able to achieve that, soley because of each other and the bond of brotherhood they share.

"We had a psychologist that stayed with us for several months just to observe us," Sforza said. "At the end of the period of service, she just said there's nothing I can do for you guys that you haven't done already."

But there are still those days that come more frequently closer to the anniversary. The men simply call them "9/11 days."

"It just comes up on you," Ceravolo said. "Sneaks up on you, and you can read it in the other guys eyes. It's amazing. You know what the hurt is."

The biggest comfort over the years, and perhaps the greatest role the firefighters in this house have played, is surrogate father to the 28 children left behind.

"Can't say it doesn't get emotional, to see these kids," Joyce said. "It's good to see the kids moving forward with their lives and doing the right thing. Their fathers would be very proud of them."

For Carl Asaro, Jr., who was just a youngster when his father was killed, the firehouse has become his second home. Now, he plans to become one of the newest members of the FDNY and hopes to work here - in his fathers footsteps.

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