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Firefighter recounts 9/11 aftermath

October 28, 2002|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

One of those persistent annoyances in a firefighter's life - a false alarm - probably saved Lt. Scott Maxwell's life.

Maxwell was filling in at a Brooklyn fire company when the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists and fire companies throughout New York City responded.

As he shared his story at North Hagerstown High School Saturday evening, Maxwell remembered how he was pulled off that call - the biggest call in New York City's history.

He was sent instead to a fire alarm call at a Brooklyn bank. He was angry, but he obeyed the order.

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Investigating that false alarm set Maxwell and his crew back about 10 minutes. They continued on toward the World Trade Center.

Maxwell's firetruck was just emerging from the Battery Tunnel when the south tower crumbled.

His special operations training kicked in. It's the bridges and the tunnels that terrorists will go after, he thought to himself. He waited for a roaring whoosh of water to wash over him.

"That was the first time in my life, in my 42 years, that I thought I was going to die," said Maxwell, whose presentation was sponsored by the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association.

Maxwell spoke vividly about the chaos of that horrific day - the people steadily filing out of the World Trade Center "like a metronome," the north tower splitting open "like a banana," he and his men scrambling under their rig "quicker than rabbits."

The sound of the tower collapsing in front of him "sounded like a train going off the track, magnified 15 times," and it kept getting louder.

Twenty minutes after the first time, Maxwell again expected he would die.

Many around him did. Of the 343 firefighters killed at the World Trade Center, 124 were his friends, including 96 with whom he had worked in special operations.

While firefighters know the grave risk that comes with their jobs, he said, "It's the people who were just sitting at their desks, eating a bagel, I feel sorry for, and their families."

Maxwell talked about the bravery of the young recruits he led to the scene once they crawled out from under their truck.

"If you have the guts to lead these guys to the gates of hell, they will follow you," he said.

Ten months of exhausting, nonstop recovery work followed. Maxwell said he and other special operations firefighters spent their shifts in holes and crevices, searching for victims.

One day, he was lowered into the basement of what had been a bank. He shined his flashlight on a flattened armored car. An employee was dead inside, where $14 million sat.

If the same disaster happened again, Maxwell said, firefighters would still rush up stairs to save people as employees filed down the stairs to get out.

"These guys stay until everybody's out," he said.

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