Beacon Hose members gathered around the firehouse on Sept. 11, 2001, and watched in horror as the tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania played out on television.
Throughout the next week, our department responded to America’s darkest day in a number of ways. The video below illustrates some of the sights and memories of Beacon Hose’s relief mission to Ground Zero on Sept. 12, 2001, and an oral history of that entire week.
Doug Bousquet was Beacon Hose’s chief. He was elected in 2000 as the 16th chief in department history.
BOUSQUET: I was working on the gable of a house in Woodbury when I got a call that a Piper Cub plane had hit the World Trade Center. Then I got another call later, and I knew something was going on. I went right to the firehouse, which became the emergency operations center for the town. (First Selectman) Sue Cable was there, the police, everyone. I think people were there for the next three days straight.
Joe Chew was a probationary member of the ambulance corps, and Jeremy Rodorigo was the EMS Director. They began planning Beacon Hose’s trip to New York late in the morning of Sept. 12.
CHEW: It all started at about 11 a.m. Jeremy and I were having lunch at the Beacon Falls Pizza Palace. He really didn’t know me well yet — only from taking his MRT course, since I was only in for less than a year. We just kept thinking, “What should we do?” I don’t remember whether it was him or me who came up with the idea to bring supplies down there. We asked the owners (of Beacon Falls Pizza, Tom and Irene) if they could help, and they gave us 20 large pizzas. Then Jeremy starting doing his Jeremy thing. He was on the phone setting up donations from Walmart in Naugatuck, Peter Paul in Naugatuck and Home Depot in Derby.
RODORIGO: We drove the ambulance to pick up supplies that we thought the workers at Ground Zero would need. These businesses told us to empty the shelves and take as much as we could fit in our vehicles.
CHEW: We pulled up to Peter Paul and they were giving us cases and cases of Mounds and Almond Joy. It got to the point where we couldn’t take any more.
Rodorigo and Chew weren’t the only Beacon Hose members to venture to Lower Manhattan. They were joined by Bousquet, Ambulance Coordinator Laura (Minnick) DeGeorge, Kurt Novak, Bill Gavrish and Karen Matyjasik. The group drove down early in the afternoon with BH-7 and the chief’s command vehicle, which were stocked with dust masks, work gloves, socks, shirts, underwear, candy, water and pizza.
RODORIGO: It looked like a war. Just broken buildings and rubber everywhere — vehicles on fire and people just kind of wandering around. They were trying to organize the supplies for distribution at the Javits Center (in Hell’s Kitchen, about 15 minutes away from Ground Zero), but there was trouble in coordinating the delivery from there to the scene. We didn’t know where to go, so we just started driving straight to Ground Zero.
BOUSQUET: There were guys stationed with guns at every exit and every checkpoint going into New York City.
CHEW: We were stopped at every checkpoint. They said we couldn’t go any further. Then we’d say, “Here, have a pizza,” or, “Mounds or Almond Joy?” and they’d wave us through.
BOUSQUET: As you’d get closer, the concrete dust got thicker and thicker. It went from one inch to two inches to six inches deep. We ended up one block away from the World Trade Center. I never thought we’d get that close.
RODORIGO: We parked just outside the perimeter of “the Pile,” which was what they called the heap left by the collapses. When we got there, it was a good thing that we did. Beacon Hose was one of the first few groups to get supplies to Ground Zero. It was as if we were handing out gold to the rescue workers. We were walking around ankle deep in debris and piles of stuff, and people were like, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
CHEW: The workers had nothing. They were clawing through metal with their bare hands, and they were all cut up. They were so glad that we had the gloves from Home Depot.
While Beacon Hose was passing out supplies, a series of blast sirens sounded to warn of an impending collapse of a weakened building near the scene.
RODORIGO: Thousands of people turned around and literally ran for their lives. Literally, it was a wall of people I’m looking at turn around and run full tilt at me.
BOUSQUET: Everyone just started running toward the water (of New York Harbor).
CHEW: I asked someone why there were air-raid sirens going off, and they started telling us to run. You couldn’t really run, though. With all the dust and debris, you could only run a short distance before that stuff was getting in your lungs. It was like you were walking on the moon. Every step you took, there was a cloud of dust. I just remember there were shoes everywhere — left shoe, right shoe. Leather survives a lot of things. There were windows popping out of buildings, and you had to watch out for glass shards raining down.
During the mass confusion of the sudden evacuation, Chew became separated from the other six Beacon Hose members.
CHEW: I was running down one alley next to a police officer. I didn’t know where I was, but I looked around and didn’t see any other Beacon Hose people. You have to remember that cell phones weren’t really a thing yet and there was no way of getting in contact with them. I started looking around for people wearing the Beacon Hose blue shirts with the EMS cross on the back, but there were a lot of people wearing the same type of blue shirts.
RODORIGO: That was the most scared I’ve been in my entire life. We didn’t know if he was dead or alive. The terror worked on me.
CHEW: I figured they would have to make a logical decision at some point to leave without me. You know, if you get there with seven people and come back with six, that’s not too bad.
BOUSQUET: There was no way we were leaving without him. Whether we were going to find Joe in one piece or five pieces, we weren’t leaving until we had him.
After several hours, Chew finally reunited with the group. They prepared to head back to town.
CHEW: I remember Dougie looking at me and saying, “I don’t know whether I want to punch you or hug you right now.” I just wanted to go home.
BOUSQUET: He was soaking wet. I mean, we could have wrung out his pants if we wanted to.
RODORIGO: We got back to our vehicles, which were still back near the site of the latest collapse. We were covered in dust, head to toe.
CHEW: We had to do a serious wash of the ambulance to get off all that toxic dust. (The box of that ambulance is the same one on our current BH-7.) People at the firehouse were coming up to me telling me they were there to talk if I needed it. I didn’t want to talk. When I got home, my mom came to the door and saw me completely covered in dust. I took off my clothes and my boots, put them in a garbage bag and left it outside.
While the group was working in New York City, the rest of Beacon Hose’s membership was working at the firehouse to plan further relief efforts and a tribute to the victims.
BOUSQUET: Al Beckwith was put in charge of planning an American flag painting on the front apron of the firehouse. Oxford Paint and Hardware donated all the supplies, and Al and Ted Smith were out there snapping lines to make sure everything was straight. It was amazing — we had members who usually wouldn’t talk to each other down on their hands and knees next to each other. We had trailer trucks dropping off water, all sorts of stuff, for days.
Members finished the flag painting by the end of Friday. A town-wide candlelight vigil was held around the painting on Saturday evening, and hundreds of residents attended. A candle was placed in each of the 50 stars. Despite residents’ admiration and Beacon Hose’s best intentions, the flag painting raised the ire of some officials.
BOUSQUET: I took a call from the Postmaster General’s office saying that it was a disgrace. I told them that it wasn’t a flag; it was the image of a flag. I think the governor’s office might have called, too. Even though we weren’t doing anything wrong, I still had the trucks turned around so that they only used the back doors and nobody would drive over the painting.
Now, each year on Sept. 11, Beacon Hose parks Rescue 4 on the front apron, lowers the flag to half-staff and displays a special flag to remember all the first responders who died on that day.