John Veracka - FDNY
Responding to 9/11
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, 32 year old John V. woke up in a firehouse in Lower Manhattan where he was detailed to the night before. Due to a recent move with his family, John took first relief, leaving the firehouse at 8am to drive out to his bank in Long Island. Less than an hour into his drive John became aware of some devastating news - a plane has crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“I turned around immediately. It was my job. I was a firefighter. I had to get back.”
During his drive back to the Manhattan station the news would only get worse as a second plane crashed into the South Tower, a third into the Pentagon, and a fourth in Pennsylvania.
“I didn’t own a cell phone at the time so I couldn’t call my wife. I didn’t get to speak to my family until 6 or 7 that night, and by that time my wife was a mess. She was a mess.”
“I got back to the station and it was mayhem…there was no equipment left to take. The only mask I had was the particle mask they give us for EMS, which I wound up giving to somebody else when I was on the pile.”
John took the next ride out to the towers on one of the city busses being used to transport first responders as all trucks were deployed.
“We responded just after the second tower collapsed. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Holy sh*t.. we’re at war.’”
After arriving on scene John’s Lieutenant pulled him to the pile for rescue and recovery activities.
“Well... you thought it was rescue, but you were walking around and there were just body parts everywhere. You were walking around looking, listening, looking for anybody or anything you could hear. We didn’t find anyone alive.”
For the next three months John worked 24 hour rescue and recovery shifts, recovering bodies from the rubble and bringing closure to the victim’s families.
“Have you ever seen those old WWII movies where entire German towns are reduced to nothing but rubble?” John asked me. “That’s where I felt like I was.”
Had John slept in and decided to go to the bank a different day, he would have suffered the same fate as many of the men he woke up next to in the bunks that morning, never returning home to his family again.
“A few months after the rescue and recovery shifts were over I was promoted to Marshall. We were outside doing gun training on a cold morning, and that’s when I got sick.”
After years of battling respiratory complications and medical leave, John was retired from the force.
“I’ve been retired 16 years now, and I gotta be honest I never thought I’d make it that far - I thought for sure I'd be dead from cancer within ten years...every day is a blessing. I wake up every day and I thank God that I’ve gotten to watch my kids grow up. I had friends that didn’t.”
Although John was able to return home to his family that night, he is not left without scars and memories from that gruesome day in American history.
Today, we salute John, a true American hero.