Forgetting is a comfort Ron Parker cannot and will not bear.
Parker had been a firefighter for the New York Fire Department (FDNY) for 17 years the morning of September 11, 2001, serving in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey and Staten Island. It was his day off. He watched on live television as the second plane exploded into the second 110-story World Trade Tower, and he knew he was no longer on vacation.
Parker raced to Ladder 84 on Staten Island and reported for duty. He remembers the feeling of speeding down the median of the highway, realizing this was total recall of everyone who had anything to do with the safety of New York City. He arrived at the Staten Island to Manhattan ferry terminal with a bus load of other firefighters from outlying boroughs when both towers fell within minutes of each other.
“It sounded like a hundred trains crashing into each other at the same time,” Parker said.
The ferry took off toward Manhattan, gliding across New York Bay, marred by a rolling fog of cement ash, diesel smoke, dust and vapors.
“I will NEVER FORGET the attacks of Sept. 11 or their aftermath, which changed my career,” Parker said. “Both still create many emotions and great pain and suffering to this day. I don’t sleep well. I still have nightmares to this day. Sometimes you know you’re retired, sometimes you’re jumping back on the truck.”
Parker, who recently visited Orcas Island for several weeks, is one of only two firemen to write a book chronicling the reality of a first responder on and since 9/11.
The book, titled “Chiefs, Pawns and Warriors,” uncovers a fresh perspective on victimhood. It crawls through 110 stories of mangled steel, toxic debris and clouds of smoke as the author attempts to rescue thousands of civilians and first responders trapped beneath the fallen twin towers, and the subsequent rescue of himself.
“No one came out of there alive after the first 24 hours. We shifted our mentality from ‘search and rescue’ to ‘recovery.’ I was tethered to a group of guys I didn’t know. We found a woman alive at about noon on Sept. 11, and around midnight we rescued two Port Authority officers. It took a couple hundred guys to get them out of ‘The Pile,’” Parker said in his Brooklyn accent.
He is a second-generation American-Italian. Both his mother and father were Sicilian. Parker’s father, Salvador Panasedi, changed his name to Charles Parker in 1947 to avoid prejudice against Italians.
A total of 343 firefighters, 37 port authority police officers and 23 New York City police officers died responding in the 9/11 attacks. Nearly 18 years later, the FDNY is still reeling from the effects.
The department added the names of 22 members who died from 9/11-related illnesses to its World Trade Center Memorial Wall on Friday, Sept. 6.
The World Trade Center Health Program cites rhinosinusitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, cancer and respiratory disease as some of the most common conditions arising.
“We couldn’t see anything, couldn’t breathe. We had no masks, no tools for communication,” Parker said. “I remember looking down at my steel hand tool, a ‘halligan’ that we use to pry open doors. Then between plumes of dust I looked up at the leveled building, fallen in pieces that looked like Pick-up sticks, wondering what we were supposed to accomplish with these tools. I had a bottle of water I could use to wash out my eyes and drink from. My nose and mouth were filled with cement.”
He completed the book in 2013 as the culmination of seven years of therapy notes.
“At first, I was forced to see a psychiatrist,” Parker writes in the book. “I had become disconnected from nearly everyone around me. I drank a little more than I normally did, which wasn’t all that often at first. Then, over time, I began to empty more bottles. Every day I became more sluggish and useless. Dr. Charles Carluccio was the key that helped me unlock and release my fears. We began to battle and defeat my ever-present nightmares. [He] saved my life.”
Parker hopes to have several copies available at Darvill’s Bookstore by the end of September.
Since 9/11, Parker has served as a tour guide docent at the World Trade Visitor’s Center and developed plans for building a non-profit 9/11 memorial museum of south Florida in his new hometown of Boca Raton. But his passion is traveling the country to deliver presentations to underprivileged children at charter schools and local fire departments.
“I travel on my own dime to go to all of these schools. I’m a survivor,” he said. “I relate to kids. These kids mean something to me. They look at me and think ‘this white guy, what’s he gonna tell me?’ I say, ‘my job is done. You’re the future of this country. You matter to me. That’s why I’m here. If God gives you a talent, take advantage of it.’ Then I ask them to do something for me. I tell them they have to vote,” Parker said. “I’m just blessed to be here. I’m on borrowed time. If I had taken a left instead of a right and arrived on the scene of the World Trade Towers 23 minutes earlier, I would’ve been killed. It’s easy to pay it forward. What else am I gonna do? Play golf?”
While on Orcas, Parker spent time catching a “Yankees game at the Mariner’s stadium,” whale watching and stopping by the Eastsound fire station to ceremoniously help install a steel girder from Ground Zero on a two-ton piece of granite.
“That has to be the biggest piece of steel as far as the west coast goes,” Parker noted.
Eight years ago, Orcas Orcas Fire and Rescue requested an artifact from the towers to become a part of a local memorial. Members of the department traveled to New York to bring a beam back to the island. For a time, it sat in the lobby. A mural that will serve as a backdrop for the steel beam was completed in May by local artist Robin Lassen. The 6-foot beam from the fallen towers at the New York World Trade Center will be unveiled at the Eastsound Fire Station on Sept. 11 at 6 p.m. following a short ceremony.
“So many people were part of this project,” coordinator Lieutenant Alan Stameison said. “Finally memoralizing it has sparked new pride at the station. When Ron walked in the door, I’d already heard about him. I told him I wanted to know if our memorial for the artifact was doing it justice. And Ron said, ‘it’s perfect.’”
Parker excitedly shared, “I just happened to stop in to say hello at the fire station here. I met Alan who invited me to join them in seeing if the bolts were going to fit. It was definitely emotional for me. I felt spiritually connected to that piece of steel.”