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Book Review

A 9/11 Firefighter’s Story


The Second Tower’s Down
A Firefighter’s Story
By John McCole
Robson Books, London, 2002 Paperback, 166 pages
In The Second Tower’s Down, New York firefighter John McCole provides a compelling account of what it was like to arrive at the World Trade Center complex on the morning of 9/11 to rescue survivors. And what it was like to spend the remaining weeks of September 2001 sifting through more than 1.5 million tons of twisted metal, concrete and glass, to search for those still living and to remove the dead.

His account is compelling and terrifying, for McCole was racing to the site as the second tower fell. He describes standing on a terrace outside World Trade Center Six when another firefighter appeared beside him with the news that 12 units — a total of 72 men — had perished when one of the towers collapsed.

“There wasn’t any warning,” the firefighter told him. “It just came down. Those guys who were working in there never had a chance.”

Despite the obvious dangers, McCole remained at Ground Zero. And like many others, he sustained his share of physical and emotional damage, including contracting the racking respiratory malady called “Ground Zero cough.”

September 11, 2001. Coming down West Street, en route to the WTC. This shot was taken immediately after WTC 2 collapsed.
“I wake up coughing and can’t stop,” wrote McCole, describing his ordeal. “My wife nudges me to go into the bathroom before I wake the baby. Closing the door, I get another uncontrollable coughing fit that lasts for about a minute. While coughing so hard, I throw my back out. I sit on the tub and think to myself, what the hell did I breathe in down there?”

What he had inhaled was a mixture of chemicals and poisons from the smoky soup that hung over Ground Zero and much of the rest of New York for weeks. And, as etched as those toxins were in his lungs, so too were the endless days of human travail in his mind.

WTC 6 is on the left. The ladder leaning against the blue scaffolding is the one McCole and fellow firefighters climbed to reach the terrace, in order to rescue the man trapped on the sixth floor.
But, at the urging of his wife and with the help of his church, McCole has since restored himself to mental, physical and spiritual health. Hoping to provide help and inspiration to others, he documented that turnabout in his book.

This is the story of one man’s victory over adversity; a saga that provides hope of a real solution to what may be one of the largest tragedies facing New York today.

Searching for Answers

Three months after September 11, widespread health problems had not yet become a broadly debated public issue, even though many firefighters and others were already suffering ill effects, McCole among them. Evidence supports the theory that the World Trade Center calamity may be the biggest urban toxic disaster ever.

The line of firemen were making their way towards the crater. This is about where McCole was standing when Josephine was passed along to him.
Scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency estimate that 10,000 tons of toxic dust particles filled the air following the World Trade Center disaster. The air-conditioning system for the south tower contained 90,000 pounds of Freon in basement storage tanks. When Freon is vaporized, it becomes phosgene, a corrosive gas developed as a tool of warfare during World War I, which kills by burning and blistering the lungs.

The Twin Towers were insulated with more than 5,000 tons of asbestos. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, found measurable and dangerous levels of asbestos in settled dust in nearly one in every five homes it sampled within a five-mile radius of the World Trade Center site.

A few weeks prior to Christmas 2001, John McCole was still suffering. His physician offered him little more than a thumbnail diagnosis of “Ground Zero cough” and advice to eat well and stay well rested.

McCole recognized this advice addressed only a portion of the battle he was waging. The cough itself was diminishing somewhat, but daily he felt the “mental fog” roll in, the mood swings and a depletion of energy.

This was the scene as McCole emerged from the front windows of the World Financial Center, opposite WTC 1, immediately after the collapse of WTC 7. Note the flames burning under the steel I-beams.
At McCole’s request, his doctor gave him the green light to begin the Purification program at the Church where he had been a member for several years — the Church of Scientology of New York.

The program was designed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as a means of eliminating the mental and spiritual effects that come with exposure to drugs and environmental toxins. It consists of a regimen of vitamins, sauna and exercise, as well as proper nutrition and rest.

Mr. Hubbard’s extensive research revealed that drugs and toxins lodge in the fat tissues of the body and the residues continue to adversely affect the individual — spiritually, mentally and physically — long after taking the drugs or being exposed to toxic substances. Such deposits have been known to cause lessened perception, fatigue, confused thinking and a host of other symptoms, but can be eliminated through the Purification program.

A shot of McCole working on the special task force the week following the terrorist attack.
Forty days after he started, a revitalized McCole completed the program. But it was not just his vitality that he reclaimed. He also gained back his mental and spiritual command over his own life, eliminating the mental and emotional distress that had haunted him from his earliest days at Ground Zero.

Eight months after the catastrophe at the World Trade Center, McCole visited what remained — a huge, empty pit.

“It was all a memory to me now,” he said of his feelings that day. “I could look back and no longer be a hostage to that terrible fear, pessimism and hopelessness. It will never lessen the importance of the events of September 11, but what occurred that day will no longer live rent-free in some dark corner of my mind.”

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