It was the week of the annual New Jersey State Firemen’s Convention, Ex-Chief John Mamo remembers.
He had taken the rest of the week off and was packing his car that morning for an early drive down to Wildwood when his wife ran outside to tell him the devastating news.
A plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
A short time later, as Mamo sat in shock watching the news unfold on television, the fire tones went off, a signal that all firefighters should report to the firehouse.
It was the last time, Mamo said, that he would ever hear the tones the same way.
Mike Kelly was the first to arrive at the station.
“They’re sending us back to New York,’” Mamo remembers Kelly telling him, when he pulled up at the firehouse. Mamo had been with Company 2 when it was dispatched to the city for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“I shook my head, and said, ‘Okay.’”
Because the company’s guidelines prevent more than six people from riding in the truck at a time, only the first five men who made it to the firehouse that day took it into the city. Ex-Chief and then-Captain John Zakrzewski, the sixth, was working in Teaneck, but had called and asked if the crew could pick him up on the way. Like Mamo, Zakrzewski had been with for the 1993 Trade Center bombing and was making a return trip to the city that day.
The men had to wait when they made it to the George Washington Bridge because Port Authority was allowing only one truck to cross at a time.
“There was no traffic on the bridge at all,” Mamo said. “You could hear a pin drop.”
“It was dead silence,” Kelly recalled. “Most eeriest feeling you could ever have in your life. I said, ‘What the hell did we just get into?’”
As they crossed the Hudson River, Mamo said he looked out toward downtown.
“You could just see the plume of smoke,” he remembered. “I knew we were gonna be in trouble when we got there.”
At that point, the crew still wasn’t sure what they would be called to do once they reached the city.
It wasn’t until they were driving down East River Drive when Tom Reardon, who was monitoring the city’s radio frequencies, learned that they were needed to help with a gas main.
“At that point I didn’t even know what we were going to do, or what we had or what the problem was,” Mamo said.
As the crew came around and out of Battery Park, Mamo remembers the first thing that struck him was a total absence of color.
“Everything was gray and black,” he said. “It looked like you were watching something through a negative.”
Two men flagged down the crew and instructed them to head to the Downtown Athletic Club on Battery Place – a building known for hosting NCAA Football’s Heisman Trophy award ceremony each year.
The Athletic Club had been evacuated with a gas leak, and the crew was tasked with shutting off two gas mains, one of which fed into World Trade Center Building 7.
Snow-white soot up to their knees and the Heisman Trophy, still in place, greeted the six men when they arrived at the building. John Parmentier and Nolan Mamo, John’s son, climbed up onto a stack of pallets and began to shut down the 36-inch gas main.
After shutting it down, the company first was sent to 1 Police Plaza, then redeployed to Broadway. There they were told to stand by, which they did, pitching in any little way they could, until being informed that they could go home.
The men from Company 2 arrived back at the firehouse in Fair Lawn just before 8:30 p.m., 10 hours after heading out for the call.
Each one has taken a different yet powerful memory from that day with them.
For Zakrzewski, it was being thanked by the New York City firemen for coming out to help. Company 2’s yellow coats were a dead giveaway that they weren’t based in the city, he said.
John Mamo recalls leaning against a wall in front of the Century 21 department store, sharing his last two cigarettes with a couple of guys whose names he doesn’t remember, but whose faces he said he’ll never forget.
The memory that Kelly can’t escape, however, is one he’d rather not have experienced. Kelly said he was by himself when he saw a firefighter, covered in soot, walk out of a small park and head toward him.
“He just looked at me, and he looked right past me like I wasn’t even there,” Kelly remembered. “Looked right over my shoulder, and goes, ‘One minute they were there and the next minute they were gone.’
“I go ‘Brother are you alright?’ He goes, “One minute they were there, and the next minute they were gone.”
The man had been part of a battalion of 13 firefighters, Kelly learned.
“He lost 12 guys. 12 guys walked in the door, he was the 13th guy.
The man told Kelly that he had left the other 12 briefly to grab something off the truck. He never saw them alive again.
To this day, all five Company 2 men said they still frequently flash back to their experience near Ground Zero.
Their reactions range from anger to aggravation to sorrow.
For John Mamo, the experience sparked concern for his fellow firefighters and recognition that life is short.
“I’ve been in some sticky situations, but I never once was worried that I wasn’t coming home.” he said. “You witness something like that and now every time those tones go off, all I can say is, ‘Please God, let them all come back.’”
The way each fireman from Company 2 honors Sept. 11 differs, but watching the deluge of media coverage is one thing all said they avoid. It’s too difficult to bear.
“I can look at pictures and headlines and read stories,” Mamo said. “But to watch the actual footage replayed over and over again, I see it every day in my mind. I don’t need to see it on TV. I can’t watch it on TV.”
Zakrzewski said his drawer of Sept. 11 mementos doesn’t get much use.
“I got every article, newspaper, Time Magazine, everything from that day,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve opened it up since.”
To this day, the men of Fair Lawn Fire Company 2 haven’t sought any publicity for their efforts on 9/11 and Mike Kelly said it would remain that way. The public, he said, shouldn’t look at him or any of the men who served with him that day as heroes.
“We were just doing what we’re supposed to do, what we were trained to do," he said. "That’s it.”