After 9/11 horror, first responder seeks peace in Spring Hill

SPRING HILL

Rich Russell started running toward the smoking towers, then stopped.

A supervising dispatcher for the New York City Fire Department, Russell realized he'd left his portable radio and badge in his department-issue Ford sedan. He grabbed both.

Then something else occurred to him. He found a piece of paper and blue marker and penned a message to his wife, Barbara.

I love you with all of my heart. Take care of the kids.

He left the note and his wallet in the trunk and started running south on West Street.

Shortly thereafter in Queens, Barbara Russell watched her television with horror as the World Trade Center towers fell in a crush of steel and debris. The mother of three knew that her husband had rushed to the scene, and she began to prepare herself for the possibility that he wouldn't be coming home.

Rich Russell did come home that night and went back to work the next day. But months later, Barbara convinced her husband to accept what both of them knew: We need to leave the city we love to start a new life for the family we love more.

So they did what so many New Yorkers have done before them — they moved to Spring Hill.

Rich Russell, 42, is now an emergency management specialist for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. Ten years later, the emotions from the 9/11 terrorist attacks are still raw. Some days he finds himself crying in the shower, and he rarely tells the story. He keeps repeating the sentiment he has been telling himself for a decade:

"As powerful of an experience as it was for me and my family, it was minute compared to what others did," he said last week. "It was hard on me, but it wasn't the end of my life."

• • •

A native of Queens and the youngest of six children, Russell grew up in the Broad Channel volunteer fire station, where his dad served as a fire chief for 23 years.

Russell moved to St. Petersburg with his parents when they retired. He graduated from St. Petersburg High and promptly moved back to New York.

"I thought I was missing something," he said.

He was working for the Broad Channel department on Feb. 26, 1993, when a truck bomb exploded in a parking garage under the Trade Center's north tower. Russell, 23 at the time, pulled dozens of people out of the building that day, including a man buried in the basement who died in his arms.

The day of the Trade Center bombing was supposed to be his first date with Barbara Hunt. She saw Russell more than once on television as she watched live news coverage of the bombing with her father on Long Island.

"That's the guy I'm going out with tonight," she recalls telling her father. "Dad said, 'I don't think he's going to show up,' and he did."

Instead of going out, though, she cooked them dinner at her house. They got engaged six weeks later and married that December.

Barbara had to get used to sharing her husband with his duties as a first responder. They had plans to party with friends on their first New Year's Eve as a married couple, but when the clock struck midnight, Barbara found herself sitting in the car while Rich worked a house fire.

By 1995, Russell was ready to start a family and took a dispatcher job with the city fire department. By fall of 2001, the Russells had a 6-year-old daughter and two young sons.

Rich Russell was at his mother-in-law's house on Long Island the morning of Sept. 11, preparing a bottle in the kitchen to calm his crying 8-month-old son, Jimmy. The first plane had already hit the World Trade Center. He heard his mother-in-law gasp in the living room.

Russell came in to see a fire erupting from the second tower and handed Jimmy to his grandmother. Within the hour, he was parking on West Street, about three blocks north of the towers.

• • •

As he made his way south, Russell noticed that firefighters and police officers were running toward him, away from the scene. When he realized the south tower was collapsing, he turned around and ran with them.

Overcome by the dust and the exertion, Russell passed out. Footage of that moment is included in the A&E documentary 102 Minutes That Changed America Russell lying on his back in a dark blue FDNY T-shirt, gasping for air as a paramedic places an oxygen mask over his face. He recovered, headed back to the north tower and started guiding people to safety.

He saw a man, dressed in a suit and covered in dust and blood, standing in a still-intact portion of the fallen tower. Russell extended his hand, but the man, clearly in shock, stood frozen.

Then, from the corner of his eye, Russell saw firefighters running out of the north tower as it started to collapse. The man in the suit still wouldn't move, so Russell dove under a nearby rescue truck. The street grew dark with dust, then eerily silent.

His mind has replayed that moment during many sleepless nights.

"If I didn't pull away, I wouldn't have made it, either," he said. "I do have guilt that when it was time to run, I ran."

Russell's car became a temporary command post. By the afternoon, he was finally able to get a call through on his cell phone to let Barbara know he was okay.

For the next several hours, Russell collected gear of firefighters presumed dead and stowed it in his car, then helped staff a mobile command truck when it arrived. He was told to go home and be back by 6 a.m.

He walked into the house and hugged Barbara for a long time. His daughter Meagan cried and asked him not to go back. He could only promise he'd be safe when he did.

"He left part of him there, but he came home," Barbara Russell said last week.

The adrenaline of the first day gave way to nausea on the second, and Russell found himself doubled over, vomiting in the street. Instead of searching for victims, Russell was assigned a task that was as difficult in a different way.

He sat in a room with a reel-to-reel recorder, listening to the tapes of the previous day's radio transmissions for clues that might lead to survivors still trapped in the rubble. When the media started calling, asking for 911 calls, Russell went through those tapes, too.

Those calls haunt him as much as the carnage he witnessed after the towers fell. Frantic office workers described colleagues on fire or jumping out of windows. One woman called from the south tower to report a plane heading right toward her. Her last words before the line went dead: Oh, my God.

Russell was then told to transcribe the radio traffic. He spent weeks scrutinizing the chaotic sounds of firefighters' last moments.

"You had to play it over and over again to try not to miss anything," he said.

Two months after the attacks, American Airlines Flight 587 broke apart over Rockaway, N.Y., about a mile from the Russells' house. Officials feared a terrorist plot had caused the crash, which killed all 260 passengers on board and five people on the ground. They later learned it was a mechanical malfunction.

Responding to the scene of burning wreckage and houses, Russell remembers feeling relieved that the casualties weren't so high compared to the World Trade Center.

"We were so hardened," he said.

• • •

A few months later, the Russells came to Disney World to use free passes provided by the park as a thank you gift to New York City police and fire personnel. They visited Russell's mother in Spring Hill before heading north again.

All five of Russell's siblings were living in Florida by then. Barbara decided it was time for her family to come, too. She was starting to see in her husband the signs of a man being consumed by a job he loved.

"For me, the selfish part was that he wouldn't be in danger," Barbara said.

To her surprise and to his own, he agreed. Given the cost of living, the decision also made financial sense. They moved about six months later.

"And I've been at this field ever since, right?" Russell said last week to son Richie, now 13, as they sat with Barbara on the bleachers after baseball practice at Anderson Snow Park.

Jimmy, now 10, plays on the team, too. Both boys go to Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, and Meagan, 16, plays varsity volleyball at Springstead High.

Rich did construction work at first, and Barbara got a good-paying job selling pools. Sensing an opportunity, she asked Rich to stay home and be Mr. Mom for a while. He did for three years, and as Barbara's sales soared, he got to coach the kids' baseball and softball teams.

But the children noticed a change in their father each year around the time the Sept. 11 anniversary television specials started to air.

"When I was little, I thought he'd survived something like Superman," Richie said. Eventually, he grew old enough to know why his father cried when he watched the TV specials.

Russell joined the Sheriff's Office communications department in 2007 and took his current job last year. He throws all of his energy behind the work, helping oversee the Community Emergency Response Team program, among a host of other duties, said emergency manager coordinator Mark Tobert.

"I call him our Energizer Bunny," Tobert said.

The physical effects from Russell's days in New York linger. He was diagnosed with restrictive lung disease shortly after moving to Hernando County and is part of a program of Mt. Sinai Medical Center to monitor Sept. 11 responders exposed to the toxic air. His once-chronic cough has eased.

Russell has never been back to ground zero and has never attended a 9/11 ceremony.

"I just never had the strength to go," he said.

Barbara wants him to try this year, another step in a long process toward a sense of closure that might never come. If he does, it will probably be today's ceremony at VFW Post 10209 in Spring Hill.

"To me, he's a hero," Barbara said. "To my kids, he's a hero. To himself … ?"

She looked toward center field, then shook her head.

"No. To him, the heroes are the guys who died, and that's hard to swallow."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

After 9/11 horror, first responder seeks peace in Spring Hill 09/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 11:17pm]

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