FDNY Eye Witness of 9/11

Twin Towers Down in New York

When it was learned that New York City First Responders were not invited to the 10th Anniversary Memorial Ceremonies at the World Trade Center, many people were surprised. Their exclusion opened old wounds for those Ground Zero rescuers—the forgotten witnesses.

One such firefighter was Sean Francis Hickey, one of the first on the scene. Hickey, a retired FDNY Ladder 144 Firefighter, now lives in California. In a recent exclusive interview, Hickey recalled his personal experience with the event that would forever change our world.

“I awoke on my first day of vacation in Bayside, New York City and took an early morning stretch. I said, ‘What a beautiful day.’ My brother Bert called and told me we were attacked. Attacked! I turned on the TV and saw the smoldering building—the first one hit. I said, ‘goodbye,’ and ‘I love you.’ to my wife and children, but when I said goodbye to my firefighter brother, it was another thing altogether. I knew it could be the last day for both of us. My brother was trained in terrorism fire tactics. He knew the possibility of biological and chemical devices, and knew there could be much more than just fires. I rushed to my fire house in Queens, and was told to drive to Shea Stadium to be bused to the World Trade Center. I was in a bus with eight guys with a police escort to 11th Avenue, ten to twelve blocks to Westside Highway.”

Hickey then turned the inside of his left arm, showing how he identified himself in case of the worst. “I took some photos of the guys on the bus, and then with a marker pen, wrote my name ‘Hickey’ on my arm. When the lieutenant heard the guys laughing, he told them to do the same. We all knew we may die that day.”

When Hickey’s group arrived at the World Financial Center, they entered the WFC3 to get to the Command Center where Chief of Department Commissioner William Feehan had set up under the catwalk between the Twin Towers on Westside Highway. “By the time we started the search both buildings were down. Street sidewalks were makeshift morgues,” said Hickey. Their mission was to find Feehan. Sean Hickey knew the 71-year old Chief—he was a neighbor and had been with the department over forty years. When they entered the building, Chief Tori told Hickey to stay within shouting distance because they knew the city-issued handy-talkie radios did not work at close range.

The group of nine firefighters, on a mission to find Feehan, passed through steel doors and descended four stories down the stairs to the garage, feeling for each step in the pitch dark. Water from broken sprinkler systems and main pipes was flooding the basement. There was a real fear that the water could be electrically charged from exposed wires. The firemen had no respirators or radios, but were protected in knee-high rubber boots. In higher water they could be electrocuted. Hickey, thinking the water was only ankle-deep, stepped off the five-foot high loading dock into waist-high water. Fortunately, the water was not electrically charged. Others followed.

As they waded through the pitch-dark garage, Hickey discovered the bodies of fallen comrades—dead firefighters. “I stood there, just me and God,” Hickey remembered. The other firefighters followed Hickey’s flashlight and waded towards him. They climbed over piles of smoking twisted metal and debris, once a towering building. “Sean, we were the first ones out,” a firefighter friend, Mark Klinger, later told him.
Hickey knew so many others who perished that awful day. “Father Mychal Judge was among the first to die, one of the first brought out—the chaplain was my friend. Chiefs Bill Feehan and Peter Ganci had also died when the 110-story South Tower fell.”


“A HERO IS A SANDWICH”
Some historical accounts have been sanitized, stressing healing, hope and forgiveness. Journalists were given tips on “9-11 Healing and Remembrance Programs,” being told to mitigate eye-witness accounts; to not state the number of dead, thus whitewashing much of the truth by avoiding graphic images.

Sean Hickey showed me Ground Zero photos. They are not “media” images, but what was seen through the eyes of a firefighter who was there. “The other firefighters who had beaten us to the Twin Towers were already dead; our group in the garage miraculously survived. We got out of the building and climbed over the hot smoking rubble, thirty feet high, strewn with the dead, pieces of people. Nothing was recognizable. It was a field of grey dust, ash and smoldering debris—surreal, like being on the moon. I was overwhelmed. I got on my knees and prayed for all those who had died.”

For the rest of the day, seventeen straight hours, the only people Sean and his team found were dead firemen—many crushed under the rigs they drove when the towers came down. The rescue team found no one to rescue. They carried buckets roaming over the site, finding dismembered body parts. Hickey was close friends with twenty-seven firefighter brothers who died that day. They were friends from Queens and The Bronx—none of them were ever found.
He and his rescue team came upon Fire Department bunker gear under a crushed truck telling him it belonged to a Fire Captain. He decided not to read the name on the captain’s bunker coat when he saw the man’s condition. He did not want to know the name of the broken man that will haunt his memory. Hickey pulled the body from under the heavy steel beams and with the help of other rescuers, passed the captain’s body from one to another, as respectfully as they could under the circumstances, to carry the body out of the area. One rescuer became physically sick—the only normalcy of the day. Every firefighter brother carried from Ground Zero adds to the loss, pain and collective memory of endless, exhausting hours.

Even though the nerve jacket was torn from Hickey’s shoulder, he slammed the bone back into place and continued the rescue—spurred on by pure adrenalin. The firefighters breathed in the towers’ toxic fumes, dust and residue of airborne poisons. As they breathed in the noxious mixture, their throats and lungs burned and their dry mouths became filled with grey, flying ash.

When the firefighter rescuers finally got to drink water, all the poisons were swallowed. “It was impossible not to inhale the debris with every breath,” explained Hickey, “everything I saw was coated with layers of fine dust which was all that was left of the towers and everything in it; pulverized remains of buildings, furniture…people. The dust was so thick, we could not see very well and had to pick our way blindly through everything to search for survivors.”
Through the eeriness of a grey field of death, a surreal vision interrupted Hickey as he searched the rubble. “The only contact with a living civilian that day was a Middle Eastern shopkeeper, dressed in typical robe and head garb; he was crying and carrying water to survivors—there were none…”
I told Sean Hickey that he is a hero, to which he laughed and replied, “A hero is a sandwich,” as he broke the somberness of the moment with typical Irish humor.

AFTERMATH

Sean Hickey was forced into early retirement. Today, at only fifty, he is divorced and disabled. His right arm jerked from the shoulder socket at Ground Zero is atrophying; diagnosed as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and the spine casing is stripped. His lungs have multiple tumors; tissue samples show deposits of carcinogens—benzene, glass, fiberglass, lead, insulation, Freon, asbestos and human remains. Doctors have said many First Responders have “lungs like fish tanks,” lined with glass. Hickey said that a high percentage of the 9/11 responders are divorced. Large numbers have either committed or attempted suicide. Many, given legal drugs, are now hooked. Hickey recounted how life became so difficult, that at one point he tried to end his life. My heart broke that a vital young man would have to endure so much. And there are many more Sean Hickey backstories; hopefully they end as well.


When he received the “settlement,” being a stubborn, Bronx-born proud Irishman and not wanting to profit from 9/11, Hickey paid all his family’s bills, paid off his children’s college tuition and gave a brand-new Lexus to a young stranger who lost his legs in a roadside bomb blast in Iraq.

Sean Hickey has designed his own therapy program; he builds shadowboxes—each one a unique work of art using bits of steel and found objects from the North Tower, things significant from that long day in the pit. He welds firefighter figures, like old-fashioned toy soldiers, and places them in the framed diorama, as if telling a story on a small stage. “I put my emotions into my art. Art is my therapy. I never sell my shadowbox creations, I donate them. Four of my art pieces are exhibited at FDNY HQ at 9 Metrotech in Brooklyn. One contains the medal I received from New York City for being one of the first rescuers at the scene. Each art piece I create peels away another layer of grief—I have many more to make…”

Sean Hickey, badge number 2886, FDNY, does not sign his works of art, per se. He places a thumbprint of blood somewhere in the shadow-box; his signature to be inside forever. It is Hickey’s reminder that he collected the DNA of so many people at Ground Zero. It was all he could collect. There was nothing else left.

East Bay Reality – Network Reality Shows Seem to Like East Bay Residents

Amazing Race 2011 Participants

Over the last 10 years, several well known reality shows have featured local East Bay residents. Granted, our region has racial diversity, attractive demographics and is culturally enriched, but what is the real appeal for reality show casting directors? Is it our local area charm and charisma, our good looks and athleticism, or just the fact that we are competitive and fun loving? Regardless why, the greater East Bay market has had a nice run on some very high profile reality shows recently.

Sandy Draghi Jeremy ClineDanville residents Sandy Draghi, a technician at Blackhawk Plastic Surgery, and her boyfriend, Jeremy Cline, a Vice President with CB Richard Ellis in Walnut Creek, will be competing in the upcoming season of the Amazing Race on CBS. The show was taped over the summer and premiered on Sunday, September 25th. Sandy says she had been a fan of the show since its first season and it was a dream of hers to be a contestant. “First I got Jeremy to watch it with me and then I talked him into sending in an application to be on the show”, Sandy said. “I was convinced we could out smart everyone else and do everything better. This was while sitting on the couch,” Jeremy added. Given that the show’s plot is to have each team race/travel a great distance, was yet to be seen how Jeremy and Sandy would do, having never taken a long trip together during their courtship. Fortunately, the intense interview/audition process set the table for what was to come. “We were sequestered in a Los Angeles hotel room for about a week, going through countless on and off camera interviews, never knowing our status. Finally, when we were notified that we were selected to be on the show, we couldn’t tell anyone,” said Jeremy.

Living and working out in the East Bay certainly helped the couple prepare for the show experience. “The atmosphere around the East Bay is very competitive in everything we do from our careers to staying in shape,” Sandy added. To train, the couple purchased backpacks, loaded them up and hit the local trials around Mount Diablo, the Lafayette Reservoir and the Pleasanton Ridge. “We live in an incredibly diverse area where there are so many activities to do outdoors,” said Sandy.

Both Sandy and Jeremy say their reality show experience was life changing. Jeremy especially complimented the show’s host, Phil Keoghan, and the crew, but candidly admits that, at times, the challenges to their relationship was like stretching a rubber band to its max, right before it snaps. Ultimately however, it brought them back together and today they are stronger for it. “Not many people get to go through something like this,” Sandy told me over the phone, “It was an extremely positive experience.”

Mike Spiro, a commercial real estate agent with Cornish and Carey’s Hayward office, recently was part of the winning team during the inaugural season of NBC’s Love in the Wild. Heather Pond of Sonoma was also a contestant on the show.

Last November, Mike wandered into a restaurant in San Francisco to grab some dinner after work. He was approached at the bar by a woman who asked, “Are you single?” “She said do you like beautiful women, exotic places and competition? Before I got the wrong idea, she said she was there with NBC hosting an open casting call for a new reality show,” Mike said in a recent phone interview. Mike thought he had hit it off with the producers and after two more audition/interviews in front of a camera, he was asked to take a physical and psychological test. Shortly after his background check, he was on his way to Costa Rica with the rest of the cast. Given the athletic and romantic competitive nature of the show, it was suggested that he get some sun and amp up his workouts before taping began. “That advice that was well taken,” Mike said.

Mike said the reality show was out of his comfort zone, but at 29 years old, he saw the opportunity as a way to break into his 30s (an early September birthday). Mike said, “Never did I think I would make it into the finals, let alone fall in love.” But, that’s exactly what happened. Mike says he doesn’t get recognized too often around the bay area, but he and Samantha are stopped occasionally in Southern California where she lives. “It’s usually tween girls that say something,” Mike adds. He couldn’t be happier with his reality show experience, and says that it far exceeded his expectations. Mike and Samantha are still together and preparing for their one month winning trip around the world.

Another Danville son, Dillon Ingram who is a member of the band, PopLyfe, recently made it to the final four on NBC’s sixth season of America’s Got Talent. Sadly, PopLyfe didn’t win, but they did get a once in a lifetime opportunity when they performed with Stevie Wonder on the finale show September 14th. Dillon and the band will also be performing at the Coliseum at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas as part of the show’s winning tour.

Coincidently, Thia Megia, of Tracy, made it to the quarterfinal’s during the fourth season of American’s Got Talent, but it was last season’s American Idol that gained her the most attention. Thia finished in the Top 10 and recently completed performing on Idol’s nationwide live tour. Additionally, La Toya London of Oakland competed for American Idol in 2004 and made it into the final four of season three.

Other East Bay residents who have participated in reality shows include Ashley Rich, an Antioch native who lives in Emeryville. She was among the 14 remaining contestants on the popular Fox Broadcasting summer reality TV series, So You Think You Can Dance. Sonja Christopher of Walnut Creek, has the distinction of appearing in the first season of Survivor on CBS back in the year 2000. It is likely that “Sonja” is the answer to a trivia question, as the very first contestant ever voted off Survivor. Filmed in Borneo, Sonja lasted only three days before her flame was extinguished at the end of the first episode. Yau-Man Chan was the fourth place finisher of Survivor: Fiji. He is the Chief Technology Officer for Computing Services, Network Services, and Telecommunications at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. Yul Kwon , winner of Survivor: Cook Islands, was a Concord, California resident who attended Northgate High School, where he graduated valedictorian and played varsity water polo and track & field.

We applaud all of the East Bay residents that have represented our area proudly while competing for reality show fame and fortune. Hopefully Jeremy and Sandy can bring home an Amazing Race win to continue to “Up” the Reality status of the 510 and 925 area codes.

What am I going to be for Halloween? My Annual Halloween Conundrum

Halloween Pumpkin
Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, right up there with Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day and Arbor Day (who doesn’t like planting trees?). What’s the biggest difference between Halloween and all other holidays of lesser fun? On Halloween you are required to wear a costume. Costumes are cool. If you can find just the right apparel and accessories a good costume can transform a person into anything or anyone that they might want to be for a night. That last sentence kind of sounds like I’m talking about cross dressing, not that there’s anything wrong with that. As much as I like and take pride in my annual costumes, every year it’s the same question: What am I going to be for Halloween? It doesn’t matter that I’m 49 and stopped Trick-or-Treating when I was a kid (23), there’s still a lot of pressure to find just the perfect costume.

“I’m going to be a cowgirl cause I already got all the stuff. Boots, hat, vest and a bandana. Wanna see?” Lauren B. Age 9, Danville.

When I was a youngster, my mother made most of my costume decisions. Cry as I might, she just wouldn’t buy into my ideas of serial killer, big time wrestler or adult film star. So, despite my protests, I wore all the traditional classics; pirate, cowboy, caveman, toilet paper mummy. During those adolescent years, when money was tight because dad was dressing up as a degenerate gambler every weekend during football season, I was convinced to wear dirty old clothes and tell people I was bum or a hobo. Sadly, a lot of neighbors just thought I was too lazy to dress up. Today, it’s not politically correct to pretend to be a homeless person, but isn’t hoboness really just a lifestyle choice? Isn’t a hobo just a businessman who got tired of the grind in a bad economy and took to traveling the country utilizing our elaborate train system (by way of an empty freight car)? Truthfully, I can’t tell you the last time I saw a hobo, but I’m sure they are still out there.

“I might be Captain America. Did you know his shield can cut through metal and protect you from bullets?” Carter L., Age 7, Danville.

High school had its ups and downs when it came to dressing up for All Hallows Eve Night. As a freshman, you certainly didn’t want to stand out or appear dorky showing up for a Pumpkin Walk that may never actually happen. You could find yourself standing all alone on one of the school’s tennis courts in a wicked cool matador costume while others mock you. Tears of pain don’t just bounce off a spandex bull-dodging suit like you might think—they stain. Damn those chess club pranksters! It was different when our sophomore glee club dressed up as the cast of Grease. Unfortunately, I drew Sandy as my character. Hells Angels was the theme our junior year and we were bad ass. That was until we ran into some actual Hells Angels at the mall and they made us strip down and walk home in our underwear—three miles—and it was raining. Finally, my senior year rocked! Me and my boys dressed as the members of the rock band KISS. It’s just tough to look very “swag” in 11 inch platform shoes and runny demon make-up. By the end of the night, I just looked like a teenage San Francisco drag queen.

“Guess what I’m going to be….. he’s from Star Wars, he’s on the dark side and he’s Darth Vader.” Jake A. Age 6 ½, Pleasanton.

College brought all kinds of new and exciting costume ideas even though every Halloween frat party I ever attended, during my four…five….okay, six years of collegiate bliss, had a “Pimp and Hooker” theme. Not that I’m complaining. Fortunately there are a lot of television pimps to draw inspiration from for costume ideas; there was Huggy Bear from the series Starsky and Hutch, Rooster was a main character on Baretta and let us not forget Prime Time Neon Dion Sanders of the Dallas Cowboys whenever he appeared on a pre-game show before Monday Night Football. Fortunately, I still had my 11 inch Kiss platform shoes and a slick burgundy crushed velvet smoking jacket to get me into character. My signature line was, “back off sucker before I cut you.” The co-ed ladies-of-the-night loved my protective dark side.

“I’m going to be a princess because I like them and want to be one. And that is the costume mommy bought me from Costco.” Madison O., Age 5, Danville

In my bar hopping early 20s, it was one super hero costume after another. Superman, Spiderman, Aquaman, Captain America, Captain Shots, Captain Drunk Guy and my favorite, Captain Hit On Every Girl In the Bar. That was the year I met my wife.

As a married man and now father, I find myself tending toward a more conservative costume. There’s the ever popular, Plastic Surgeon (a lot of women want a second opinion), the sexy youth soccer coach (Mustang provide us with the hunkiest Nike dry fit coaching shirts) and the fan favorite, parish priest (if you don’t mind listening to people confess their sins –and I don’t). Of course it really doesn’t matter what costume I wear, it is assured to embarrass my daughters (Ages 12 and 14). We’ve been invited to the same family friend’s party for years and each year they get older I become unexplainably more embarrassing. There’s nothing I can wear that won’t mortify them if their friends are within a three mile radius. Now my strategy is just to achieve maximum shock value. Male cheerleader, Studio 54 Roller Disco Superstar and Tooth Fairy are my “go to” costumes whenever they’ve been misbehaving or disrespectful.

“I think I’m going to be a cheerleader because I like cheerleaders and cheering is fun,” Nadia L., Age 7, Danville

But alas, I’m back to where I started. What am I going to be for Halloween this year? To dress as a local magazine writer would just drive the neighborhood women crazy and if I were to suit up as an anonymous member of the underground protest group Anonymous I might draw unwanted attention to myself. I could always be an Indian, construction worker, policeman or one of the other members of the Village People. I respect firemen way too much to pretend to be a fireman. No one would buy me as a professional athlete, unless I dressed up as a member of the Pro Bowlers Tour. Apparently it looks like life has finally come full circle and I’m destined to bring back the pirate, cowboy or caveman. My mother would be so happy. Although given the current economy and present state of commercial real estate, hobo might not be a stretch. Don’t be surprised if I ring your doorbell and ask for candy. I’m old school that way.

“I have no idea what I’m going to be! What are you going to be?” Michelle C., Age 9, San Ramon

Embracing Gratitude to Reduce Stress

Having an “attitude-of-gratitude” is a positive state of mind and a great stress-busting tool. In my private practice I often share this “mood-altering” tool from my book, Stress Reduction Journal. Feeling grateful for having shelter, food, clothes, money, and people that care about us is a healthy gift to our minds, bodies, and spirits.

On the other hand, it is common to over-focus on what’s not right in our lives. Can you relate? After all, we humans are equipped with complex brains…that are wired to solve problems. However, when we feel nothing is ever good enough, we may habitually yearn for what we don’t have and become stuck in a negative cycle. Meanwhile, if an active “inner critic” lives in our heads, then we may add to the stressful pattern by having recurring thoughts like, “I’m not young enough, smart enough, or attractive enough.” Occasional comparisons are one thing, but chronically feeling “less than” can be a sign of low self-esteem. When we’ve lost sight of our inner value and become overly focused on our outer value, we may find ourselves sleeping poorly and waking up in the middle of the night worrying.    

Believe me, I understand worry. Worry and I…go way back. Thankfully, when I catch myself on an unproductive “worry track” these days, I reach for some stress-reducing methods ASAP. Here are two popular tools from my book:

“What’s Buggin’ Me?”

Even though “positive thinking” is good for the mind, body, and spirit—denial—is not. That’s why I start my mood-shifting process by first exploring what is bothering me. Otherwise, if I go straight for the “Attitude-of-Gratitude” tool, I’ll be slapping white paint on the wall and ignoring the “mildew” growing underneath. So here’s a way to see if there’s wisdom…or an important message that the “mildew” is offering.

  1. I begin by asking myself, “What’s buggin’ me?” I often journal a few paragraphs to vent about what’s up with me. I pay attention to angry or resentful feelings and explore below the surface to uncover any vulnerable feelings like fear, sadness, or guilt. In this venting stage I write freely without concern for spelling, punctuation, or “being nice.” In other words—I let it flow (with a fully-functioning shredder nearby).
  2. After venting through journaling, I then think about whether there is some constructive action I can take.

If something comes to mind, I go for it. Or, if it’s 3 am, I make a list of some “action steps” I can begin taking the next morning. I also consider doing research, getting advice, support, or whatever will help me get over and beyond the challenge that is worrying me. Taking action usually gets me out of the helpless mode and onto…an empowered and productive track. After the “mildew” has been explored and any wisdom retrieved, I then reach for the following tool.

“Attitude-of-Gratitude”

The good news is: fear, anger, and sadness have difficulty coexisting with positive feelings like gratitude. And, focusing on positive feelings moves us out of the victim role. So, to continue shifting out of my worry cycle, I often practice this simple three-step process by doing the following:

  1. Pulling out a pen and a piece of paper or writing directly in my journal.
  2. Taking a few abdominal breaths to get “out of my head” and deepen my connection with my body.
  3. Making a list of people, places, animals, and things for which I feel grateful.

Yep, this may sound too simple, but it can affect our mood and outlook. If my brain resists shifting gears and nothing comes to mind, then I start exactly where I’m sitting. I mindfully look down to see if I have clothes on my back and shoes on my feet. If so, then these are the first things I write down. Is there a roof over my head? Great, then that means…I’m both clothed and sheltered.

In addition, acknowledging the special personality traits—in our loved ones and ourselves—is a wonderful way to clarify what we’re grateful for. When doing this exercise, I look for qualities like compassion, tenacity, honesty, creativity, and playfulness.

The good news is, once we move out of the worry cycle, the positive juices usually start flowing. Embracing these two tools, “What’s Buggin’ Me?” and “Attitude-of-Gratitude,” are great stress-busters when we want to shift away from worry. And, using them can serve as an invitation for improved sleep. Finally, the goal is to move from our heads into our hearts, and these exercises offer a simple road map for going from north to south…without ever having to get into our cars.

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