Waiting to 'die ... or live'
Firefighter recounts moments before, after WTC collapse
The following story is one in a series of profiles based on interviews from "Tower Stories," an independent project showcasing the firsthand accounts of those directly and indirectly affected by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Like many Americans, Jerry Scarnato watched on television as United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the World Trade Center's South Tower. That was all the watching he'd do on September 11.
Like hundreds of firefighters that day, Scarnato had time only to act, not react; to do, not to analyze. Four minutes after hearing the news, he was in lower Manhattan.
"I wasn't aware that I should be watching for falling bodies when I moved rigs," he said. "I didn't realize that, at this point, my friend Danny [Suhr, a fireman in Engine Company 226] had been hit by a falling body and killed. Another friend of mine, [FDNY chaplain] Mychal Judge, was dead."
Those realities dawned on him later, as did the psychological fallout of two frighteningly near-death experiences, survivor's guilt and the loss of scores of friends and colleagues.
But Scarnato's firmly held beliefs on his fellow firemen, why they rushed to save thousands and the towers that day despite incredible dangers, never wavered. A fireman for nine years, he knows it's all part of the job.
"Like firemen do, they pulled up, saw this huge fire  floors up and just took their roll-ups and went in. This is their duty," Scarnato said. "The fire department has taken care of me ... financially for all these years. This is my time to be a fireman."
'Like a jet engine blowing ... through your head'
A firefighter and fitness trainer, Scarnato was at FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn on the morning of September 11.
Moments after seeing on TV an airliner slam into the South Tower -- and minutes before the department called on all available firefighters to report -- he bolted downstairs, flagged down an EMT and crammed into an ambulance headed for the Trade Center.
Having left his FDNY uniform and equipment at the station, Scarnato was told by fire officials when he arrived not to enter the towers. Trained as an EMT, he began helping a nearby group of EMTs when he heard a roar and glanced back over his right shoulder. The South Tower was crumbling upon itself.
"If you can picture the wave from the movie 'The Perfect Storm'? If you imagine that wave being glass, steel and cement. It was like that," he said. "I ran. ... It was like a jet engine blowing over and through your head."
Scarnato crossed the West Side Highway, dived behind an SUV and, in his words, "waited to die, or to live."
As the pitch-black sky slowly lightened, Scarnato stood up and found himself surrounded by bodies -- including those of 12 of the 20 EMTs and others he had fled with.
He helped lead eight seriously injured from the destruction and directed a dazed firefighter to safety, Scarnato said. He then headed back toward the rubble to help those fighting the fire, closing off nearby hydrants until the ground began rumbling.
The North Tower was falling. Scarnato jumped into a truck and let fate take over once again.
Scarnato walked away from the rubble a second time, then searched for the likely mangled rig of his unit, Engine Company 226. He guided the truck's dazed driver back to Brooklyn, but could not follow him personally, Scarnato said -- his knee and back were too sore for him to make the walk. He eventually ended up at the boat docks off lower Manhattan.
"There was a boat full of people," Scarnato recalled. "They looked at me like I was the walking dead. I was covered in dirt and dust, absolutely covered."
Sorrow and hope at Ground Zero
When his ferry arrived in New Jersey, health workers spotted Scarnato and got him to a hospital in nearby Hoboken. Doctors there found several superficial cuts on Scarnato's back but no life-threatening injuries, allowing him to leave the and get a ride back to his home in Brooklyn.
"They dropped me off right in front of my house," he said. "In my mind, I had no choice. I went right to my firehouse. And basically, I spent the next two weeks on 'The Pile.'"
The sheer immensity of the destruction, especially the tremendous loss of lives, made it difficult for Scarnato to equate what he had done with heroism.
For him, it was his job and his duty -- to his colleagues fighting and in some cases dying alongside him, and to the hundreds of civilians who suffered and died.
"The 'hero' [crap], if that's the aim at all, throw it from my story," Scarnato said weeks after September 11.
"Because you're not a hero when you're watching people jumping from 80, 90 or whatever floors out of the building to their certain death, and you're thinking about going in. It takes the heart out of you."
It took months for Scarnato to get that spirit back. When he wasn't working regular shifts or scouring the Ground Zero rubble, he spent his spare time attending wakes for his fallen comrades and tending to the widows and children most affected by the attacks.
But in the struggle, Scarnato also found hope. The dichotomy was most obvious, he said, at Ground Zero, where firemen, police and volunteers worked side-by-side looking for shreds of anything that could provide comfort and closure.
"It's a combination of horror and sorrow," Scarnato said of his time working on The Pile.
"This may sound strange, but I've never been prouder to be a human being than when I'm down there. ... Everything was 'brother' this, 'brother' that. There was complete support. There wasn't the sarcasm that usually abounds in life."
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