Representing the Firefighter
By Christine McKenna
Firefighter Sam Melisi, 43 is very familiar with collapses. As a member of Rescue 3, FDNY's Building Collapse Unit in the Bronx, he learned about specialized searches how to crawl through voids to pinpoint victims. He was trained how to shore up structures and to communicate underground.
To Melisi, a collapsed or collapsing structure represents the ultimate challenge to get in, find as many people alive as you can and get them to safety before anything happens. When he arrived at the World Trade Center site on September 11th, Melisi set about doing what he does best. "I was hoping that since these were some of the world's largest buildings, that we were going to find some of the world's largest voids," he says. "I was very hopeful that we were going to start finding people right away. It didn't pan out all that well."
Earlier that morning, Melisi was on board the Firefighter, the fireboat from Marine Company 9, Staten Island. Melisi was a "wiper," an assistant engineer, and was studying for a Coast Guard exam he was taking in the next couple days. If he passed he would be an engineer. "They called down, 'A plane hit the tower,'" he says. "I thought they were teasing me because I was studying. Firefighters do that. Turns out it was true. We were on our way."
The Firefighter left Staten Island, arriving at the scene around 45 minutes later, just after the North Tower fell. Many water mains in the area had been knocked out and the Firefighter worked in tandem with Marine Company 1's fireboat, the John D. McKean, to provide a critical water source. After stretching a hose to engine companies trying to control the raging fire, Melisi went to look for survivors on the pile.
In April 1995, looking for signs of life in the rubble of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Melisi thought he would never see a more destructive act of terrorism in the United States. But the devastation on September 11 was "hundred-fold" worse, he says. "It was chaos. Hazards everywhere. Burning cars, ambulances, fire engines. Massive steel beams scattered. Voids, large holes. Poisonous gases, smoke. Pipes, electrical. The heat was hot. You were walking on burning steel." The nature of the 16 acres of unstable debris meant that searches had to be localized, he says, because it was impossible to make your way through the ruins like you might in a typical building scenario.
You just tried to help people and you did what you could, says Melisi.
As it turns out, Melisi could do quite a bit. His experience in Oklahoma, his collapsed building savvy, rescue training and previous construction experience building docks and operating cranes would make him a precious asset and natural liaison for the many disparate groups working at the site.