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Former N.Y. firefighter recalls time at Ground Zero

Tony Amato’s time in Long Island, N.Y. was committed to helping others. Just days after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, he held true to that commitment.  

“When 9/11 first happened, it was just the city agencies, but then they started to realize that they were going to need a lot more help,” he said.

Amato was a volunteer firefighter as well as a registered nurse at the time. He had just returned home from working the night shift at the hospital and turned on the news radio station that he listened to each day. 

He began to feel uneasy when the tone of the reporters indicated something was terribly wrong.

He listened as a reporter informed him an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. It wasn’t until the second airplane crashed that he realized this event was more than just a tragic accident.

“I was watching TV when the second plane hit because after listening to the news reporter, things sounded so bad I put the TV on,” he said. “Of course, there was lots of coverage with different angles and then while they were interviewing someone on the ground, the second plane just came out of nowhere and hit the second tower.”

A few days passed before Amato’s fire station, the Massapequa Fire Department, started getting called in to assist. Some went to help at Ground Zero and others were asked to help at other fire departments that were short staffed. 

Amato was escorted by two police officers to Ground Zero, where he was checked in, searched and handed a respirator to protect him from debris and toxins.

Teamed up with a pastor from Oklahoma who owned a cadaver dog, Amato began searching the mound of debris left over from the twin towers, or the “pile,” for missing people.

“It impacts me daily; I still have flashbacks to the pile,” he said. “I have difficulty talking about it. I never did go back.”

Amato’s work at Ground Zero continued after assisting on site. Dressed in Class-A uniforms, Amato and a group of 15-20 volunteer firefighters loaded onto buses and attended multiple funerals daily for weeks to honor the firefighters who lost their lives. Of the 2,977 lives lost, 343 were firefighters.

“The City of New York wanted to make sure that the families were getting the proper respect,” he said. “But they just didn’t have the manpower, so they asked volunteers to step in and do that. And that was difficult. That was not easy.”

Twenty years later, Amato, now a resident of Terra Alta, continues to keep 9/11 alive by speaking at local schools each year about his experiences. Although he has earned several combat ribbons during his time as a firefighter, the one that means the most to him is black with a gold border and has the acronym WTF for World Trade Center.

“The only thing that gets worn higher than that ribbon is the American flag,” he said. “After the American flag comes the ribbon.”

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