Phil Malloy and Ralph Esposito, then members of the Nassau County Fire Commission, were driving east, to a fire truck repair and supply shop in Yaphank, on Sept. 11, 2001.
When they arrived, they were surprised to find no one outside the shop. What they discovered inside shocked them. “Nobody was doing anything besides staring at the television,” Esposito recounted.
“Are you serious?” Malloy recalled asking himself as he learned that a commercial jet had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. When a second jet crashed into the south tower 18 minutes later, he turned to Esposito. “Something’s not right,” he said. “Something’s up.”
Soon, Malloy and Esposito were at the front of a long line of police cars and fire trucks heading from Long Island to Lower Manhattan.
“It was a tough day,” Esposito, who later served as a firefighter with the Elmont Fire Department. “It was really heartbreaking.”
After coming home from his job as a New York City police officer that day, Dominick Labianca, who is now the chief of the Franklin Square and Munson Fire Department, was at the firehouse in Franklin Square, eating breakfast and watching the news when he saw a replay of the first plane ramming the north tower.
At first, Labianca mistook it for footage of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, he said, but then he remembered that that attack took place in the basement of one of the towers.
Labianca returned to New York City a few days after the attack. He helped provide security at ground zero, working there for over a month.
Malloy said he would never forget the smell there, as well as the destroyed cars and the fluttering papers. “I remember the carnage …,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
Malloy and Esposito worked at what was then known simply as the pile for over a week, making sure that firefighters working there had vital resources such as masks and changes of clothing. Both men said that those who worked in the ruins of the towers developed a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that has lived on despite the deaths of so many of them in the years since.
“I lost a lot of friends,” Malloy said. “When your brothers are missing, it’s something that really touches home.”
Malloy, who developed cancer, a seizure disorder and asthma, and recently had his thyroid removed, said he would return to ground zero again despite his illnesses if he were given the chance to do it all over again.
Now 59, Malloy has two grandchildren, ages 6 and 3. He said he would attend the ceremony at Rath Park, in Franklin Square, on Sept. 12, but would not take part. “I consider it sacred ground,” he said of the 9/11 memorial at the park, where steel from the World Trade Center — which he helped secure — is on display.
The anniversary of the attacks is a solemn day for Malloy, who each year listens to the names of those who died as they are read aloud at the site.
“How many of us got sick? How many lost their lives?” Esposito, who is 77 and developed throat cancer after working at ground zero, asked, questioning the guidance first responders received about the air quality there.
“We don’t forget those who gave all to serve the public,” Esposito said. “We are brothers and sisters on the job, and we never forget those who lost their lives.”
Labianca emphasized that although 20 years have passed, the nation still lives with the ramifications of the attacks. “It didn’t just end on that day,” he said. “We can never forget the thousands of innocent people who lost their lives that day, and the people who have passed away since then.”