At the Corner of Varick & Barclay — a True 9/11 Story

by on January 26th, 2015
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FIRST PERSON | It was just another September morning when I was in the firehouse gym (FDNY Engine 3 Ladder 12 Battalion 7 High-Rise Unit One) around 7:30 a.m. I was with my mutual partner, Angel. Angel could make you laugh through an entire 24-hour shift. He had an explosive personality, and yet he was the kind of guy you could trust with your life. He was doing great things with his life. I was only in this company for just under a year but the professionalism of the men and women in Engine 3 and Ladder 12 was the highest I had ever seen, under the leadership of Chief Oreo Palmer and Aide Steve Belson.

Chief Oreo was a great leader. He was a mentor and a friend to all of us. I remember that morning after my workout Steve caught me in the hallway and said, “Charlie I have over-time for you today.”

“Thanks but no thanks,” I said.

“What do mean? You never turn down overtime.” He replied.

“I know but I’m already Red-Lined for the year,” I told him.

“Don’t worry I’ll have the Chief sign off on the OT”, he replied.

I said, “Cool thanks,” and as always, accepted the overtime. I called my wife to let her know that I was taking the overtime and she reminded me, “No you aren’t We are going to see the house with Uncle Benny today.”

We had found a home we liked and wanted to buy, so we had plans to go back to see it that day. I went back over to the chief’s aide and said “Steve, I can’t take the overtime today. My wife and I want to buy a house and we had planned to go see it today.”

Steve replied jokingly, “You want to buy a house today? Why don’t you buy it tomorrow?” and we both laughed.

“No thanks,” I said, “I have some people waiting for me.”

I walked away from Steve and went into the kitchen where Chief Oreo was having his morning Corn Flakes. I sat across from the chief that morning for breakfast at around 8:15 a.m. We were all so glad when he came back from Queens, where he had been transferred just a few months before. FDNY brought Chief Oreo back to Battalion 7 because he was one of the very best. The chief always connected with all the guys. He could joke around with us but he also knew just how to unite the company.

As he finished his Corn Flakes that morning he noticed that I was drinking fat-free milk. He said to me, “Are you still drinking that crap that tastes like water?”

“Yea I’m trying to watch my waist line, Chief.” I replied.

Figuring I was taking the overtime that day, he said, “Don’t worry, drink the good stuff. We’ll do some stairs today.” Those would be the last words Chief Oreo Palmer would ever say to me.

He did 70+ flights of stairs that day.

After breakfast around 8:30 a.m., I went upstairs to take a shower. As I was coming out of the shower the first alarm came in at around 8:47 a.m. I heard on the “bitch box,” the overhead speakers in the firehouse, “Explosion at WTC.” I ran out into the hallway where I saw Steve. I said, “Steve what’s going on? Everybody goes!”

“Yea,” he replied with a smile, “But you’re not.” Those would be the last words Chief’s Aide Steve Belson would ever say to me.

I finished getting dressed, headed downstairs to my pick-up truck and as I passed the kitchen I saw another firefighter. He was staring at the TV and I said “hey man! What’s going on”

“A plane just hit WTC” He replied. I thought it was a small plane and that I should have taken the OT. I thought to myself “I’m missing a good job with my company.” I went out to my truck and started driving home. You might think this is where the story ends but really, this is where it begins. It was about 8:55 a.m. 9/11/2001. I pulled out of the fire house on 142 West 19th between 6th and 7th avenue.

As I turned onto 7th Avenue I could see the massive hole in the North Tower. I continued driving and staring at the buildings in complete shock. I realized it was not the small plane I thought it was so I had to pull over. I sat there staring for a few minutes in complete shock. It was just within a few moments when the second plane flew right over my head and into the South Tower. It felt so surreal, like time had stopped.

After that, I remember thinking to myself, “I need to get down there,” so I continued driving on 7th Avenue. I was driving straight toward the World Trade Center and shortly after I passed the entrance to the tunnel which would have been my route home, I found myself stopped at a red light about 20 blocks from the World Trade Center. At that moment, seven New York City Firefighters in full gear came running around the corner onto 7th Avenue. They saw my truck and then realized that I was FDNY. They ran over to me and one of them said, “Are you going down to the towers?”

“Yea I’m going down.” I replied.

“Take us down there,” he said. In an instant, these firefighters in full gear who had been running toward the towers from their home fire house (which fire house is still unknown to me) quickly filled my pick up bed and cab. In seconds we were all on our way down 7th Avenue en route to the World Trade Center.

It was then about 9:20 am.. as we were racing toward the burning towers in my red pick-up truck. We all felt a rush of adrenaline as we were sizing up the catastrophe unfolding in front of us. I can still see these moments over and over in my head: people screaming and hanging out windows, people holding hands and jumping, the sounds of people hitting the buildings and concrete. As we approached Varick & Barclay I parked my truck on the northwest side of the street. We all quickly jumped out of the truck and began running toward the entrances of the Towers.

We only got about 20 feet away from my pick-up when an NYPD officer (whose name I do not know) came out of nowhere and ran up to us yelling and pointing at me “That’s your truck?”

“Yea” I replied.

“Move that truck now!” he said.

“I’m FDNY we’re going in.” I yelled back at him.

“I know who you are and you can’t leave that truck there,” the officer responded.

I could sense the urgency in his voice. Since I was just on the job two years at that time, I turned back to the other, more senior fire fighters for guidance.

They had already gone; I could see them all running off into the distance.

What I really want to tell the sons and the daughters, the wives and the loved ones of these “Unknown Heroes,” is this. I want to tell them I saw your dad. I saw your husband. I saw your brother. I saw someone you loved very much run into a burning building on September 11, 2001. I want you to know that these Unknown Heroes, these dads and husbands and brothers, were the bravest, most courageous men I have ever seen in my life.

I want you to know they did not flinch at the opportunity to save lives on that day. I want you to know that what I saw that day was pure heroism. I want you to know that the images of these Unknown Heroes, these great men, running into those burning buildings on that day still brings me to tears 10 years later.

But most importantly I want you to know how they got there that day. And I wanted you all to know how thankful and sorry I am.

Charles Wahren

Engine 3 Ladder 12 Battalion 7

High-Rise Unit One

FDNY Badge #670


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