But Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, turned out to be a day Joe Caiazzo Jr., will never forget.
The owner of Brooklyn, New York-based J. Caiazzo Plumbing & Heating took a call from one of his technicians working not far from the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan shortly after 9 a.m.
“He said, ‘Joe, a plane just hit the World Trade Center,’” recalls Caiazzo. “I said, ‘What? What do you mean a plane just hit the World Trade Center?’ Then I turned on the television just in time to see the second plane hit the other tower.”
It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that this was a terrorist attack unlike anything they had ever seen. Only a few hours later the horrific tragedy would culminate with the burning and eventual collapse of both towers with more than 3,000 workers, police and fire department officials inside.
When their shift ended at 6:00 p.m., Caiazzo and his three brothers, Anthony, Lenny and Michael, asked for volunteers to head across the Brooklyn Bridge to lend a hand with the massive rescue effort that would follow. “We’re located six miles from the World Trade Center,” Caiazzo says. “I felt helpless there. We had to go and try to help.” The terrorist acts would shut down the nation’s air travel for days, causing Caiazzo to cancel his planned trip to St. Louis to attend the Plumbers’ Success International Summit.
Joe’s father, Joe Sr., started the business 55 years ago. He passed away when Joe was 9, but his mother took over the business and operated it until he was old enough to take the reins.
Joe and his brothers now run the business, located at 1381 Utica St. in Brooklyn. J. Caiazzo Plumbing and Heating currently employs the four Caiazzo brothers, 23 technicians and four office workers, and operates 12 trucks. The company does both residential and commercial plumbing and heating.
On Sept. 11, however, there was something far more pressing than a scheduled meeting that required his immediate attention and expertise. Caiazzo and his team boarded three cubed company trucks and drove six miles, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Police had closed the bridge, but Caiazzo and his men let them know they were there to help.
“We explained to the cops that we had fiber optic cameras that could help search for possible survivors, and they let us right in,” recalls Caiazzo.
He explains: “You can see whether a quarter is heads or tails in a sewer line 200 feet down. They work great.” He and his men learned several hours later just how great they worked when they recovered a female survivor alive from the rubble of the fallen towers.
After working from 6 p.m. until 3 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, Caiazzo and his fellow rescuers went home to rest for a few hours, but were back at 7 a.m. that day, fiber optic cameras in hand, to resume 12 consecutive hours combing the mass of twisted metal.
Around noon on Wednesday, Caiazzo and a group of rescuers stood atop a pile of rubble about 30 feet high. They dropped one of the fiber optic cameras into a space about nine feet deep. Caiazzo spotted a pair of shoes and the rescuers began to dig feverishly.
“We saw a pair of legs and then a full body,” Caiazzo says. “It was a girl and she was dusted with cement powder, but she was conscious. Her eyes were wide open.
“She was intact and she was breathing. She wore a skirt and nylon stockings and there wasn’t a rip or tear on any of her clothing. She was just in the right place.”
It took about 90 minutes to clear the rubble and remove the woman. A chain of some 200 rescuers formed from the point where she was extracted to an awaiting ambulance parked at the bottom of the pile.
“When we got her out, we put her on a stretcher and just passed her down the line,” he says. “She was breathing heavily, but her eyes were still wide open. It was obvious she was in shock. Other than the breathing, she didn’t make a sound. She’d been buried in there over 24 hours.”
Caiazzo says he never learned the name of the girl, but he’s sure she survived because someone told him they’d seen her interviewed on local news programs.
“She was one of the last people pulled out alive,” he notes. He describes the surreal scene at Ground Zero, which covered an eight-block radius. He talks about the thick concrete and sheetrock dust that accumulated on trees and building window sills.
“The dust was three inches thick throughout the whole area. Everything was gray,” says Caiazzo. “When we arrived, they gave us dust masks, but the dust was so thick they weren’t very effective.”
The dust hung in the air for days. Every two hours, Caiazzo, his brothers and co-workers had to have their eyes flushed with water so they could see as they dug. There were other elements like asbestos, benzene, PCBs and dioxin in the air that made it dangerous to spend a lot of time on site, but no one seemed to care. Everyone was on a mission to find survivors. Compounding matters was smoke from the fires that burned constantly from deep below the carnage.
“They tested the air quality from time to time and told us it was loaded with asbestos,” says the 45-year-old Caiazzo. “I said, ‘I’ve breathed enough asbestos taking out boilers all these years. One more day ain’t gonna hurt me.’”
Caiazzo frequently does work in a local hospital and in the days that followed the attack he talked to a doctor about what he saw.
“He told me if I didn’t have the right equipment, that I shouldn’t go back,” says Caiazzo, adding that, besides all of the particulate matter in the air, there was a risk of catching disease from decaying bodies.
But Caiazzo and his brothers and a couple of co-workers returned to the site Thursday and worked all night. They went back again Friday at 6 p.m., and searched the rubble until 3 a.m. Saturday.
“I took whoever wanted to come,” he says. “I paid them as I did normally. I couldn’t ask them to work for nothing. I think we paid four or five guys, but I didn’t pay myself or my brothers.”
He was asked why he kept going back.
“The first night we found a body in the twisted steel,” he said. “I saw a hand sticking out and there was a wedding ring on it. It moved me to go back each day. It moved me. My wife said, ‘What are you, crazy?’ I said, ‘No, I just have to go back there.’ At times we felt helpless, but we had to keep going back. It turned out good, because the next day we found the girl alive.”
Unfortunately, Caiazzo and his brethren never experienced the adrenaline rush of finding another surviver. The rest of the experience was gruesome.
“The rest we found was a lot of body parts,” he says dejectedly.
The smell at Ground Zero continued to deteriorate as time wore on.
“By Friday it was pretty raw from the decaying bodies,” says Caiazzo. “On Friday night the smell was horrendous.”
One of the rescuers asked Caiazzo if he knew how to use a cutting torch and he nodded yes. They passed it to him and he began to cut the massive steel beams woven throughout the area to make it easier for the cranes to lift the devastation.
“All I did Friday and Saturday was cut steel,” he says. “After that, they asked us to stay out. You had to have special permission to go back there and help. I haven’t been back since.”
It had been several weeks since Caiazzo and his men had endured the experience, but he remembers every minute detail.
“Television did it no justice,” he explains, noting that the media was kept far from the actual rescue scene. Even so, Caiazzo says he remembers occasionally spotting a person filming the scene with a portable video camera.
A lifetime Brooklyn resident, Caiazzo said the attack shook residents.
“We’re New Yorkers,” he says. “We will survive. I’ll tell you one thing, it’s something I’ll never forget.”
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