WILKES-BARRE — Beyond the shock, fear and the loss of thousands of lives, Sept. 11, 2001, is remembered mostly through images — of terror, tragedy and tremendous loss.
There also were images of heroism.
Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney has a couple of images he says will stay with him forever.
Delaney told the story last week in the quiet of his Ross Street Fire Station office, fighting back tears as he emotionally recalled his post-9/11 story.
Delaney said he remembers the events of Sept. 11 clearly. He and his administrative assistant were in their offices in Wilkes-Barre, and a shared television was tuned to CNN. Delaney said he saw the second terrorist-piloted plane hit one of the twin towers in New York City, and it sent chills down his spine.
“We stood there watching and wondering if this could be real,” Delaney said. “We listened to all the reports, and I remember wondering if we were at war. Could we be under attack, and where would the next attack be?”
Delaney said, as an experienced firefighter and first responder, there was much concern for several days following 9/11 — specifically, would there be more attacks?
In 2001, Tom McGroarty was mayor of Wilkes-Barre, and he came to Delaney and told him the city had to help in any way it could with the recovery effort in New York. Delaney said he contacted that city’s Department of Emergency Services to ask what was needed, and he was told a big need was for garbage bags.
Delaney said he, McGroarty and other city officials loaded three trucks filled with the requested garbage bags and other supplies and headed to Manhattan during the week of the attacks. They were directed to a large staging area — about 10 times the size of a football field — and waited for direction.
Delaney said the area was near West 34th Street and the Javitz Center and wasn’t far from a four-lane highway. It was there that Delaney saw a few images he will never forget.
The first image was a continuous flow of tractor-trailer trucks carrying tons of twisted steel.
“It was one truck after another,” Delaney said. “Each of them had piles of twisted steel. I just stood there watching.”
Delaney said the reality of the terrorist attacks began to sink in with the sight of the steel. He knew where it came from — the twin towers at the World Trade Center, which he had seen collapse just days before on television.
As sobering as the sight of those trucks was, Delaney said the image that is burned in his memory came later that day.
Several buses arrived at the staging area, each carrying firefighters who had been working for hours at the scene of the attacks. Waiting for the buses to empty were other firefighters who would serve their shift at the site.
There was a stark contrast between the firefighters, Delaney said — the group waiting to board the buses looked fresh and ready to go, while the firefighters getting off the buses were covered in ash and dirt, sweating profusely and emotionally drained.
“Again, I stood there watching what was going on,” Delaney said. “I spotted one firefighter and we made eye contact. I still remember what was written on the back of his helmet — ‘Oh God, please help us.’ I decided to walk over to him.”
Delaney said the two men, both experienced firefighters, just looked at each other, neither saying a word. Delaney was wearing a sweatshirt with a patch that identified him as the fire chief in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
“We shook hands and we hugged,” Delaney said, fighting the emotion. “There was no exchange of words. I just stared at his helmet. I never got his name. We just read each other’s minds.”
The two men never saw each other again; they both returned to their respective jobs.
Delaney knew what the firefighters had gone through — searching through the rubble of two fallen skyscrapers, looking for bodies. They were dealing with the experience of doing their job, running into buildings that everybody was running out of and seeing the hysteria that was occurring around them.
“Those firefighters all knew that when they were running into those buildings, many of them would never come out alive,” Delaney said. “But look at all the thousands of lives they saved by helping them get out of the towers — showing them the way out, guiding them to safety as they climbed the stairs floor by floor to evacuate all they could.”
Delaney said 343 firefighters in New York City were killed on 9/11; that total is reflected on a sticker Delaney placed on the flagpole outside fire headquarters on Ross Street.
“Those 343 firefighters gave their lives to save thousands more,” he said. “They all went into those towers knowing what could happen.”
Delaney said he, the mayor and other city officials left the staging area after about three hours in New York City to return to Wilkes-Barre.
“We were just glad we could do something to help,” he said.
But those images of twisted steel and tired, exhausted firefighters will stay with Delaney forever. He said he hasn’t been to Manhattan since 2001.
Delaney said being a firefighter means you are a member of a group of men and women who leave their homes and families every day not knowing what the experience will bring. But they do it without question.
“Firefighters never want credit for doing their job,” he said. “We lost a bunch of brothers on 9/11.”
Delaney said the message on the firefighter’s helmet — “Oh God, please help us” — will never be forgotten.
“He and his brothers and sisters were there, and they saw what happened,” Delaney said. “This was his way of asking the Main Man upstairs for help.”
For other local news stories, click here.