Coming through slaughter
PART 2: Firefighter Paul Bessler loved his work, both the camaraderie and the danger. On Sept. 11, his survival instincts pulled him through, and he and his colleagues gained an uncomfortable kind of celebrity. What matters now, he says, are home and family, and the memories of countless fallen friends
By PETER CHENEY
Saturday, March 9, 2002
SUGARLOAF, N.Y. -- For six months, he has been thinking about what it means that he's still alive. "I feel like a ghost walking around," he says. "But life is sweeter, I'll tell you that. I've enjoyed every day."
When the North Tower of the World Trade Center fell on Sept. 11, New York City firefighter Paul Bessler prepared himself to die. He faced it with his instinctive pragmatism: He checked to see where his crewmates were, then waited for the end. But when the dust cleared, he was still standing.
His wife Patty was back at their house in the mountains of upstate New York, watching the disaster on television, trying to hold herself together in front of their two young children. As the day wore on without word on her husband, one of their friends reassured her: "Don't worry, he'll make it out. He's Paulie Bessler."
And, like a born survivor, he did. But a half-dozen of his best friends, fellow firefighters from Ladder 24 of Manhattan's Engine Company One, died that morning. Bessler is still dealing with the complications that are the price of survival, trying to feel good about being alive when so many of his friends are not.
"If it was me that ended up on the ashes, and the other guy was still here on the Earth instead of me, I'd want him to have a fantastic life," he says. "That's what I have to think."
For Bessler, firefighting had seemed a natural extension of his personality. In the summer, he would tow his surfboard out into the ocean behind his jet ski, hunting for new surf breaks off the New Jersey coast, then ride the waves alone. In the winter, he rode high-powered snowmobiles and skied the steepest mogul runs.
And when he took his New York fire department test, he scored 100 per cent. He loved the camaraderie of the station, and the rush of the danger. He referred to his fellow firefighters as his brothers, and the station as "the house."
Today, things have changed. Bessler has been off work lately, for three weeks straight. Once that would have sounded like an eternity. Now, it doesn't seem nearly enough. He wants to be with his children, look up old friends and walk in the woods.
Standing on the top of a high hill near his house, he reflects on how simple his life used to be. "All I wanted was to be a good fireman and to live past retirement," he says. "I never wanted any of this."
Bessler has survived many close calls in the past. He remembers a fire where a flaming roof collapsed and another where a window blew out and shot a tongue of flame up a stairwell he was climbing. He has nearly drowned twice, once under a huge wave while surfing and again when he collided with another water skier and had to be resuscitated.
Surviving Sept. 11 has been more complicated. He goes for counselling twice a week, and is beginning to realize that he shut down part of his overwhelmed consciousness that day. It probably helped to keep him alive, but he is now suffering through recovering his memories, as his mind accesses scenes he refused to focus on at the time -- of people who jumped from the towers and died on the sidewalk around him.
Still, he approaches the subject with an instinct for self-preservation, refusing to wallow. He remembers that as he watched one jumper he said a prayer, then suddenly stopped watching and turned his thoughts elsewhere. "It didn't matter," he understands. "They were all going to die. This was their final moment. They had to have one final moment or another."
After working almost around the clock in the first months after the attacks, Bessler has gradually shifted his attention to his home here in the mountains. It is the residence of a man in midlife, filled with things past and articles of a life in progress. In the back yard is a pile of lumber that he is about to transform into a storage building. In the garage is a set of carefully maintained power tools, skis and his motorcycle. His surfboard hangs from the rafters.
Bessler has a firefighter's instinctive sense of order and respect for equipment. He brings a guest in to his house through the garage, where he carefully hangs up his jacket and hat, then turns to the guest: "Give me your shoes," he says. He washes the mud from the soles with a hose, and places the shoes on a rack near a heater. He does the same with his own, so they'll be dry and ready for action whenever they're needed.
In the next room is a collection of memorabilia, including a framed copy of a story that was written about him and his friend Mike Yarembinsky by Globe and Mail writer Jan Wong just two days after the tragedy. His wife read it to him much later, as he continued renovations on his daughter's room, which had been put on hold because of the events.
As he nailed and painted baseboards, he found himself deeply moved by hearing an outsider recount his own experience. It showed him things he had not considered, the aleatory process that determined who survived and who did not. His number had simply come up lucky. "We laughed," he says. "And then we cried."
In the summer of 2001, Bessler had been leading what he considered a nearly ideal existence. He and his wife had been together nearly two decades, their children were healthy and they had a house in the green hills of upstate New York, with two cars and a garage full of leisure devices. His firefighter's salary was between $60,000 and $70,000 (U.S.), with benefits, job security and time off to be with his family.
His commitment to firefighting ran deep: As a boy, he had noticed that the best dads he knew had been firemen, the ones who came to games, built tree houses, and picked you up when you fell. After he joined up, he became hooked on the adrenaline rush of fighting a big blaze -- a sensation firefighters call being "on the nozzle." He eventually worked his way up to the post of MPO -- the Motor Pump Operator, who drives the truck.
He also could see his future: He would retire at the age of 51 after 20 years of service and spend time with his wife and kids.
And then came Sept. 11. He has has relived it countless times in his mind. "There are a million stories," he says. "How do you start? You don't know." He had been scheduled off, but decided to work overtime. When the World Trade Center call came in, he and his friends suited up and headed to the scene.
Bessler was in a company of five men commanded by Lieutenant Andy Desperito, assigned to put out a fire on the 70th floor of the North Tower. They made it to the 22nd, carrying full equipment, before they were ordered out. The South Tower had just collapsed.
On the way down, they stopped to help an overweight woman who couldn't move. Desperito ordered Bessler and the others to go ahead while he gave the woman assistance. Thirty seconds after Bessler made it out onto the street, the building collapsed behind him.
Desperito was one of the six men from Bessler's station who were killed. Bessler knew countless more from other stations. Back at Engine Company One, he helped to assemble a shrine to their dead comrades, a wall of photographs that was soon covered in banks of flowers and cards brought by well-wishers, who turned the fire station into a non-stop wake.
Day after day, the firefighters stood in the opened door of the station next to the flowers and the pictures, receiving the public, shaking hands and accepting hugs and donations. Sometimes they had to comfort people who broke into tears at the sight of the shrine, trying not to cry themselves.
At first, the visitors were welcome. But after a few weeks, new feelings began to surface. Bessler and his friends started to wish people would stop coming, especially ones like the man who came wanting to trade a T-shirt from another station for one from Engine Company One. "Did he think it was like trading baseball cards?" Bessler asked himself. "What did he think this was about?"
Bessler's captain told him, "Some people, they don't even know what they don't know. That's just the way they are. Let it go."
And so he went on, fighting fires, cleaning equipment, receiving visitors. But his heart was no longer in it. "It went on and on," he says. "It still does. A lot of people want to drop by and offer words and prayers. It's great that they want to do that, but some time it has to stop. You have to get back to normal. Enough is enough.
"I'll tell you what. This has taught me one thing -- I never want to be a celebrity."
As he dealt with the public and his job, Bessler had another, seemingly endless duty -- attending funerals and memorial services. He went to so many that they blurred together, an endless series of flag-draped coffins, widows and crying children. They went on for months, as body fragments were gradually identified and gave families something to base a service on.
But in December, after attending more than 100 services, Bessler suddenly stopped going. He found himself unable to respond to the invitations, like a fighter who hears the bell but can't come out of the corner. "I had to take a break," he says. "I couldn't take any more."
Some of the funerals stand out more than others. One was for Michael Weinberg, a firefighter Bessler had been particularly close to. Weinberg was probably the most eligible bachelor in the entire department, a quiet young man who was a star athlete and moonlighted as a model. After the funeral, Bessler laughs, at least three women came in, each to announce she was Weinberg's girlfriend and had come to collect his things.
Weinberg had been off work on Sept. 11, but drove to the scene in his car to try to save his sister, who worked in one of the towers. Unknown to Weinberg, his sister had already gone home.
Bessler was one of Weinberg's pallbearers. As he helped to carry the wooden box toward the grave, he pictured his friend inside it, as if he was sleeping and being carried off to bed. "We were brothers," he says. "And now, there he is, up on your shoulder. You're doing the only thing you can for him."
Every funeral marked the end of a long personal story Bessler had heard over the years in the station, in the fire truck, or during countless off-hours get-togethers. Every one of the deceased was a friend. One of the closest was 51-year-old Stevie Belsen, known as "Mr. Ladder 2-4" or more often, "Stevie B."
Belsen had been a sportsman too -- he was a former surfer and Rockaway lifeguard. He was also a notorious character. When it came time to choose the pictures of Belsen for the station shrine, Bessler selected one of him wearing a Holstein costume.
"You can't!" someone protested. "He's inside a goddamn cow!"
"That," Bessler insisted, "was Stevie B."
Bessler holds up a snapshot of the shrine, with Belsen in his cow suit. "How," he asks, "can Stevie B. be gone?"
Perhaps more than anything, Bessler is haunted by the death of Rev. Mychal Judge, the legendary chaplain of the New York fire department, killed by a falling body as he delivered the last rites to a firefighter on the World Trade Center sidewalk. Judge's church was across the street from Engine Company One, and he used to go to the station every day.
Famous enough to be invited to a White House dinner by Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Judge had never lost his common touch. "He was a walking spirit," Bessler says. "He was a gift to us." Because his vows prevented Judge from accepting gifts, the firefighters learned to express their reverence through action. "He had the shiniest floor you ever saw," Bessler says. "We were always up there putting a coat of lacquer on for him."
Bessler hates sitting still, so on this cold, clear winter day, he takes his visitor on a hike up the mountain behind his home. He brings along five-year-old Paul Jr. The trail leads gently up through a hardwood forest, then opens onto a near-vertical rock pitch that rises to the summit. Paul Jr. knows what's expected of him, and begins the climb, gripping the rocks. Bessler guides his son's hands to secure holds and positioning himself to stop the boy if he falls.
A few minutes later, they're at the top, looking out over the rolling hills of upstate New York. Their home appears far below, like a toy house. At the summit, there is an American flag on a steel pole -- another firefighter planted it up here, Bessler explains. He likes it.
Bessler stands on the peak for some time. He considers his lost friends, and the ones who remain. "The guys I was with," he says, "we have a serious bond. These are guys I ran for my life with.
"Now, I can relate to the guys who came back from Vietnam. All they had was each other. No one else got it."
Lately, he has been having a thought that he would once have considered heresy -- changing to another fire station. When he goes to work now, it's not the same. The frantic pace he used to love now seems like too much, and the station seems haunted by Stevie B., Mike Weinberg, Father Judge.
"It's painful being there now," he says. "All the guys I knew are gone."
Profession: New York City firefighter
Family: Wife Patty; son Paul Jr., 5; daughter Jessie, 14 months
Lives in: Sugarloaf, N.Y.
On Sept. 11: Was working overtime when the call came in. He escaped the 22nd floor of the World Trade Center North Tower, while the lieutenant who ordered him out was killed
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