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For former New York fire dispatcher, memories of 9/11 are etched forever

BROOKSVILLE

John Lightsey reported for duty at central dispatch for the New York City Fire Department at 7 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

He didn't go home for four days.

Fifteen years later, Lightsey still beats himself up over the fact that he dispatched to the World Trade Center that day some of his firefighter friends who never made it home after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

For Lightsey, then 46, and seven fellow fire dispatchers, that Tuesday morning started as nothing special — a couple of medical calls for assistance.

"It was very quiet," the career firefighter recalled last week from his office at Hernando County Fire Rescue headquarters, where he now works as the inventory officer.

Then everything changed.

"The first call came in from Battalion 1 in Manhattan, close to the Trade Center," Lightsey said.

The call concerned an aircraft colliding with the center's North Tower, a 110-story edifice looming over lower Manhattan.

"I was a little shocked," Lightsey said. "I didn't know at that time the extent of things."

The "extent" ultimately encompassed the collapse of the twin North and South Towers of the World Trade Center after they were hit by hijacked commercial aircraft. Another plane smacked the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and a fourth plane crashed in a rural field outside Shanksville, Pa. A total of 2,996 people were killed, and more than 6,000 were injured. Property and infrastructure loss was estimated at $10.6 billion. Total cost: $3 trillion.

The event became the deadliest incident in U.S. history for firefighters and law enforcement: 343 firefighters killed in action, 72 law enforcement officers lost.

In destroying so many and so much, 19 hijackers affiliated with al-Qaeda gave birth to America's war on terror.

• • •

Until now, Lightsey, 61, has not told his entire story publicly. He retired from the New York City Fire Department in 2013. He plans to retire "for good" on Oct. 7.

As he spoke during a recent interview, he paused and swallowed frequently, tilting his head occasionally to fight back tears.

"I'm not going there. No, not going there," he said more than once.

"It was 8-something (a.m.)," Lightsey recalled. "8:56 maybe?"

American Airlines Flight 11, out of Boston, exploded into the North Tower at 8:45 a.m. that day.

"Once Battalion (1) announced it, we automatically transmitted it as a second-alarm fire," Lightsey said. "That brought 40 fire trucks out. With the first picture, I thought it was a small little plane (that struck the North Tower)."

Other dispatchers thought likewise, going about their jobs in a diligent but non-panicked manner.

The pictures were transmitted from cameras in the vicinity.

"From that point on, it just progressed to a fifth alarm when the second plane hit (the South Tower)," Lightsey said.

At 9:03 a.m., United Flight 175, also out of Boston, crashed and detonated on impact with the South Tower. The subsequent alarm summoned some 200 trucks from all five boroughs of the city.

Said Lightsey: "We didn't realize the magnitude till everybody showed up. (Then) we realized this wasn't going to be smooth."

Frantic phone calls soon poured into the dispatch center.

"We had people calling in from the floors above the fire floors," the flames spreading from points of aircraft impact — the 80th story at the North Tower and near the 60th at the South Tower.

"We'd relay to the command post how many people were up there," based on pleas from stranded callers, he said. "We told them to stay where they are. If we could get there, we would.

"All the stairwells were full of fire from the airplanes themselves," Lightsey said. "The fuel they carried — they were full. Furniture inside would keep the fires going."

The dispatchers — fully trained firefighters themselves — soon faced unvarnished reality.

"We were making judgment calls," Lightsey said, then paused. "We didn't report calls above the fire floors because we knew they weren't going to survive."

In the dispatch center, emotionally stunned workers labored on robotically.

"We assigned (fire) companies to certain areas, directed units all around and had to direct fire units around the city at the same time. You were kind of hoping nothing anywhere else would happen."

Lightsey called his family on Long Island to tell them he was safe. He tried to sleep off and on for the days he remained on the job.

"When you lay down, your mind's traveling too much," he said. "You want to get up and do something."

Others at the Fire Department were eager to help as well, he said.

"I had quite a few friends who went down there. They'd call up and say, 'Send us down there. We want to go.'

"Watching it on TV, everything going on, you just knew when they did roll call, you had a pretty good idea ... ," he said, his voice trailing off.

"A lot of them didn't come back."

• • •

The horror didn't end for the kid who always wanted to be a firefighter, who volunteered with a unit on Long Island before being hired by FDNY at age 36. (An injury he suffered as a volunteer is why he opted for dispatch.)

Referring to Sept. 12, he said, "The next day we had firefighters' kids, wives calling in when (their kin) hadn't come home. You just knew. A couple wives I knew called me, and I couldn't tell them. I'm still trying to deal with it, the guilt sending them down there. I know it was their job. But you can hear their voices. You get nightmares a lot."

As crews continued to sift through the rubble at ground zero, Lightsey went to the site.

"I just wanted to help, to work on the pile. I had to do something. The rubble — you can't imagine. One hundred and ten stories on top. There were fires still burning under there. The smells, you don't forget. You could hear passive alarms going off, the alarms on fire packs the men wore."

Terrible. "It was. It still is," he said.

Surviving emergency personnel were offered counseling.

"To this day," said Lightsey, "I still get treated for (post-traumatic stress syndrome), lung problems, acid reflux, all that stuff."

He said he didn't consider leaving his job until years later.

"I had problems doing my job," he said. "I'd hesitate. I hesitated too many times, and I knew I had to leave. Every day, I was reminded of things."

In January 2013, while visiting relatives in the Tampa Bay area, a friend mentioned a job opening advertised by Hernando County Fire Rescue. Lightsey applied, though he made it clear he didn't want to be a dispatcher.

He returned home to a New York City snowstorm. "I turned in my (retirement) papers the next day," he said.

He was offered and soon started the inventory job in Hernando.

The divorced father of three adult daughters has served with Hernando Fire Rescue ever since.

"It seems things here got a little more relaxed," he mused last week. "The guys in the fire department here know what I've been through. They're all supportive, really a big help."

He remarried, a Tampa woman who is a native of the Dominican Republic. When he takes his second retirement next month, he and his wife, Miriam, will visit the Dominican and plan to travel elsewhere as well.

Lightsey said he returned to New York City earlier this year and visited both the 9/11 memorial and new museum at ground zero.

He said he found the exhibits "very informative," but said "it made me really nervous and a little upset — a lot upset. It brought back a lot of memories."

Those memories, he said, included the loss of "12 best friends, and I knew almost 25 or 30 others."

As the 15th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Lightsey said the memories of that time and those who died will be with him forever.

He attends church now.

"I go there," he said, "and I always think about them."

Contact Beth Gray at graybethn@earthlink.net.

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