Ground Zero: Firefighter, father, husband recounts 9/11 17 years later

By Katherine Hamilton |

Barbara Westfield was making beds at her in-home daycare when her uncle called and asked if her husband, John, was working at the firehouse that day. When she said yes, she was met with silence. Turning on the television to the news, she watched with horror, footage of the World Trade Center raging with fire.

“Then I’m glued, trying to keep these kids calm and entertaining them, but just glued. I thought for sure he’d be going, but there was no contact,” Barbara said. “My oldest son called hysterical – and that part was hard.”

A picture of  Westfield amidst the aftermath of the Sept. 11 Attacks hangs in his memorabilia room.

Barbara’s throat began to close around her words and shiny tears welled up in her eyes as she recalled 17 years later, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. John paused the conversation, stood up, gently handed his wife and high school sweetheart a tissue and let their dog, Finely, in to comfort her.

“Yeah, there wasn’t any cell service down there, and all the phone lines were cut under the street,” John explained as Barbara dried her eyes.

John went to the Ladder Company 116 Queens, New York fire house like he did every morning. The time was change of tours – 20 plus firefighters bumping into each other and saying, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

And then a multiple alarm went off and the television went on.

“At the moment we heard it was a plane, everybody was just assuming it was a Cessna, some sight seeing plane or something,” he said. We knew we were heading down there – they called us right away.

The firefighters were going off very little information; when they left the station and turned onto a street with line of sight to the towers, they saw not one, but both towers on fire, and the south tower had already collapsed.

That’s when they knew the fires were a result of a terrorist attack.

“As we were driving down, West Street was just a sea of people coming out and running away. I’ll never forget that: looking out a window, I’m driving and there’s briefcases, and coats, and white shirts, and ties and women running. It was tens of thousands of people running north away from the trade center. That was surreal,” he said.

The second tower collapsed when they were in the Midtown Tunnel.

A cross-shaped cut out of drywall and a shard of glass from the World Trade Center are a few of the many artifacts Westfield keeps on his walls from the September 11 Attacks.

“I got caught in that cloud [of the second tower], and that was pretty much like filling your mouth with tissue paper and trying to breathe. Tissue paper and dirt – yeah. Put as much dirt and tissue paper in your mouth and that is what I felt,” John recalled.

His face houses piercing blue eyes which expressed what his gruff Long Island accent could not.

When their second son, Derek Westfield, who was 14 years old at the time, got off the bus from high school that day, his mother was anxiously waiting for him. Barbara began calling parents to pick up their children from her daycare while Derek went to bring his sister Kelly home.

“And then it hit me that my dad was probably in trouble,” Derek said. “So, we basically got home and started flipping through channels. We caught a glimpse of him on one of the channels; they had a live camera, and we saw him walk by. At that point, all of us broke down – and we knew that he was alright at least.”

John was finally able contact his family at 3:30 p.m., the day of the attacks, and then worked through until midnight. He came home at 9 a.m. the next day.

“We all gathered, and we just cried. We just hugged each other and cried,” Barbara said, her voice wavering again.

Either that day or the next, John and Derek went fishing to catch some peace before John had to report back to the station.

“I don’t even think we put a line in the water. We just took the boat out, and I remember him just kind of breaking down. And I’m trying to console him as a 14 year old – I had no idea how to do that,” Derek said.

Westfield shows his tattoo replica of Peter O’Neill’s [a local artist] painting called ‘Two Minutes of Silence.’ The original oil painting sold for $20,000 in October of 2001.

John and hundreds, if not thousands of other firefighters, active and retired, went for days and weeks to Ground Zero. They all dug the place out by hand, he said.  Buckets and buckets of rubble was all that remained.

“A lot of funerals – I knew quite a few guys that were killed that day. And then we had a couple guys that died since from cancers. A lot of guys are sick, but for whatever reason I’m not as sick as some of the other guys,” John said.

“You’re just a toughie,” Barbara answered with tenderness.

After the rubble was cleared away, and after John went on tour with other fireman to thank every state for their efforts during a national time of crisis, he was finally able to let the dust settle.

“I don’t think it ever went back to normal – it’s a different world now. I think the innocence was gone,” John said. “It was a horrible situation, but a lot of good was born by it. We saw a lot of goodness in people.”

He specifically recalled how the children of an impoverished elementary school in California saved their pennies and gave firefighters $1,300.

“It breaks your heart – and makes you melt,” he said. “All they wanted to do was line up and touch you.”

John had been fighting fires his whole life; he first began as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Bayport Long Island, New York before he was even in high school. He and a few of his friends had special permission to leave class when the sirens went off – the entire fire department was volunteer-only.

“That’s how I became a fireman. We would go on dates, and I would hear the whistle and drive back to her house –” he said.

“— And throw me out of the car,” Barbara chimed in, both of them chuckling at his young ambition.

Westfield and other active and retired first responders take a moment of silence at St. Augustine’s Annual 9/11 Ceremony of Remembrance hosted by main fire station at 101 Malaga St. on September 11, 2018. Westfield was invited to speak about his experience as a member of Ladder Company 116, of Queens, New York.

When he went back to work after the attacks, he described constantly feeling like the other shoe was going to drop.

He retired in 2004 – three years after the attacks in his mid-40s, his 20th year was up, and his family was ready for him to be home safe and sound.

“Then I had to get a real job,” he laughed at himself.

He worked construction for a few years and then moved to St. Augustine six years ago to live a fully retired existence. All three of his children went to Flagler College: John is a lawyer, Kelly is in nursing school and Derek is a firefighter just like his father.

“When we were kids, we looked up to him. Obviously, I still do,” Derek said. “I always said I wanted to be a firefighter, and he was kind of trying to tell us he really didn’t want us doing that. Especially going through the stuff he went through, you probably don’t want to see your kids go through that, but he knew that it meant a lot to me, and that I’m doing it for the right reasons.”

John and Barbara’s’ home is just that – homey. Tucked down a side street near the Bridge of Lions, their house is just the right touch of the two of them mixed together; a camper and a boat are placed to the side behind a large pick-up truck, but the entry way is filled with fresh flowers, a trend which extends to the interior of the wood-detailed home.

And memories. Pictures and paintings line the walls and show full and well-lived lives. The furniture is plush. A guest could sit and talk for hours – John will most likely offer them a water or lemonade.

Don’t mind the dogs, he said. They’re all bark. The eldest dog, Scout, a rescue from New York, who he calls “the fixture of the house” lay near the sliding glass door. Since retirement, John has taken on any domestic projects including building a pool. The deck is fully stocked with a grill and hints at the many get-togethers they host for friends and family.

“Tinkering, building. I’m always doing something here,” he said with a smirk.

“I have faith in the younger generation, I do. They’ll pick up the torch. They’ll always be people who are proud to be an American and carry on,” Westfield said.

Then there is his 9/11 memorabilia room nestled in the corner of their front room. He walked through the wood-frame doorway and stood for a moment, midday light peering through the blinds.

“I think the people that went there and died there – I think they need to be remembered and honored,” John said. “There was a tremendous sacrifice that day, and it shouldn’t be forgotten, it shouldn’t go unnoticed – it shouldn’t go into the fog of history.”

Rolled-up, moth-eaten American flags were in metal baskets, different sized pictures took up the entire back wall, and awards and plaques took up the other. He handled each item with care, and as he turned, his reflection caught in the glass frame of a case hanging on the wall, which held a cross-shaped piece of one of the towers.

“I don’t think it will ever end. It will pop up – it’s kind of like a whack-a-mole – you hit it there and then its over there,” he said chuckling and pointing to the hypothetical mole-holes. “What do soldiers in Afghanistan say? They know they’re not going to stop it. They call it ‘mowing the grass’ when they go out on patrol. They go out, and they know it’s going to come back.

“But you don’t give up, or you’ll get overrun by weeds.”

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