Future Reflections                                                                                          Spring, 2002

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September 11, 2001: Ground Zero

By John Salka and Liz Regan

Bob Regan
Bob Regan

Editor’s Note: John Salka and Bob Regan have much in common. Hardworking family men with strong ethnic roots (John is Polish/Italian Catholic and Bob is Irish-Catholic), they love their families and take pride in their jobs as New York City firemen. When tragedy strikes, they don’t go into shock or waste time lamenting—they act. The similarities don’t end there. Both are the fathers of  blind daughters— Coleen Salka, age 8; and Kerri Regan, age 15 —and both are long-time members and staunch supporters of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). John Salka served for a time as a national board member of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), and Bob was a source of  strength and support for his wife, Liz, when she organized the NOPBC chapter in Long Island some years ago. And yes, both worked with rescue teams at Ground Zero on September 11, and in the recovery mission in the days and weeks that followed They are heroes. Real heroes. Not the glitzy heroes of Hollywood or fairy tales, but men who see their duty, and do it without fanfare or expectation of reward or glory. I am proud to know them, and I am grateful they were willing to share something of their personal experiences of that tragic event with us Here are their stories as told by John Salka and Liz ReganLiz Regan:

Liz Regan: It was my first day back to work after a month-long vacation at home with my family. This was a good time. Kerri, 14-year-old daughter, and Matt, our 11 year-old son, had started at their new schools and were happily settling in.

As for my husband Bob and I, like many couples, we have a juggling act at home. We are very fortunate to enjoy our careers and the flexibility they provide. I am a flight attendant for US Airways, and Bob is a Lieutenant for the New York Firefighters Division in the Field Communications Unit. We work around each other’s schedules to be home with our children.

September 11 was my day to return to work. After Kerri and Matt went off to school, Bob went off to his favorite pastime, GOLF. He had a beautiful day with a great vista of the New York skyline and JFK airport. It was just after 8:45 a.m., and he could see a great deal of smoke coming from the World Trade Center. He thought they had a fire.

I was on my return flight back to LaGuardia Airport in New York from Washington, D.C., and was remarking to the passengers about the beautiful day we had. Upon landing, many passengers started talking on their cell phones, exiting off the airplane in an abrupt manner, and shouting to me “The World Trade Center has been hit by an aircraft, and we saw it happen.” Before too much time, flights were cancelled, the airport closed, and then was quickly evacuated.

I called my family, and they were happy to hear from me. I learned that Bob had seen the disaster and went into the site to do his job. A total recall for all emergency personal to report to the site was announced over the airwaves in New York. We did not hear from him for many hours. Early Wednesday morning Bob called. With a weak voice he said, “This is what the end of the world must look like.”

Bob did not come home for the next few days. He spent many days around the clock in helping organize the recovery at Ground Zero. His unit continued to work there for weeks after September 11. It was an extremely sad and stressful time for everyone involved and one we will never forget.

The months go by, but the loss that families feel remains. As we write this, Bob prepares for one more memorial service for a fallen firefighter. I am presently on a leave of absence from the airlines.

We grieve for those families who lost loved ones in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. They are in our prayers

John Salka: On the morning of September 11th, 2001, at about 8:40 a.m., I was just arriving at an auto repair shop with my truck, a few miles from my home in Monroe, New York. A friend of mine called me on my cell phone to tell me that a plane had hit the World Trade Towers. We tuned the TV to a news channel, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The reporters were saying that possibly a small plane had hit the building, but I could tell from the fire, smoke, and amount of damage to the building that this was no small plane. As I watched the coverage on the TV, I saw another plane flying by in the distance and disappear behind the two towers. Suddenly a gigantic explosion and fireball appeared on the second tower; the second plane had struck the second World Trade Center tower.

I immediately left the repair shop and started driving toward my firehouse in New York City. I remember driving fast—really fast. As I drove, other cars driven by firefighters joined me on the road and we all sped toward New York to help. I arrived at my firehouse in the Bronx and it was empty. I immediately grabbed my firefighting clothing—helmet, boots, flashlight, and several bottles of water—and went to another firehouse where hundreds of off-duty firefighters were assembling. After documenting who was there we loaded up a city bus and several fire department vehicles and left for the site of the disaster.
John Salka(right) at ground zero
John Salka (right) at Ground Zero

By now, both towers had collapsed and the scene was one of total destruction. The air was thick with dust and smoke and with the exception of the buildings that surrounded the site; there was nothing but mountains of debris and several smaller buildings with fire raging on 3 or 4 floors. I had a radio with me so I could hear the company number of a friend of mine, Ladder 6. This is the Ladder Company that miraculously survived the collapse and was trapped inside the stairwell for 5 hours. They had slowed their escape from the building to save a woman who was unable to move as fast as they wanted, and in doing so she helped save them. Many other firefighters and I attempted to locate these firefighters via many different avenues. They were finally located and removed about two in the afternoon. What followed was almost 12 hours of continuous work: searching voids, digging through debris, and removing the injured and dead. In the course of those hours, another 30-story building collapsed, and the magnitude of the situation began to become apparent. I left that night sometime after midnight and returned every day for a good part of the first week. After the first day not many victims were removed alive, yet we have been working there around the clock since September 11 until this very moment. Several thousand civilians and 343 firefighters were killed that day. I personally knew 60 of the 343 men from the fire department who lost their lives. I was proud to be involved or present for the recovery or removal of many of my friends from that site The support and prayers that we received from people all over the country were welcomed and needed. I would like to thank anyone who called, prayed, or sent notes, food, money, or condolences

Editor’ Note: To the best of our knowledge, none of our NOPBC and NFB members were killed or injured physically due to the terrorists’ attacks. However, a number of blind people suffered economic hardship as a consequence. Three blind vendors had facilities in the World Trade Center, and others had businesses nearby. All were severely affected by the tragedy. The National Federation of the Blind
responded to the need, and provided disaster relief through financial assistance to the blind people who were caught up in these
life-changing events.

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