Stephen Spelman rushed to Ground Zero as a first responder, but quickly found himself trying to outrun the overwhelming cloud of dust as The World Trade Center’s North Tower began to collapse.
Eighteen years later – to the day – Spelman shared the story of the daunting experience he had on Sept. 11, 2001.
Spelman, who now lives in Wesley Chapel, was the featured speaker at a North Tampa Bay Chamber luncheon on Sept. 11, at the Fox Hollow Golf Club in Trinity.
The commemorative event was also an unprecedented moment for him.
“I’ve never spoken on 9/11,” he said. “I never thought my story was significant enough.”
For 24 years, Spelman worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) and served the New York City Fire Department’s Battalion 46 in Queens.
In 1995, he became an instructor for the department – training firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and fire marshals.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was teaching a class when he got word that a plane had crashed into The World Trade Center’s South Tower.
He recalled: “As we were watching it on TV, the second plane hit, and we knew it was definitely a terrorist act. We had to go.”
He grabbed his gear, including a bulletproof vest, and rushed out.
Spelman, another EMT and two paramedics, left their station in Queens and headed to lower Manhattan.
“Coming across the Kosciuszko Bridge from Queens into Brooklyn, we could see the South Tower and the North Tower burning – a very somber moment,” he said.
By the time they reached Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the South Tower had completely collapsed.
Before the tower tumbled down, first responders were heard on radios calling for help, Spelman said.
“It was just pretty horrifying, if you could imagine, knowing that your brothers and your sisters there are the ones being hurt, and they can’t get help,” he said.
Continuing toward Ground Zero, the crew made detours to get around heavy traffic congestion.
When they got there, Spelman and his partner headed toward the North Tower, tending first to those with the most severe medical needs.
Spelman joined other firefighters searching for survivors in debris-covered vehicles.
They had to proceed with caution, as people above were jumping out of the North Tower.
That search was cut short though, Spelman said, when “all of a sudden, we hear the rumble.
“Everything was shaking. I looked up and we heard the thumping – the boom, boom, boom. What we found out later, they were floors stacking on each other. It was surreal.”
The collapse of the North Tower sent those in the area running.
Spelman ran north, while several of his search crew headed east. He survived. They did not.
Later that evening, Spelman, along with 14 other firefighters, formed a search party to find comrades that they knew were missing. That search was cut short, however, because of the ongoing dangers.
As time went on, more of the deceased were found – sometimes only the remnants of firefighter gear.
“It was just unfathomable,” Spelman said. “You could not imagine that this would really [have] been a reality. We lost 343 firefighters, paramedics and a priest – Father Mychal Judge.”
Spelman told the audience that he struggled with survivor’s guilt for years.
He found solace, he said, in reuniting with the same 14 firefighters that he went on the search party with that Sept. 11 evening. All 15, later, got tattoos with the engraving: “The Band of Brothers.”
Even on that horrific day, Spelman said he witnessed the goodness of humanity.
“I’ve seen some heroic things there that were unbelievable by everybody – civilians alike,” he stated. “It was amazing to see all the civilians running back to help us. We were all a family that day.”
As a result of 9/11, Spelman said he had to endure health issues, including a pre-cancerous condition.
He commended comedian Jon Stewart’s advocacy for 9/11 responders to continue receiving coverage.
Legislation passed this summer, grants extended coverage to responders who became ill as a result of Sept. 11, 2001.
Spelman said he struggled to process the trauma of that day.
He said he finally decided that doing something positive for others was the only way he could.
Recently, he donated a gift that became part of Pasco County’s first permanent 9/11 memorial, that was unveiled on Sept. 7 at Tampa Premium Outlets in Wesley Chapel.
His gift was a fragment of Ladder 18, taken from a fire engine that was at Ground Zero.
Spelman said the piece is now displayed on a wall, which is situated near gum ball and soda machines.
It’s a convenient location, he said, for younger generations to view it, ask what it represents and gain a better understanding of the nation’s history.
Published September 18, 2019