Former New York Firefighter Remembers All That Was Lost 20 Years Ago
Peter Blaich always knew what he wanted to do with his life. It’s in his blood. He’s a fourth-generation New York City firefighter.
The camaraderie in the fire department was one of the first things that drew him to the job. Now, at age 49, he remembers when his dad was badly injured from a fire in Brooklyn and was in the hospital for two weeks. Firefighters were constantly checking in on the family to make sure they were OK.
"The rest of the firefighters in his firehouse made sure that the grass was cut at the house for my mom. Anything she needed, they got her," Blaich saids. "They would take us to and from the hospital. And that really did (make) a long-lasting impression upon me as a young man, that that's something I'd like to be a part of one day."
He joined the fire department in the early '90s around the age of 21. Part of his tenure as a New York City firefighter took place during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He frequently gets asked what it was like to be a New Yorker and a first responder that day.
"And I say, well, have you ever been to 43 funerals in the course of 18 months? Most people don’t go to 43 funerals in their lifetime," he said. "And these were all people I knew and worked with and were friends and in my wedding party. So, I said that kind of puts into perspective what you kind of went through on a personal loss."
Blaich was assigned to Engine 9, Ladder 6. On a clear day from his firehouse, you could look down the street and see the top of north and south towers of the World Trade Center. He remembers getting coffee with another firefighter that morning when they saw a plane flying low.
"He looked and I looked and when I turned the second time, we just saw it go right into the North Tower and big fireball (came) out," he said. "And we knew that that was going to be probably the worst fire we were going to go to from just initially seeing that."
Everyone who was at the firehouse headed toward the World Trade Center; at that point, only the North Tower had been hit. A couple of blocks in, they were officially dispatched.
Blaich remembers getting to the scene and taking in the destruction, the smoke and the rubble. He remembers hearing a message on the radio that a firefighter he knew had been hit by a body that fell from the tower.
"At that height, if a body hit you it's fatal," he said, "and he passed. It was literally a matter of looking up and timing your way to get into the lobby of the North Tower because you had to go through the courtyard. And then you had to make your way and it was wide open area. And when people were jumping, they were literally hitting and just exploding in the courtyard area. So you literally had to look up and time it."
He remembers getting inside and discovering the elevators were out. They would have to use the stairs.
"You're stopping a lot and then there's injured people and you would run people down to another company, like two or three flights below, hand somebody that was severely injured off and then try to run back and catch up with your company," he said.
Blaich remembers his commanding officer communicating with another officer whose group was on a higher floor. The message was clear: everyone was on borrowed time. The building was going to come down. Blaich’s group needed to turn around and get as many people as they could and leave.
Which is what they did. They retraced their steps and cleared floors, carrying the injured — some badly burned.
"And that was hard for firefighters," he said. "But he was a well-respected officer. He always knew what to do with a fire. So when a man like that with 30-plus years tells you, 'Hey, guys, this is what we got to do,' you listen."
Blaich remembers coming across some people trying to get back up to work before evacuating.
"I was like, 'Listen, man, I don't know how much your life is worth money-wise, I don't have a price tag on my life.' So I said, 'You have to go now or we're not coming back,'" Blaich said. "Most people, when they hear that — oh, the firemen are getting out of here — we're going too, we're going to go. The two people I came across were like, 'OK, we'll go,' But I was like, I can’t believe people are still here trying to download some stock tips or whatever. That, to me, was crazy."
He remembers finally making it down to what was the lobby … only it was unrecognizable. Debris from the South Tower had flown into the North Tower and there was no way out.
Fortunately, one officer knew the building well and said if they dropped down to the subbasement they could get across the loading dock and make it out. So they went down two levels. That’s when Blaich heard the loudest sound he ever heard before.
"The building was starting to pancake collapse now," he said. "So that was the fall of the North Tower and it was one full floor falling onto another floor, that weight forcing that to collapse and like dominoes just falling down.
"And I really figured this was it, because it was that loud and coming that fast that you knew something was going to hit you that was just going to be massive."
Another firefighter pushed Blaich out of the way. He survived the collapse but he worried he would suffocate to death. A senior officer told him to take breaths inside his coat. They were down there for about 45 minutes, but he says it felt like months.
He remembers when the dust cleared.
"The sky starts to opens up and things start to lift and you could see the sky and, you know, Sept. 11 was really a beautiful day, so clear and so nice," he said. "And you're looking up into sky and you're like, I got to be dead or something. This can't be real."
Some firehouses lost multiple people on 9/11. Some firehouses lost everyone. But every firefighter in Peter Blaich’s firehouse survived that day. However he points out, many have died since due to illnesses stemming from 9/11.
And it took a personal hit on Blaich. He struggled with survivor’s guilt. It took a toll on his marriage.
"I was consumed with working and going to funerals. And it's just not a good mix for a marriage," he said. "Marriages fail sometimes. You just didn't get a chance to heal. I never went to the bottle and never did pills, but I was angry a lot, who wants to be around somebody that's angry all the time?"
Eventually Blaich went to therapy, something that took him awhile because of the stigma around mental health. He didn’t want to seem like he wasn’t tough enough to go back up on the ladder, he says. Since 9/11, he said, that mentality has changed and there are more resources for firefighters. First responders are encouraged to reach out and talk about the trauma they experience.
Blaich says he knew it was time to retire when the daughters and sons of his fallen colleagues were joining the fire department. He moved to Cornelius in 2015 and works for CIMS Solutions, a company that does emergency operations planning for public and private sectors.
But he couldn’t stay away from the fire department work for long — remember, it’s in his blood. When he moved to North Carolina, he joined the Cornelius-Lemley Fire Rescue as a volunteer firefighter.
So, Saturday he’ll participate in a remembrance being held by the fire department, as well as his own personal ritual that he does every year. At 3:43 p.m., he pauses and takes a moment to remember the 343 firefighters who died. Spending time with his family also helps.
"So that kind of, you know, regenerates me a lot as when I spend time with my kids," he said, "and it's like, OK, every day doesn't have to be 9/11, you know?"
You can have good points in your life, he says. He sounds a little like he’s still trying to convince himself of that fact, 20 years later.
A Cornelius 9/11 Remembrance Vigil will be held on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. The community is invited to quietly reflect and remember at the site of the Cornelius Never Forget 9/11 Monument, located at Fire Station No. 1, 19729 S. Main Street, as members of the Cornelius Fire Department toll a bell marking the key moments of that day. The event is free and open to the public.
The schedule is as follows:
• 8:30 a.m.: Introduction
• 8:44 a.m.: Lower flag to half-staff
• 8:46 a.m.: Single Bell Toll/Moment of Silence - American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into North Tower
• 9:03 a.m.: single bell toll-United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into South Tower
• 9:37 a.m.: single bell toll-American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon
• 9:59 a.m.: single bell toll-South Tower collapsed
• 10:03 a.m.: single bell toll-United Airlines 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania
• 10:28 a.m.: single bell toll-North Tower collapsed
• 10:35 a.m.: striking the bell toll to memorialize Line of Duty deaths in North Carolina in the Firefighting, Emergency Medical Services, and Police community.