Editor’s Note: The blocks in blue are excerpts from Jimmy Raftery’s writing about his experience on Sept. 11, 2001. He wrote extensively about the day in two installments the following year. He never sought publication. They are used with his permission.
The world stopped at 5 on Saturday evenings for Jimmy Raftery. He was a kid, and no matter what he was doing, he’d drop everything and turn on the family black-and-white TV to WPIX Channel 11.
The show Emergency! was the closest thing to the thrill he had watching FDNY Rescue Company 4 shooting down Queens Boulevard in New York City, New York (USA).1 The same went for his buddies. They’d spend hours imitating “Johnny” Gage and Roy DeSoto but, instead of the streets of Los Angeles (LA), they shifted their Emergency! to the rough and tumble of the Big Apple.
Not only the two paramedics grabbed Jimmy’s attention. There was also Dispatcher Sam Lanier, the Emergency! cast member never seen, yet always heard. “Could I do that, too?” Jimmy remembers asking himself.2 Could he be the cool, calm, collect voice of 911 dispatching responders to the scene? Could he make his role model proud?
Jump ahead. Jimmy is in his early 20s. He’s already a veteran of the United States Coast Guard. He wants to be a firefighter but fails the physical exam. So, he goes for the next best thing, an FDNY Fire Alarm Dispatcher “for the greatest fire department in the country,” said Jimmy, who comes from a long line of New York City civil servants. His father was a cop and his grandfather a corrections officer. His brother is a retired FDNY paramedic lieutenant. “Public service is in the blood. It’s the family business.”
Raftery gets hired as a fire alarm dispatcher for FDNY, first in Brooklyn, then the Bronx, and, finally, Manhattan. He’s been back in the Bronx since June 2013. He is still an Emergency! fan, and a good thing, especially since watching the TV show reruns on Sept. 12, 2001, brought him a small dose of comfort following the terrorist attacks a day earlier on Sept. 11, 2001.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself and what I do. I’m 28 years old and have been a Fire Alarm Dispatcher (FAD) for the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) since April 7,1997. My career [Probie training] began in the sub-basement of the Staten Island Fire Communications Central Office (C.O.) A dank pit that doubled as a bomb and fallout shelter, rather well hinted at by the watertight door at the stairs and the blast door just inside the boiler room.
Sept. 11, 2001
Jimmy was a calltaker in Manhattan that Tuesday morning.
I took a few calls here and there, nothing major, just a few activated fire alarms and one or two fires caused by careless cooking. All in all a slow morning. I don’t say routine or typical because in the fire service, there is no such thing.
At 8:20 a.m., he took a call for a gas leak in downtown Lower Manhattan. Engine 7, Ladder 1 was dispatched. Jules Naudet—in New York City filming a documentary of the firefighters—went along to film and was at a stop near the gas leak when a low-flying jet caught his attention.3 He tilted his camera up, capturing the images now known around the world. Not far from them, Engine 6 firefighters, on a medical run, heard the same sound above and watched as American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, cutting through floors 93 to 99.
The time was 8:46:40. Jimmy was among about 35 fire department 911 operators on duty that morning in five communications offices, including the Manhattan command at 79th Street in Central Park.4
Just when I think it’s gonna be just fine and today is gonna be a slow day, Engine 6 comes over the radio screaming, “Manhattan Transmit a Second Alarm!!! We just had a plane hit the Trade Center!!!!” The phone lines exploded.
“All hell broke loose,” Jimmy said. “The rest is history.”
Within minutes, New York City’s 911 system was flooded with eyewitness accounts. At 9:03 a.m., the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. More than 3,000 calls flooded the 911 system during those first 18 minutes.5 The South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., and the North Tower at 10:28 a.m. Another 55,000 calls came in during the next 24 hours.6
Someone clicked on the TV and we were greeted with a sight straight out of a movie like Armageddon. Instead of meteorites, it was a plane. I was at first surprised, could this have been an accident??
Jimmy Raftery tells his story
Retelling the event, the part he played, is still hard for Jimmy to talk about. His voice breaks. He pauses. They worked in a closed space, without a view to the outside, without knowledge of evacuation orders, and without knowing what exactly to tell their callers. He remembers details, the people he was working with, the Battalion numbers and their command, and entering information on manual system fire tickets for fear the CADs would go down. His mind raced as he kept taking calls.
“I answered a call from a guy trapped on the 105th floor [North Tower],” he said. “When you’re dealing with something like this, there’s no training that can prepare you, so I fell back on training about high rises. Stay where you are if you’re above the fire floor. If you are below the fire floor and you can get out, go.”
Caller desperation reached a crescendo. They were getting reports that people were jumping from the buildings. One person who jumped landed on Firefighter Daniel Suhr of Brooklyn’s’ Engine 216. He was killed instantly. There wasn’t anything the dispatchers could do for the callers trapped inside, except for giving the only instructions they knew how to give or trying to calm the extreme fear and anxiety.
A young lady called asking for help. She was in the Trade Center. I asked her what floor she was on. She said the fifty-first, in the stairs. I told her to get back to the floor and wait till someone came for her. I should have told her to keep going. I don’t know if she listened to what I said, and I don’t know if she made it either.
It went like this for nearly an hour, calls for help and me not being able to. Just telling them to wait for help and stuff towels under the door to keep the smoke out. Monsitah [Corney, a co-dispatcher] alone took seven calls from the same person, asking for help. Telling her to call his wife and telling her he loved her. Things were getting pretty desperate for these people, and I can’t imagine what it was like inside this hi rise hell.
Jimmy admits mistakes were made, and the ones he made, he owns. He’s not making excuses, but it was a no-win situation for dispatchers, firefighters, and police. His co-dispatchers were in tears. Their faces pale. Their minds shut down, working in auto pilot. Jimmy went outside and smoked a cigarette.
America was in distress. We got hit on a beautiful day. The two biggest buildings in New York City were now a one hundred plus foot pile of smoldering rubble. I looked up and saw what looked to be an Air Force F-15 fighter plane streaking south toward downtown. It was nice to see the flyboys heading in. Coming to the rescue?? Hardly. There wasn’t anything they could do. The rescuing was needed downtown, and I wasn’t sure that there was anything to rescue.
For a long time, Jimmy refused to talk about it, at least, in a way to counter his frustration or anger. The nightmares started the first chance he had to lay down for sleep. He “saw” the 11 firefighters he had personally known and who had perished rushing into the towers and up the stairs to save people trapped and unable to escape. He “talked” to them, interacted. Again and again, he “heard” the voices of frightened and distraught callers.
He was short-tempered, impatient. He easily lost focus, and this was a guy who prided himself on the natural ability to multitask and act as the center “go–to guy” from years of experience in his native New York City. He knew the streets, the shortcuts, and the routes to avoid.
Jimmy had changed. Always brusque and to the point, his edges were sharpening. His gruff manner got him “busted down” from supervising dispatcher to fire alarm dispatcher. The nightmares intensified. They didn’t go away.
Rescue 1 stopped by the office for coffee and cake. A great conversation. I went home later on and I saw David “Davey” Weiss in a dream. He was in his turnouts, covered in blood. He had a sad look on his face. I remember saying, “You’re dead, you’re not supposed to be here” Then screaming it at him. He just looked at me, sad, never spoke a word. I woke up in tears.
Weeks and months passed. Jimmy wasn’t feeling “fine.” Far from it. He sought help through counseling, writing about his experience, and the network of people who speak the language of public service. The network, he said, saved him. Rock-and-Roll Raftery, a nickname attached to his affinity with the air guitar, was returning to his old self. People do survive because of what he tells them.
In retrospect, he said the anxiety and depression were “absolutely” connected to 9/11, and the day brought his mental health issues to the forefront. The tragedy tore him apart.
Not a day has gone by in the past year that I don’t think about this day. For a lot of days I felt really guilty about things, I sent 343 members of the department to their deaths. I stopped feeling sorry for myself when someone slapped me upside my head and told me the same thing many others have said. Those guys were going anyway, nothing you could have done would have changed that.
It wasn’t just the one day or the days and weeks after 9/11. It was also the day-to-day cumulative effects of stress from talking to the firefighters on the radio and telling them what they are going into, based on what is being transmitted to the dispatchers via computer link from EMS and NYPD.
“Just because I’m on the phone, doesn’t mean I’m not there,” he said.
Through it all, Jimmy never contemplated leaving the profession. He considered going to another city—Los Angeles County, just like DeSoto, Gage, and Lanier—but ties to the east and the lower pay scale out west held him back. He knows, no matter where he goes, 9/11 will never leave him. How could the day—the events—escape his memory? It’s always there, in some way. The names of the deceased firefighters greet him every day on a plaque hanging at the entrance of the FDNY Bureau of Communications.
Jimmy will only go so far in keeping to the past. He never visited the “pile”—a 14.6-acre area of debris from the collapsed towers—or the pit, which was what it was called after workers got below street level. He never attended a 9/11 commemoration—such as the reading names of the deceased —and he had never stepped foot inside the 9/11 museum.
“Why should I?” he asked. “I lived it. I’m still having difficulty striking that balance between never forgetting and moving on. But I am learning how.”
In many ways, Jimmy has moved on. He received the Chief Thomas F. O’Brien award for his efforts on 9/11. Chief O’Brien died in October 1935 while fighting a fire in Manhattan. Jimmy is in the short line for a promotion. The nightmares ceased. He plans on attending the 20th anniversary at the 9/11 Memorial, although he doesn’t plan to stay long.
He is confident about the future and trusts in himself and his decisions.
“I’ve learned that my purpose is to be a servant to the public,” said Jimmy, now in his 24th year with FDNY Bureau of Fire Communications. “I’ve never done this for awards or glory. I like saying I work for the New York Fire Department. I like what I do.”
For the generation after me, those younger than I by a few years and now that I think of it, my generation too, those of my age who have children. The question will be, “Where were you on September 11th??” or, “Where were you when the towers fell??” Many stories to tell, many not yet written or spoken. Others have told, none will truly forget. I know that I will not.
1 Yokley R, Sutherland R. “Emergency!: Behind the Scenes.” Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2007. Page 361. Accessed from Google Books Aug. 30, 2021.
2 See note 1.
3 ”Sept. 11: Bearing Witness.” http://amhistory.si.edu/september11/collection/record.asp?ID=65 (accessed Aug. 31, 2021).
4 Baker A, Glanz J. “For 911 Operators, Sept. 11 Went Beyond All Training.” The New York Times. 2006; April 1. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/01/nyregion/for-911-operators-sept-11-went-beyond-all-training.html (accessed Aug. 31, 2021).
5 See note 3.
6 See note 3.