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9/11 firefighter went in without delay

At his kitchen counter, Tim Harrigan flipped through the yellowing, plastic pages of the scrapbook. Part is pictures he took at ground zero. The other part, clips of Newsday articles about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Ten years ago, he put the book together for his kids.

"I didn't know how long I was going to be around," he said. He didn't know if he'd get to tell them his story.

The 46-year-old husband, father of four and retired New York Fire Department lieutenant is tall and built, composed and matter-of-fact. He paused between pages. Until recently, the book had been in his attic.

"It's enough that it's on your mind all the time," he said.

He pointed at a picture of a void in the rubble of the World Trade Center's south tower.

"We rescued somebody out of this hole," he said.

He turned the page and pointed at another.

"That's where we were when Tower 7 collapsed."

• • •

Harrigan hovered over a desk at an office in Syossett, N.Y. The off-duty firefighter intended to spend Sept. 11, 2001, working his side job, fixing computers for businesses. While he worked, a colleague made an announcement: Two planes hit the World Trade Center, he said, and the fire department issued a total recall. Harrigan drove to his firehouse in Queens.

"We mustered at a park down the street from my firehouse," he said. There, he learned the twin towers had collapsed. He dressed in his turnout gear, put his fire department ID in his pocket and called his fiancee. Then he worked.

"We pulled over some city buses, took the civilians off, and (the bus drivers) took us into the city."

On the way, the firefighters planned for what might happen.

"Those of us who were thinking had written our Social Security numbers and our blood types on our arms," Harrigan said. "That concerned a lot of the younger guys."

By the time the bus got to Brooklyn, Harrigan could see the smoke.

"There was a lot of yelling to drive faster," he said.

The bus stopped near Broadway and Vesey. Harrigan slipped into his coat. He faced a wall of smoke and debris that covered lower Manhattan.

"If no one's coming out, you really shouldn't go in," Harrigan said. "No one was coming out."

He went in.

• • •

Harrigan scanned the horizon for survivors, but he saw ash and shoes and devastation.

"It was as if someone took a giant Erector Set and dumped it into a sandbox," he said.

Pulverized debris settled like dust on the city. Harrigan breathed it in. His mouth tasted like metal, but he worked. First, he built a triage inside Brooks Brothers for doctors from local hospitals. He searched for survivors in nearby buildings. He climbed into the gaps that had been windows in the twin towers. He crawled through crevices beneath them.

"The fire underground was so bad, our boots were melting," he said. That's where one of his colleagues found a survivor.

"I wasn't lucky enough to find him," Harrigan said. "But I was lucky enough to help carry him out."

He would be Harrigan's only live rescue.

"A lot of the time we spent there with five-gallon buckets of body parts," he said. He is desensitized to what traumatizes most people. His firehouse ranked second or third in the city for responding to car crashes, he said, so he'd seen plenty of people with missing limbs, plenty of death.

"Unfortunately, you have to get a little cold," at work, he said.

After 14 or 15 hours at ground zero, "we knew we had to go home," he said. So Harrigan and 30 or 40 other firefighters crashed at the firehouse. He doesn't like to talk about that night.

• • •

A week into recovery efforts, firefighters got paper masks to cover their mouths and noses. For months, Harrigan's work schedule rotated between regular duty and tours to ground zero.

Every day on his way into the city, Harrigan saw "people lined up along the Westside Highway, cheering us on like we were going to play a football game or something." He saw pictures of the missing plastered to power poles. "Look for my son," they read. "Look for my daughter."

While he searched the ruins, fathers and brothers of fallen first responders congregated. Strangers brought food for the workers. The Red Cross brought "comfort dogs" the workers played with during breaks. Each firehouse had a tent where workers could regroup. Nobody could get used to being there, Harrigan said. But until winter, being there was part of his job. Grief was part of his life.

When each shift ended, he talked to his fiancee about what he saw and did. He couldn't bottle up what he felt, he said, even if expressing it broke him down.

"One day at a gas station, some old man walked over to me and gave me a hug," he said. "I was wearing one of my (FDNY) jackets on my way to or from work." The man's gesture moved Harrigan so deeply, he said, "I couldn't even drive my car after that."

When his tours to ground zero ended, he didn't go back for more than a year. One day, "I had to be downtown for something," he said. So he stopped at the site, alone.

"I could smell it again," he said. "Explosion and death." He is sure it was all in his head. "That smell gets stuck in your sinuses," he said, "and, obviously, in your brain."

He didn't stay long.

• • •

Life went on, and Harrigan's days looked more like usual: putting out apartment fires and cutting crash victims out of cars. He married his fiancee in 2003. He got a tattoo in memory of the 343 FDNY firefighters who died on Sept. 11, two of them friends and seven or eight acquaintances. He had his motorcycle painted to match his tattoo.

Harrigan developed a cough he couldn't kick, a cough he knew came from what he breathed at ground zero. A doctor said it would go away eventually. But when Harrigan responded to a chemical spill in the basement at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, Queens, something happened that hadn't before.

"I couldn't catch my breath," he said. When he couldn't stop coughing, he went to the emergency room. With the shape his lungs were in, a doctor said, Harrigan had to stop fighting fires.

"I begged the doctors to put me back to work," he said. So they did. But the symptoms didn't stop. He went back to the doctor and got a diagnosis: reactive airway disease.

"Me and a thousand other guys" who worked at ground zero have it, he said. "On top of that, most of us have chronic acid reflux."

Dr. Eli Freilich, pulmonologist and medical director of respiratory care services at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, said reactive airway disease is a combination of airway inflammation and bronchospasm. It causes chest congestion, coughing and wheezing, he said, and debris such as what workers inhaled at ground zero can cause it. What firefighters face on a regular basis — smoke and fumes — exacerbates it.

So Harrigan returned to work in limited duty. The fire department promoted him to lieutenant. He drove his chief to fires, taught civilian fire safety classes and worked as an office manager. When FDNY firefighters had to have pulmonary function tests, he complied. Harrigan knew anyone who didn't pass would have to retire. He didn't pass.

"I wanted to retire a captain, to outrank my dad," who is a retired FDNY lieutenant, he said. But Harrigan had to retire in 2006, before he could.

"That was miserable," he said. "I felt guilty. I knew people in worse shape than me and guys who were killed, and here I am, feeling bad because I'm losing my career."

• • •

Harrigan misses fighting fires, he said, "every single day." But life went on. He and his wife, Denise Harrigan, 45, moved to Trinity in 2009 with their son Tristan, now 6. In 2010, they adopted their daughter, Alyssa, 3, from China. Harrigan's children from a previous marriage, Tim Jr., 21, and Christy, 17, still live in New York.

Florida's weather is better for his breathing, he said. He takes medication and avoids what irritates his lungs: fireworks, too much barbecue smoke and woodworking (because of the dust).

He sells wine through FillMyWineRack.com. He mentors youth at Generations Church and coaches soccer in the spring. He has spoken about Sept. 11 for students at Fivay High School in Hudson.

He has told his children his story.

"Sometimes," he said, "I tell my kids I hope the things I had to do and see are things you'll never have to do or see."

Arleen Spenceley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.

9/11 firefighter went in without delay 09/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 11, 2011 8:00pm]
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