The six-month anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001 was just two days away, when Mike Bellone received a phone call from his brother telling him that he needed to get down to Florida to see their dying mother.
Bellone, Honorary Firefighter, Ladder Co. 20, FDNY – who now lives in Seneca Falls – was at Ground Zero working on the recovery operation when he got the call.
A plane ride was arranged for him from New York, and when Bellone arrived in Florida, a fire truck was waiting at the airport to drive him to his mother’s home.
“I came in the house and my mother, who was like lying on her deathbed, saw me come in and was like ‘Let me make you breakfast!’” Bellone said. “That’s what she wanted. We talked, we sat, we played cards. Then she said ‘Leave and go find those guys.’”
The guys that Bellone’s mother was referring to were the seven members of Ladder 4 who were still missing beneath the rubble at the World Trade Center site.
The search for the missing Ladder 4 firefighters began in December 2001 when the remains of their truck were found 60 feet below ground level. It had been parked in front of the south tower and, Bellone said that when the building collapsed, the truck was crushed and fell into an underground parking garage.
“They wanted to pull it out with the machines, but we said ‘No, what if they’re in the truck? What if they’re under the truck?’” Bellone said.
In the pouring rain, they dug the fire truck out by hand.
According to Bellone, the whole process took 26 hours. They were able to pull the truck from the hole in one piece, but there was no sign of the men.
As they were digging, the widows of the Ladder 4 firefighters had gathered at the top of the pit hoping to hear any news about their husbands. There were seven of the 14 compartments on the truck that weren’t damaged, and Bellone said that they decided to cut the doors off of those compartments and give one to each widow.
“December went by, January went by, February goes by, and they (the widows) came down every now and then, and looked for us, to see if we had any luck,” Bellone recalled. “The longer time goes, the less chance there is of even finding these guys. They could’ve been disintegrated for all we know.”
It was March 9, 2001, when Bellone flew to Florida to see his mother for the last time. She told him to go back and finish what he’d started, and said that they would probably find the men. He flew back to New York that night. The next night at around midnight – shortly after the six-month anniversary TV special on CBS ended – Bellone’s brother called to tell him that their mother had passed.
The next day, on the morning of March 12, Bellone said that his chief came over to him and asked him to take them down into the pit. They picked a spot and started digging.
“Sure enough, the first thing we found was a firefighter,” Bellone said. “We found all seven guys.”
“I was in the hole digging for 23 hours because we wanted to try to get them all out in one day, together as a unit. And we did.”
The day that lasted nine months.
Reflecting back —
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Mike Bellone had just gotten back to his home in Brooklyn after working a night shift. He was sleeping, when a friend called and asked him if he had seen what was going on.
Bellone, now 62, quickly turned on the TV and saw an alert requesting that anyone in the area with medical experience report to the World Trade Center immediately. Mike is Red Cross certified in First Aid and CPR and also has a medical background from college, so he decided he was going to go help.
“I put the same clothes that I took off back on and got in my car,” Bellone told the Times of Wayne County last week. After getting stuck in traffic, he pulled over, got out and boarded a fire truck that was heading to the WTC – a truck that was meant to hold five people.
“There was over 20 people on the truck, squashed like sardines,” he recalled. “All forms of first responders – doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, EMTs.
“You name it, everybody was on the truck – not knowing at that time, that was the beginning of the day that lasted for nine months.”
When they arrived at the WTC site, Bellone said the scene was unrecognizable and the dust from the collapsed towers felt like someone had thrown a fistful of sand in his face. He remembers that all of the trucks had shut off because of the carburetors being filled with dust, which created an eerie silence.
“Nobody was talking, none of the trucks were running,” he added. “You thought you were in hell.”
One of the memories that stands out the most to Bellone from that day was walking past Liberty Street, between Church Street and Broadway, and noticing anywhere from 50 to 100 doctors and nurses standing by with stretchers for victims pulled from the rubble.
In a 24-hour span, Bellone said that only six survivors were rescued from the debris. Most of the stretchers were left unused.
As they began the recovery operation, which Bellone described as “controlled chaos,” he said that each first responder was given a roll of biochemical bags to place any recovered body parts in. Once somebody filled a lot of their bags, they would take them to the Starbucks on Liberty Street that had its own generator and air conditioning.
“We always took a GPS location for every person or body part that we found,” Bellone explained. “If a body was found, it would be put in a bag, a flag would be put over it, and then it would be carried up the ramp in an honor guard.
“Whenever there was an honor guard, which was – I don’t know how many times a day – everyone would line up on the sides and salute as it went by.”
Bellone was brought on as a medic by Bovis – the general contracting company that was hired by the U.S. government to lead the operation – and by the fire department as a recovery worker. He worked on the ATV unit and eventually, he said, he became a liaison between Bovis and the fire department.
“It was situation where there was no saying ‘I don’t want to do that, or I don’t know how to do that,’” Bellone said. “If you said any of those trigger words, you were gone.
“If you walked over to an electrician and said ‘I need you to do some plumbing over here,’ he’s doing the plumbing.”
For nine months beginning on 9/11/01, Bellone worked in the pit at the World Trade Center almost every day – cutting rebar and searching for remains of the victims. He slept on a pew at St. Paul’s Chapel across the street from Ground Zero, only returning home a couple dozens times when needed.
It was at St. Paul’s where he met his wife, Julie, who is from Seneca Falls and went down to New York on weekends to volunteer at the chapel. Bellone moved to Seneca Falls in 2005.
In December of 2001, Bellone was planning to take his first day off on Christmas to spend with his family. His parents were planning to come up from Florida, but on Christmas Eve his mother called to tell him that his father had died. After checking on his family and his mother told him that she’d be flying up to New York where they’d have the funeral, Bellone went back in the pit to dig.
“The last thing I wanted to do was spend time with my family,” he acknowledged. “I know that sounds ridiculous coming from a family guy.”
“My brain was not functioning properly, and I didn’t want to answer questions that I knew were going to be asked,” Bellone added. “Back then I didn’t know how to answer them, and I really didn’t want to relive it because I was already in it.”
Although Bellone lost two of the most important people in his life during the months following the attacks on September 11, he also developed a strong bond with the other first responders who worked alongside him cleaning up the 21st Century’s biggest disaster. He found that during that time, it was easier and more therapeutic to talk with others who were there and could relate.
“The best thing to do was to actually stay away from everybody except my peers,” Bellone said. “We used to sit down and talk all of the time. We laughed together, we cried together, we ate together, we slept together, we’ve seen the devil together and we’ve seen angels.”