It’s been 18 years since planes flew into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and Joe Cruz, a former New York fireman who spent 17 straight days at Ground Zero on recovery efforts, said health issues “have become very big.”
Cruz, who moved to The Dalles about 13 years ago, said, “More of us are dying that showed up there.”
He is disabled now because of 9/11, he said. He has deteriorating lungs and asthma. He has PTSD, anxiety and depression. He’s developed health issues in the last nine years. “It’s small little things.”
But the anxiety really promotes health conditions, he said, from asthma to palpitations. “You just can’t stand going to the grocery store. Sweating. Heavy sweating. And if you talked to a veteran they’d probably be saying the same thing.”
He’s even mentored veterans. “I’m doing my best because I can do very little. It’s kind of like a brotherhood, whoever went through some crap.”
He worked for 12 years as a paramedic with the New York Fire Department and likened it to being in a war zone.
“Stuff like that really adds up after many years. 9/11 was just one day,” he said.
As he reflects on 9/11 from the vantage point of nearly 20 years later, the Brooklyn native thinks about how the nation came together after the attacks.
“Like Sept. 12 was the best. Why? Because a Muslim was helping a Jew, a white was helping a Chinese and a black. There was nothing in the way. That was the most positive thing ever. After reflecting all these years, I’m kind of damn proud of it.”
He said, “In times when something terrible happens, people come together. And I have no doubt this community would do the same.”
He said he was recognized last year for his service at Ground Zero. “I got a medal 16 years later because somebody found my name and said, ‘Oh, we got something for you.’ That doesn’t matter. It’s sitting in a closet, in a dark corner somewhere. I forgot where it is. We’re not worshippers of ourselves, we just do our thing.”
Over the years, as he’s retold the story of responding that day—he was already on duty—it’s gotten shorter and shorter. “I don’t appreciate it as much. It gets boring. It gets simpler and simpler because most of the time I just want to get it over with. You don’t want to make it interesting because in the end it’s just a sucky story.”
He went to many funerals for fellow firefighters right after 9/11, and now, cancers are taking lives. “We’re just getting taken out one by one, which sucks. But that’s ok. I’m very grateful. Living in a community like this helps. It’s been very healing.”
He said, “I don’t want to say something like we feel safe here, but we really do.”
His wife is from The Dalles. They met at a party through connections and it was love at first sight, he said.
He’s still in frequent contact with other first responders. “We’re forever a team. And that’s a big help.”
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed after being struck by two planes flown by Islamic terrorists, killing over 2,600 people. In all, four planes were hijacked; one flying into the Pentagon and another was downed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers thwarted the hijacker’s plans. The total death toll was nearly 3,000.
Cruz described his hardest moment at Ground Zero.
“Entering Ground Zero, it was barricaded by police, and beyond that on the outside was thousands of people putting up the pictures of relatives… When we left one night—I’m trying not to tear up here, this is hard—the police opened the barricade to let us out and one woman jumped out of the barricade and onto our hood and [she had] a picture of her son who we had found that evening and we couldn’t say anything.
“And the police moved her and we had to move on. She made eye contact with us. We had to keep our windows rolled up. It was very violent. Not violent, but it was chaos for them. It’s not like a rock concert type of chaos, it’s just real hurt.”
He said, “I wanted to give her closure. I wanted to jump out and give her a hug.”
It was his first time telling that story on the record, he said. “That’s the kind of stuff that keeps popping in your head over the years. It isn’t the guy who gets his head blown off, it’s the mother who lost her child. It isn’t the guy who got run over by a train, it’s the kid who keeps saying, ‘Why won’t Daddy wake up?’”
In his years of service before 9/11, Cruz delivered 27 babies, not losing a single one. He also had four water rescues, nine fire rescues, and over 30 pre-hospital saves.
“During the crack years people didn’t even know they were pregnant,” he said. “They just thought they had indigestion for months. You’re probably thinking ‘This guy is full of ----,’ but no, it was like that. The drug years in Brooklyn and Manhattan and the Bronx. It really hardens you.”
But that’s what he loves about The Dalles. “We haven’t gone through the BS of being tainted with sorrows and terrible things.”
He’d like to become an instructor for EMTs or paramedics someday. “I’m always trying to give more. It’s just my thing. That’s all I’ve known since high school.” He said he’d like to “pass on what I know before it’s too late. That would be the biggest privilege.”
In a crisis, he said, “The more we’re paying attention to the local authorities the more we’re going to work fluidly. That’s the truth. When the fire department says something, the police, follow the lead. They’ve got a plan. And that’s where people get hurt, when they don’t have a plan.”
As for how he will observe 9/11 this year, he said, “I want it to be special, but I want to spend time with my family and my daughter, who turns 21 on the 11th.”
“I guess it’s the best distraction from such a day, so it works out in the end.”