9/11: Former Edmonds Firefighter Recalls Ground Zero Rescue Work

Before that fateful day, Andy Speier was a firefighter at the midtown Manhattan fire station that lost 15 members.

That morning, Sept. 11, Edmonds firefighter Andy Speier listened and watched coverage of the attacks on America and knew he had to return home.

The native New Yorker didn’t know it during the first few hours of the carnage at the World Trade Center, but he would soon learn how personal the events would become: Fifteen firefighters from his former station, Engine 54, Ladder 4, of the 9th Battalion in midtown Manhattan, would perish that day. Most fire stations in Manhattan lost firefighters on 9/11, but Speier’s old station was the hardest hit.

In all, 342 firefighters died in New York.

“Every firefighter in the battalion was killed, and some of the off-duty guys were killed as well,” said Speier, who retired from in April and lives in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood.

Speier approached the chief of the Edmonds Fire Department, Tom Tomberg, who assured him he’d let him do what he felt he had to. (Edmonds is now served by Snohomish County Fire District 1.) Speier was on the first plane out of Seattle after the Federal Aviation Administration flight ban ended after three days.

“I was wearing my New York City fireman uniform and had my gear in my arms,” Speier said. “A gentleman in line said he wanted to give his seat on the plane, but the attendant said he wasn’t allowed to.”

When he arrived in New York, a hotel around the corner from his old firehouse offered him a free room. “I had a place to leave my stuff, take a shower and lay on the bed for an hour or two, but I really couldn’t sleep.”

Speier sifted through rubble at ground zero for a week, cutting through debris holes and steel. He worked at night, paying his respects to various firehouses during the day.

“I would get on a city bus that would pick firefighters up around Manhattan and take us down to ground zero. There was hundreds and hundreds of people on the street cheering. By the time I got to the site, it was just about dark. But there were a tremendous amount of lights set up for diggers, so it looked like daytime. There were the great big pieces of steel. When you saw them next to a person, you realized how big they are. And with all the fire and smoke, it was quite a horrific sight.”

If anyone was prepared for the grim task ahead at ground zero, it was Speier. He was then, and always has been, wedded to rescue and the great outdoors. It was while leading bicycle trips from New York to the West Coast in the 1970s that he discovered the Pacific Northwest, eventually enrolling at Evergreen State College in Olympia. Speier, a student firefighter back East, took a job working part time for the fire department covering the college and after a while was working for the department full time.

Speier then went on to work for the Kent Fire Department before returning to New York, to the famous Hell’s Kitchen firehouse on 48th Street and Eighth Avenue. After six years, ending in 1991, Speier moved back to the Pacific Northwest for a job with the Edmonds Fire Department. When he retired this year at age 54, he had obtained the position of captain at Snohomish Fire District 1’s Station 18 in Brier.

Speier now runs a nonprofit rescue training company, the Peak Rescue Institute, is a partner in Spec Rescue International and teaches at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia. He also volunteers as special operations battalion chief for the McLane-Black Lake Fire Department in Olympia, where he is a member of its special operations rescue team.

Speier is also a technical editor for FireRescue magazine, where he related his experiences at ground zero for the August 2011 issue.

Speier's rescue skills were to be on display on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He was supposed to be teaching a building-collapse class for rescue technicians in Machias, just southwest of Lake Stevens.

“I was driving across 45th in Wallingford to get to I-5, and I heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center,” Speier recalls. “As I listened, it sounded more and more like a major plane, a major catastrophe. By the time I got up to Machias and turned the TV on, I’m thinking, this isn’t the World Trade Center. That’s the Pentagon. Multiple things were going on.

“Class hadn’t started when the first tower came down. I thought, holy shit, hundreds of firemen just got killed. We canceled class for the day and started sending guys home to their fire departments.”

Today, on Sept. 11, 2011, Speier, will be far from New York, although the thought did cross his mind to attend 10th anniversary events. Instead, he’s on an eight-day bicycle trip in Oregon with his wife.

Before he finished his interview, Speier had one last thing to say: “Other media called me up about a month ago, and I said I would meet with them. But I backed out. I just couldn’t do it. Some days I can talk about it, some days I cannot. So you caught me on a good day, I suppose.”

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