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A Survivor’s Story: 20 Years after September 11th

Bobby Senn
Bobby Senn

On September 11, 2001, I was a 33-year-old fireman in Brooklyn, New York, in the eighth year of what I had planned to be a 25- to 30-year career with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). I was young, very healthy and had a great life. The summer had just ended and what we call “fire season” was coming as the fall season brought colder temperatures and that brought more fires and work for us. Things were very good, and I was in the prime of my life.

At 8:46 am that beautiful Tuesday morning, everything immediately changed. Within 102 minutes, every dream, ambition, and desire I had as fireman, husband, and family man had been completely upended. Thousands were dead and or missing, including over 100 of my friends. Friends from grammar school who worked in the World Trade Center (WTC). Friends from high school. Fellow firemen and police officers. Hell had come to earth and taken up residence in lower Manhattan. What I saw and felt that morning, I wish upon no one.

The following is an extremely abridged version of my morning. To narrate the entire thing would literally take 100-plus pages.

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The companies from my Brooklyn firehouse arrived as the second plane crashed into the South Tower. We navigated through the area with the intention of getting to the North Tower as that was our assigned destination. In the simplest terms, it was raining bodies. People forced to jump from 1,000 feet above due to the intense heat and smoke. It was a war zone. Bodies slamming into the street and exploding. Glass and steel raining down upon us. We all wound up getting separated amidst the debris falling, people evacuating, and the chaos.

Eventually, we made it to the lobby of the North Tower, and I found myself unable to find any of the men from my firehouse. Later, I found out they had come in and were immediately sent upstairs. The chief I was with wound up at the command post outside on West Street. The radios were jammed with urgent messages, and it was almost impossible to get a message out. I lingered in the lobby of the North Tower trying to reconnect with my firehouse members.

Father Mychal Judge, the department chaplain, was with me. A distress call known as a “Mayday” went out over the radio for a firefighter with deadly injuries. Father Judge wanted to get to this man and be by his side. As we discussed and looked for a safe way to get him out of the building and over to the injured brother fireman, the South Tower collapsed. The intensity of the collapse sent a shock wave through the lobby of the North Tower and blew us all off our feet. I landed behind the lobby desk and was immediately buried up to my armpits in debris and was unable to breathe due to the thickness of the dust.

A few of us managed to dig our way out and find the street. The street looked like a blizzard of dust with visibility almost zero. As I reached the corner of Vesey and West Streets—without warning—the North Tower collapsed on top of us in the street. Once again, I was blown off my feet and buried face down against a parking lot fence. Once again, I dug myself out and then crawled three city blocks until a police officer found me and dragged me to daylight.

The remainder of the day was filled with terrible sadness and uncertainty. We tried looking for survivors in the debris and collapse. By 5:00 pm, I was unable to see as the dust had burned my eyes, and I needed to seek medical care. I was taken to a local hospital where they treated me for a number of other injuries as well. I finally made it back to my firehouse at midnight.

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The next nine months were like Groundhog Day. Funerals, working the firehouse, digging at the WTC, and helping families of those we had lost. The constant sadness, pain, and grief began to take its toll on many of us. It took me until May of 2003 to acknowledge that trying to tough it out and just “go back to life” wasn’t working. Nightmares, flashbacks, anger, sadness, and the tremendous loss of so many friends became unbearable. I had hit my breaking point and realized that I needed help—help beyond anything family or friends could provide. I began seeing a therapist and began a journey that still continues today. Weekly sessions finding a path through the darkness of depression, the terrible throws of anxiety, and the horrible pain of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

For the longest time, I thought I was only one of very few who suffered the emotional injuries that came with September 11th. At this 20th anniversary, I am now one of thousands of people who have come to deal with these invisible injuries. I’m beyond thankful that I found a therapist who not only understood 9/11 but understood firemen and how we think and act. Working with him and another therapist not only saved my life, but also led me to helping others find peace in their own pain and struggles. I’ve been traveling the country speaking to groups of people about traumatic stress. I’ve been blessed to spend time with thousands of military personnel, nurses, police officers, teachers, mass shooting victims, and others about being a victim, surviving, and then thriving again. I’ve taken an epic tragedy and tried to make something good come out of it.

Unfortunately, but not unexpected, emotional injuries weren’t the only pain to come from 9/11. Thousands of us are struggling with the physical injuries and illnesses that have come from that that toxic dust. As I write this, the number of those who have died from illness following 9/11 is surpassing the number killed that terrible morning. About 13 years ago, I was diagnosed with asthma, then reactive airway disease or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) a few years later. That was followed by chronic sinus conditions that have required two surgeries. A few years ago, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) started. Thankfully, all are treatable with a lot of medications and lifestyle changes, but none the less all life changing.

I was forced to retire very early compared to what I had planned. I can no longer go out and run three miles and enjoy it. Exercise is a must to stay ahead of all the steroid medications and other treatments I’m taking. I don’t get to enjoy sitting by a fire pit with friends as all it does is make me cough and wheeze. I must really pay attention to a simple head cold as it turns into pneumonia in a matter of days if I don’t get ahead of it.

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Regardless of all this, my life is not all bad. I get to see my wife of almost 25 years every day. I get to see or speak with my nieces and nephews. I get to play golf (terribly) and still see my friends. I get to feel the sun on my face and enjoy a breezy afternoon on the porch. I’ve gotten to travel the country, help and hug some great people who are struggling through their own journey. All in all, I’m a very lucky man.

It’s 20 years after our darkest day as a country since Pearl Harbor. Recently I’ve been asked about what this anniversary means. To be honest, it’s just another day to me. I don’t need a reminder or a number or a time frame. Every day I see something or someone that reminds me of a lost friend or brother fireman. Every day when I start my medication routine, every day when I see clear blue skies or an airliner go overhead, that triggers a very quick trip back to that terrible morning and the months afterwards. Every church I pass reminds of one of the hundreds of funerals I went to.

The 20th anniversary of September 11th is not for me—it’s for you. It’s a day to spend with your kids because my dead comrades can’t. A day to have ice cream for dinner to make your kids smile. A day to sit out on your front porch and watch the sun go down with the flag of our nation blowing in the breeze. A day to have a beer with and hug the comrades in your life. A day to teach the young that on a beautiful sunny Tuesday morning so long, yet such a short time ago, regular men and women went about their daily lives and suddenly, in an instant—it all changed. Trust me, for most, you’ll never know when your last day will be. I’ve been granted a second life, and I’m eternally thankful for every single moment. I wish you all peace.


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