In the middle distance is the fast-rising One World Trade Centre, the controversial $3 billion skyscraper that will fill the void on the Manhattan skyline left by the twin towers.
The reason for my reflective gaze is that ten years ago Mary Ann’s was Yaffa’s Bar, a raunchy downtown jukebox joint from where a small team of Telegraph journalists found itself reporting on a group of the major players in the 9/11 drama - the fire-fighters.
Yaffa’s Bar was adjacent to the barricades erected to keep the public away from the Ground Zero search- and-rescue operation, a few blocks north of the smouldering pile of rubble that had once been the World Trade Centre towers. It was here every night after their gruelling and, as we were to learn, harrowing 12-hour shifts that the fire-fighters would come and drink and dance their nightmares away. In those first days after 9/11 Yaffa’s had a wild, anarchic, apocalyptic atmosphere about it.
The reason the Telegraph team – myself, Melissa Whitworth and photographer Stuart Conway – was allowed in was that this had been my local bar when I lived in New York a few years earlier and Yaffa herself was an old friend. So, we were allowed in where most were not. The only other civilians admitted that night were a few of Yaffa’s girlfriends, dancing to the jukebox tunes with the firefighters.
It got off to a rather explosive start. We’d just taken our seats when out of the haze of cigarette smoke appeared one large, muscled firefighter with shoulders as wide as a barn door. Having seen our notebooks and thinking Conway had been sneaking photographs (he had not) he began shouting at us, at Melissa in particular.
“Journalists!” he exclaimed. “Fuck you! We’ve been pulling body parts out of the rubble all day. We wanna forget what we’ve been doing. You really want to see what this is all about?” he said, jabbing his finger at Melissa. “Ya wanna see? I’ll bring a fireman’s torso down to your office and drop it on your desk. Then you’ll see what this is about.”
Then he stormed off, sick up to here with people he perceived as rubberneckers. Shocked by his verbal assault, Melissa, then 23 and new to the job, burst into tears.
Five minutes later he was back, offering abject apologies. He said it broke his heart to see her crying. “I just lost it. I’m really, really sorry,” he said, “I don’t know where that came from.”
He introduced himself as Greg Mathews and told us he had flown in at his own expense from his home in Seattle, where he was a full-time fireman and part-time helicopter pilot. He’d volunteered because five of his firefighter friends had been buried in the rubble – The Pile as they called it - a few blocks away.
Late into that Manhattan night, above the din of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen and Bon Jovi blasting out of Yaffa’s jukebox, we drank at the bar with Mathews and his fellow firefighters and listened to their grim stories of the search-and-rescue mission to end all search-and-rescue missions. Their friends and colleagues – the first responders -had gone into the damaged buildings when everyone else was fleeing from the towers; and now almost 350 were missing under the rubble. But as Mathews indicated when he met us with such rage, there were almost no survivors just body parts. It would not be long before the mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, changed the status of the operation from search-and-rescue to recovery-and-clean-up.
So, the evening became the early hours of the morning and still the firefighters came in from The Pile, ordered stiff drinks, shed a few tears and tried to forget what they’d seen. Outside, the crowds were still gathered at the perimeter barrier, paying their respects applauding the firefighters as they came off shift.
However, if the experiences the fire-fighters described at Yaffa’s ten years ago remain unpleasantly vivid, it was the power of a single photographic image doing the rounds at the time that will stay with me for life. The photograph was taken in the minutes after the first tower had collapsed and shows two fire-fighters covered with dust and debris heading south towards the second tower.
It appeared in a local newspaper with the headline “Into The Valley of Death With No Fear.” In the left foreground is Rob Curatola and in the centre foreground Lt Ray Murphy, both men from Ladder 16 from the Upper East Side Firehouse. At that moment any civilians in the area were being driven north, away from the World Trade Centre by the police. There were fears of ruptured gas mains exploding and rumours of biochemical poisons in the air. That was a place of horror and, as the newspaper headlines had rightly proclaimed, Curatola and Murphy were striding fearlessly into Hades.
It was the last sighting of the two men alive. Minutes later, they were killed in the collapse of the second tower. Like so many stories from 9/11 it leaves you shaking.
The man who took that iconic photograph was Richard Rattazzi, a fellow firefighter from Ladder 11. Rattazzi is still working in the same Upper East Side firehouse, and when he agrees to see me, I jump in a cab, leave what was Yaffa’s and the streets around Ground Zero behind and head for that more salubrious Manhattan neighbourhood.
As his name suggests, Rattazzi is one of the NYFD’s many Italian-American firemen. A large, shaven-headed man with piercing blue eyes and the extended vowels of an Orange County native, he is now in his early 40s. He tells me he took that iconic photograph with a disposable camera that is standard issue for New York firemen.
“Thing is the three of us didn’t go down to the site on our truck. It was just before 9 o’clock, and the alarms had gone off. Murphy had come in late and Curatola and I were getting off shift, so the Ladder 13 truck left with those who were on shift. We got a lift down five minutes later in a police car (from neighbouring Precinct 19), picked up tools off the truck when we got down there. Then we set out to meet our colleagues.
“We were down near the Marriott Hotel when the South Tower started to collapse – all we heard was a loud rush of wind and then we saw the centre section of the Marriott blowing out at us. We ran north.
“After that a dark black plume engulfed the area. You couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. I had a flashlight and I still walked into the back of a fire truck.”
At that point Rattazzi came across a civilian crying out for help and so took him up to the emergency medical station two block to the north. It was as he started walking back towards his two colleagues he pulled his disposable camera from his pocket and took the famous photograph. The three found another injured man and again Lt Murphy told Rattazzi to take him to the emergency medical station.
By the time he got back, Murphy and Curatola were nowhere to be seen. Then the second tower started coming down and Rattazzi, like everyone else, turned and ran. The wind was so strong that it knocked him off his feet.
With other fire-fighters Rattazzi went back into the darkness “and you were walking over piles of debris, you could see people lying face down, you checked that they were dead, then you moved on, looking for anyone who was alive. All I could hear were Pass Alarms (an alarm on a firefighter’s mask that activates if there is no movement for more than 25 seconds) going off under the rubble.”
Having ingested lungfuls of toxic dust of the disintegrated buildings, Rattazzi limped to the emergency medical station fighting for breath. There, he remembers a lady passing him a bottle of water and after three mouthfuls he vomited “and what I threw up looked like cranberry juice. Whatever I’d breathed in had cut me up inside.”
However, the sheer ferocity of the collapsing skyscraper’s debris was only made clear to Rattazzi a few minutes later when he when he cut his firefighter’s suit, inner linings and underclothing off his body. “There was a quarter-inch thick layer of concrete dust, sediment and God knows what covering my skin. It’s incredible to think about it even now.”
In spite of his condition – and his lungs were at some periods operating at 50 per cent capacity – Rattazzi put himself forward for the search-and-rescue shifts and, like Greg Mathews and the firefighters at Yaffa’s, found himself working 12 hours on, 12 hours off, “pulling out bodies that had decomposed so badly because of the lime in the concrete, so they were coming out in pieces.
“You had to put a block in your mind and just do the job. But the stuff you saw down there, the devastation, the death ..and the smell! It’s a smell you never forget.”
In the years following, Rattazzi and his colleagues from the East Side firehouse dealt with the trauma by forming their own in-house therapy group. They operated on the simple principle that if you kept talking about it, the demons would somehow be subdued. There was no pint, they said, in seeing psychiatrists as so many 9/11 trauma victims had. As Rattazzi says “the best way to do therapy was with the people who’ve been through it – what do the psychiatrists know.
“I suffered from survivor’s guilt – a lot of the guys had that – but we talked it all through and we’ve come out the other side pretty much OK.” Rattazzi allows himself a chuckle.
He didn’t for a moment consider retiring from the fire service and was back at the station after a month of sick leave. He lives with slightly diminished lung capacity, a reflux problem and a recurring dry cough but is medically tested regularly “and there are no spots on my lungs, thank God,” he says tapping the table. He is, however, aware that a significant number of firefighters who worked on The Pile have succumbed to what he says are “weird, weird cancers.”
He hasn’t been invited to the opening ceremonies at the new 9/11 Memorial and doesn’t know any fireman who has. But he’s not too bothered about that because as far as he’s concerned “that’s all political and we stay away from that kind of thing.” Instead, Rattazzi will either be working at the firestation or taking part in a charity walk in memory of one of the victims of Flight 93.
Most of the crew from 9/11 have either retired or have been invalided out of the service. Rattazzi is in no hurry to retire even though the post 9/11 glory days, when New York firefighters were the heroes of the city, are long gone. In fact, Rattazzi says, he’s rather pleased that “the cabbies cut us up on the road again, and yell at us and give us the bird. That means things are back to normal.”
As I say goodbye to Rich Rattazzi I look up and notice the Stars and Stripes above the firehouse is flying at half mast. It has been that way for the past 10 years. Things are not quite back to normal.