You may have seen this haunting image before. A lone firefighter from Nantucket overlooking the devastation of Ground Zero. The photo was taken from the balcony of the Two World Financial Center building on the morning of Sept. 14, 2001, as the fires still burned amid the rubble of the World Trade Center towers.
The man in the photo is former Nantucket firefighter Shawn Monaco. It was taken by his friend and fellow Nantucket firefighter Jeff Allen.
“Every time I look at that picture, I’m brought back to that time,” Allen said this week as the 20th anniversary of the attacks approached. “It’s pretty visceral.”
This is the story behind the photo.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Jeff Allen was on a jet ski doing water patrol for the fire department around the island. As he got back to shore, he heard what had happened in New York, and listened to Howard Stern broadcast the initial hours of the attacks in real time.
Shawn Monaco was on a plane enroute to Boston with his son when the first tower was hit. Monaco’s plane returned to Nantucket.
The two firefighters watched the horrors of that day unfold on their television screens, but eventually turned them off.
“We just couldn’t sit around and watch the TV anymore,” Allen said.
“We said to each other – ‘We need to go. We have to go,” Monaco recalled.
It was decided. They put in for vacation time, threw their turnout gear in a truck, took a boat to Hyannis, and drove to Connecticut where they boarded an Amtrak train for New York City. They were not alone. Other crews of firefighters from around Massachusetts were there too, following the same impulse to go straight to Ground Zero to do whatever they could. It was Sept. 13th, and the Amtrak staff let them board the empty train for free.
“Coming in and seeing lower Manhattan coming into view as the train was headed into the city, all you could see was smoke,” Allen said.
The next morning and made it to the Javitz Center where volunteers, firefighters, law enforcement and others were massing amid the disorganization of the initial response effort. Donning their turnout gear, Allen and Monaco were waived over to an area for firefighters. Their tan gear stood out among the black gear of the many FDNY members seeking to get to the Ground Zero. They clearly were not from the city department, but it didn’t matter. At that point in the response, it was all hands on deck, and no one was trying to stop them. Allen and Monaco got linked up with an FDNY lieutenant whose brother was missing in the attack, got onto a bus and headed for Ground Zero.
“It was going into complete uncertainty, and it was scary as shit,” Allen said. “We didn’t know what was about to hit us. But you could smell it. You could smell what was burning.”
They geared up at a makeshift staging area near the rubble of the towers, grabbing an ax, a flashlight, a shovel and a pickaxe. Their first assignment was to help conduct a secondary search of the nearby Two World Financial Center – which was heavily damaged but still standing – and pull broken glass from windows to prevent it from falling onto rescuers below.
The firefighters went floor to floor before arriving at the roof balcony. Allen and Monaco walked out to the edge and for the first time could see the extent of the devastation that surrounded them.
“There were no survivors, or even parts of survivors, just shredded clothing, shredded blazers, a dress shoe that looked like it had been cut in half by a guillotine, and some briefcases and blinds, but no survivors,” Monaco remembered.
“When we walked out on that balcony and looked down, you knew,” Allen said. “You could see how bad it was.”
Allen had a waterproof camera with him and snapped the photo of Monaco – it wasn’t digital, so he didn’t know what kind of image he had captured until much later.
“I just thought it was important to document it,” Allen said. “I wasn’t going around shoving a camera into peoples’ faces, but I wanted to take a few pictures. Nothing like this had ever happened.”
Allen and Monaco descended from the top floor of the building, and headed toward the mountain of rubble at Ground Zero. Before they made it to their destination, they passed a rescue crew carrying the covered body of a deceased FDNY firefighter out of the wreckage.
The rest of their day was spent painstakingly cutting and digging through the wreckage, searching in vain for survivors. Dust covered everything, they recalled, but it was the smell that still lingers most in their memories.
“We ended up digging and digging – we were there for most of the day in one void space,” Monaco said, describing how they would dig toward the smell of human remains, removing bucket after bucket of dust and debris from the void. “The smell would get stronger, an awful smell as you might imagine, then we noticed we didn’t smell it anymore. We figured whatever it was, we had just passed it out in the buckets.”
Allen and Monaco spent several days at Ground Zero, catching a few hours of sleep on the floor of a friend’s apartment before heading back into the rubble. But the rescue response had finally coalesced into something that was slightly more organized, with more security checking on who was coming and going from the wreckage. They were disappointed, but not surprised, when an NYPD detective “kindly shooed us out of there.”
The two firefighters were already in the thirties, but the experience was understandably life-changing for both men.
“My perspective on everything changed,” Allen said. “The job, the seriousness of it, life and friendships, relationships, everything went for a spin at that point. I did a lot of recalibrating and readjusting.”
Both men said they went through a period of “self-medicating” to deal with the post-traumatic stress they experienced upon returning to the island and their everyday lives. With the help of their girlfriends – now their wives – along with counseling and other support services, they persevered.
But Allen and Monaco have also witnessed many of the people they met at Ground Zero succumb prematurely to a variety of illnesses connected to prolonged exposure to the toxic dust and fumes they inhaled during the rescue effort. Health issues continue to plague those who rushed into the rubble during the rescue effort, while others have died by suicide.
“It’s on my mind almost everyday,” Monaco said of the potential ramifications for his own health. Both men are now part of the government’s WTC Health Program, which provides annual screenings, monitoring and evaluations for those who were exposed at Ground Zero.
Today, Monaco is retired from the Nantucket Fire Department, but still spends time on the island. Allen is still a member of NFD, now a Captain and serving as the union president.
The American flag that Allen photographed on the back of Monaco’s turnout gear in the photo has also persevered. The flag was given to island resident Hollis Webb before he deployed to Afghanistan with the Army’s Special Forces. Webb took it with him on his tours of duty, and brought it home to Nantucket in 2014. Webb, a call firefighter for NFD, and his brother Ryan, a full-time member of the department, returned the flag to the fire station where it remains, framed on the wall with the photo of Monaco at Ground Zero.