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East County Thursday, Sep. 9, 2021 1 month ago

9.11 Remembered: Former New York City fireman shares memories of the attack

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Lakewood Ranch's Steve Lubrino, a New York City fireman who survived the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, says 9-11 stories need to be told.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It isn't so much a visual memory that comes to mind when Lakewood Ranch's Steve Lubrino recalls his fireman's duty at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

It's a sound.

"The sound of bodies hitting the ground," Lubrino said about the devastation caused by the terrorist planes hitting the World Trade Center towers. "People were jumping ... hitting the walkway. That sound went on for a while."

Some of those trapped on the higher floors of the 110-story skyscrapers — more than 2,600 people died in the attack and its aftermath at the World Trade Center — eventually jumped. It created such a dangerous situation for rescue workers that Lubrino said the firemen had to post someone to look skyward and tell their fellow firefighters if it was safe to walk around the outskirts of the building.

"A couple of our guys did get hit and killed (by falling bodies)," Lubrino said. "Father Mychal Judge died that way."

Judge was a Catholic priest who served as a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. Official reports said he died from falling debris from the collapse of the north tower.

Lubrino, who then was assigned to Ladder 102 in Bedford-Stuyvesant of the Brooklyn borough, was studying firemen's safety and methods early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. When the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., speakers throughout the firehouse alerted Lubrino and his fellow firefighters they were needed.

As the firefighters went to the first floor of the firehouse to their trucks, they saw on TV what was happening. Scanner reports let them know the severity of the situation, although confusion reigned. Obviously, it was serious, and the firefighters began putting extra supplies on their rigs. Seventeen minutes after the first plane hit the North Tower, another hit the South Tower.

"Everyone started to get nervous," he said. "We knew it was a terrorist attack. We knew it was going to be the job of all jobs."

Upon arrival, Lubrino said it was an odd, eerie feeling, like they had arrived at a combat zone.  He went with his fellow firefighters into the North Tower to do anything they could to help. They climbed upward.

"We got up less than 10 floors," he said. "Then we heard the evacuation order."

The South Tower was the first to collapse, at 9:59 a.m. Debris and dust filled the North Tower as Lubrino made his way to the ground level. When Lubrino finally got out of the building, the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m.

He was running as fast as he could, about 100 yards from the North Tower when it collapsed, in front of a Burger King. The force of the skyscraper collapsing blew him into the restaurant.

"I came to in the back storage area of the Burger King," he said. "I must have went through the window, because my shoulder was all banged up."

Regaining consciousness, he tried to refocus on helping.

"The command center had been wiped out," he said. "We had a check-in point on the West Side Highway and everyone was hanging out there. They started sending us in in smidgets. They would send us to the outskirts of a building.

"It was deserted, with soot, debris and random fires. I remember walking right past all these car fires that normally we would try to put out."

From noon to about 4 p.m. that day, Lubrino "blacked out" and has no memory of what occurred. Perhaps he suffered a concussion from being blown into the Burger King, but he doesn't know for sure. 

"I can't put together where I was," he said.

His memory comes back about the late afternoon. He remembered an ambulance stopping next to him and attending to him, flushing out his eyes. He remembers the chaos of the evening.

The firefighters would form an assembly line, passing along debris in five gallon pails as they dug to find possible survivors. Those at the front of the line would search for bodies. The effort continued all through the night and again all day on Wednesday into the night. Lubrino finally went home late Wednesday night.

Sometime on Wednesday, he believes he called his wife, Michelle, to let her know he was OK. He can't remember actually making the call, but when he arrived home, she told him he had. To that point, she didn't know if he was alive or dead.

For months after the attack, Lubrino and his fellow firemen were put on new schedules. On their days off, they all would work at the World Trade Center, digging and searching for bodies.

"I found parts," he said. "I never found a whole body. But I did help carry full bodies out."

Three-hundred-and-forty firefighters and 72 policemen died on 9-11.

Twenty years later, Lubrino lives in Mallory Park and works as a swim coach of the Lightning swim program along with being the head coach at Lakewood Ranch High School.

After serving with Ladder 102 from 1996 through 2005 and as an officer for Ladder 162 in Queens from 2005 through 2014. Lubrino was forced into retirement and placed into the World Trade Center Health Program. He only has about 65% percent functioning lung capacity and doctors have said it was caused by working on 9-11. He has had surgery without much benefit.

Now 54, Lubrino said the enormity of 9-11 doesn't overwhelm him except when September rolls around. He never has sought out professional help because Michelle has always been there to listen when feelings emerge.

"I speak to her more than anyone else," he said. "She says I've always been able to handle things, and can process it better than most."

The couple, who moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2014, has a son, Brandon, who works as a police officer in New York, and a 15-year-old daughter, Jeanna, who attends Lakewood Ranch High.

Perhaps the toughest aspect of 9-11 was that Lubrino lost two of his best friends in Engine 230's Mike Carlo and Gene Whelan, who died in the collapse of the South Tower.

"Bringing up Mikey and Geno, that's the hardest thing for me to do," he said. "Mikey was going to the Caribbean the next day, to be on a sailboat. If they were still here, we would have gone to weddings together and baby births. Twenty years later, we would be getting ready to retire.

"You know, "I've never been one of those guys who hates Muslims. I hate terrorists. Who doesn't? I hate all the hate in the world."

Although he never talked about his 9-11 experience until he moved to Florida, he does talk about it when requested by schools.

"I feel the younger generations should know what this country, my friends, my brothers, went through," he said. "It is a tough thing to talk about. But it's history and we should get the different stories."

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