NYFD lieutenant from Southport commandeered a city bus to get to ground zero

Lt. Dave Russell, a member of the FDNY and Fairfield native, poses near his home in Bridgeport.

Lt. Dave Russell, a member of the FDNY and Fairfield native, poses near his home in Bridgeport.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — On Sept. 11, 2001, the world changed forever.

At 8:46 a.m that day, the lives of millions were impacted as a hijacked American Airlines flight crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later a second airplane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Not far from the attack was New York Fire Department Lt. Dave Russell, a fourth-generation firefighter from Southport.

Russell was off-duty that day, attending to his house in Westchester at the time that was under construction, when he received a call from his wife.

“She mentioned that I was going to work which meant that there was a fire or something,” Russell said. “I said ‘What are you talking about?’ and she said, ‘You’re going to work.’ She repeated it twice.”

Russell’s wife told him a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and it was on every channel. As Russell turned on the television, he quickly realized that it wasn’t just a small plane. He hung up the phone and rushed to his firehouse in the Bronx.

Duty called.

“It wasn’t even a choice for me. You had to go. I didn’t even think about anything else besides you had to get there,” Russell said. “Your sense of duty, sense of human kindness and sense of human responsibility, you just did it.”

As Russell got the firehouse to muster up tools, many of his firefighters from Engine 62, Ladder 32 — feeling the same sense of duty — started to show up. They then traveled to the fire department headquarters about 20 blocks away to gather up more radios, tools and equipment.

Once they were ready, Russell and a fellow lieutenant walked across the street and commandeered a city bus. As Russell puts it, he “not so politely” kicked everybody off the bus and the driver drove the 50 or so firefighters from the Bronx to Manhattan.

They made it to the Major Deegan Expressway and found no one north or southbound.

“It was pretty wild,” Russell said.

“As you looked south you saw the smoke coming from the lower half of Manhattan. I always called it ‘the horizontal tornado’ going towards Brooklyn,” he added. “As we got closer you saw literally hundreds of thousands of people walking over the Brooklyn Bridge walking out of Manhattan. Some were as clean as we were and there was people completely covered in what we now know as the World Trade Center dust.”

Russell and his team got off the bus just below Broadway, walking through the area, looking for things to do and people to help.

“Every time you turned the corner, it just got worse,” he said.

Russell said there were buildings and firetrucks on fire, buildings crushed, cars and trucks flattened, broken fire hydrants. Bodies lay on the ground.

The group of firefighters was looking for the mass rescue to save civilians, police officers and whoever else they could find, but Russell said there was no one to rescue.

“Basically that day you either walked away from it or you died, there was really no in-between,” Russell said.

Prior to joining the NYFD in 1984, Russell served in the Air Force for eight years. He specialized in crash rescue during that time and then continued serving the country in the same capacity for another 22 years in the Coast Guard reserves.

While traveling through the city, Russell fell back onto his military training — constant situational awareness.

“I knew after the second plane had hit that we were at war,” Russell said. “Just knowing that, you are also thinking about secondary attacks or sabotage. You had no idea and once we found out the Pentagon was on fire we knew the world was over as we knew it.”

Russell said as a lieutenant his number one goal was to keep his guys safe, however, walking through the death and destruction had its effect.

“It was sort of to the point where it was sensory overload,” Russell said. “That part fatigues you, but you just keep going.”

“This attack was my generation’s Pearl Harbor,” he added.

The chaos of that infamous day still sticks in the hearts and minds of those in American society even 20 years later.

Russell recalls that after the attacks, “America was America.” He said everybody bonded and it didn’t matter who someone was or what they were. There was pride in the country and people respected each other, something that he believes is no longer the case.

“The motto is never forget, but it seems like a lot of people have, “ Russell said. “That whole pride thing is gone.”

In 2005, Russell retired from the military and in 2006, five years after Sept. 11, he retired from the NYFD and has since returned to Connecticut.