Everlasting friendships formed at Ground Zero

by Jim Boyle

Editor

The atrocities committed against the United States 10 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001, continue to claim lives.

Elk River Fire Chief John Cunningham, a Greenwich, Connecticut native who grew up just 35 miles from the Twin Towers as the crow flies, knows all too well.

This man, an 21-year-old college student and volunteer firefighter who was unsure of his future at the time of the attacks, was called to work at Ground Zero on Sept. 16, 2001.

Photo by Jim Boyle: Elk River Fire Chief John Cunningham.

That’s where he met William Quick, a highly decorated member of the New York City Fire Department, and a band of other strangers whom he would come to call some of his best friends.

Quick died on Jan. 18, 2011, from medical complications that arose from two months he spent combing through metal and other debris at Ground Zero.

Cunningham shared his experiences of the moments and days and years that followed the attack on the World Trade Center at this past Saturday’s 9/11 ceremony and Elk River Public Safety Open House.  It was one of few times he shared publicly that he had served at Ground Zero, something which he considered an honor to do for those that came out.

“It was important to be here,” he told the Star News when asked whether he wanted to be back east for the anniversary.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Cunningham was in a computer lab as part of a business management class at the time of the attacks. He fished around on the Internet for information after the first tower was struck. Once a second plane struck, life in America would never be the same.

Click to see picture of Cunningham snapped in 2001: Cunningham #1

Cunningham later remembers being in his car, listening as New York City firefighters and police raced to the scene of the World Trade Center, only to be followed by a prolonged period of silence on his two-way radio as the first tower fell — and later the second.

“The radio finally began to crackle as distressed voices attempted to summon assistance,” he said. “As a firefighter, I have never felt a greater sense of helplessness.”

He knew he needed to be somewhere else, somehow helping.

Cunningham could see the smoke rising on the horizon as he prepared to head out with the Greenwich Fire Department to Yonkers Raceway Park — a staging area for the disaster.

Then on Sept. 16, 2001, he was assigned to work with a group of complete strangers as the process of combing for survivors was giving way to efforts to find every last victim.

It would be life-changing for Cunningham and his best friend, Dominick Briganti, who’s now a firefighter and trainer with the city of Clearwater, Fla.

“Other than Dominick I did not know any of the other firefighters in my group,” said Cunningham. “This did not matter, however, for each of us was there on a common mission.”

They were there to help a city in need and to support their brotherhood. Among their tasks was to set up a highwire between highpoints of what was referred to as “the pile.” With that they could send rescuers and retrieve victims as the search for innocent lives and 343 firefighters raged on.

Cunningham’s group  included Quick, other FDNY firefighters, and a contingent of career firefighters from Portland, Ore. who flew out on the first available flight to New York City after the attacks. Despite having never met before, they fell into a harmony working side by side.

“It was like we worked together for years,” said Briganti. “We didn’t have to talk a lot.” (Click to see shot of some of the men Cunningham worked with at Ground Zero: Cunningham #2)

Cunningham remembers how standing in one place too long amid the crumpled steel that once highlighted the New York City skyline was not good. Firefighters’ shoes would begin to melt.

“When we finally parted on that day, an everlasting bond was established between a group that earlier in the day were complete strangers,” Cunningham recalled at the ceremony. “These men are my closest friends today and I am proud to call them my brothers.”

They gathered again as a group for the first time for the 2002 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. They continued to stay connected over the years. And they gathered again in January for a surprise visit to see Quick, who they knew as Billy.

“I just told him I had a surprise for him on Jan. 17,” said Briganti, who had daily contact with the firefighter of more than 20 years before his retirement in 2002.

Quick spent most of his career with Rescue 4 in Queens — one of five rescue teams in New York City. “He was an elite member of an elite team,” Briganti said.

He entered Quick’s house first, greeting his surprised comrade who was hooked up to an oxygen mask. He then radioed: “All Hands Box, 87 Malone,” the signal for all units to respond.

Among those to answer the call were Miami Beach, the city of Miami, West Palm Beach, Portland, Ore. and Elk River, Minn.

Quick began to smile.

“They all came up the stairs, and he came to life,” Briganti recalled. “It was like he wasn’t even sick.”

Quick’s smile at the sight of his brotherhood is now etched on Cunningham’s mind. The group spent the afternoon talking, laughing and updating one another on their lives.

“‘How’s that Elk River?’ Billy asked me,”  Cunningham said. “That was him. He cared more about everyone else than himself.”

The brotherhood even set up a Facebook page for their friend, and explained to Billy how he could use it to stay connected to all of them. Little did they know that page would become a memorial page less than 24 hours later.

Cunningham was at the airport the next day getting ready to board a flight back to Minnesota when his phone rang.

“Dominick called to tell me that Billy passed away that morning,” Cunningham said.

Stunned disbelief rushed over them as conversation broke periods of silence.

The Facebook page became a depository for stories of how Quick impacted people’s lives — some people he didn’t even know.

“There were people that wrote how he inspired them to become firefighters after watching a documentary he was featured in back in the 1980s,” Briganti said.

The brotherhood stayed for the funeral. His wife was devastated, Briganti recalled.

“‘What did you know that we didn’t,’” she asked. “I   don’t know. I just knew in my heart we needed to be there. He touched so many people’s lives.”

It’s one of the messages that Cunningham came away with from his work at the World Trade Center. He was walking with his friend and colleague Briganti, when he turned the corner of a street to see a boulevard lined with people waving flags and quietly offering their thanks. The street was silent. A young boy broke from the crowd and came up to them — the only two people walking down this street — and hugged them and gave them a ribbon. It read: “Who I Am Makes a Difference.”

Those are words Cunningham tries every day to live by to this day.

“From that day on, John’s life and my life changed,” Briganti said. “I was reborn. I committed myself to the brotherhood, 24/7.”

Post 9/11, there was not a curriculum for homeland security. Today, Cunningham, 31, is pursuing a master’s degree in it.

“Please remember the sacrifices made (Sept. 11, 2001) and the sacrifices people like Billy continue to make on a regular basis,” Cunningham said.

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