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9/11: Lives lost, but not forgotten

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The pain of Sept. 11, 2001, hasn’t stopped for Richie Feiner. “I try to forget,” he said. “Can’t.”

Feiner was days away from retirement as a New York City firefighter when he saw the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse from a Prudential corporate training facility in New Jersey. He didn’t have to go, but Feiner went home, grabbed his gear and headed for Manhattan. His life would never be the same.

Feiner played the bagpipes at the Belin Memorial United Methodist Church’s Sunday morning service marking the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. He brought his fireman’s helmet still covered with dust from the World Trade Center for people to see during two choral performances Sunday afternoon. “I put it in a box and have not touched it,” he said. “I never will.” Feiner wants to make certain that none of the 3,000 people who perished that day will be forgotten. “It hurts, and it’s raw,” he said. “It is what it is.”

Belin choir director Jim Sellers noticed that Feiner handled the memorial this past Sunday better than he did five years ago when he lived near Murrells Inlet. Feiner has found some form of peace in Pompano Beach, Fla. “For him, it was very healing,” Sellers said. “It’s still very raw, but he’s come a long way.”

Feiner told members of the Murrells Inlet Rotary Club that the scene in a deserted lower Manhattan after the towers fell was eerie. The buildings had become a seven-story funeral pyre. He made his way along the street picking up body parts: a foot in a shoe, an arm. He placed them in planters on the West Side Highway. “This was my introduction to the World Trade Center,” Feiner said.

Feiner said he found the hat of a colleague and golfing buddy, John Williamson. He was chief of the Sixth Battalion, and his car had been crushed by the falling rubble. “And so it begins,” Feiner said.

He dug in the rubble with his bare hands for four days hoping to find a survivor. Rescuers would hold others by the ankles and lower them into holes made of twisted rebar and pulverized concrete. Feiner said he poured Gatorade on the smoldering rubble because there was no water.

Rescuers put body parts in orange plastic bags. Feiner said the bags stacked in a refrigerated truck is a picture he can’t get out of his mind.

The heroism displayed that day from firefighters and police officers has become the legacy of 9/11. Capt. John Jonas and five other rescuers turned back to help a woman in a stairwell just before the first tower fell. She’s known as the “angel in the stairwell,” Feiner said, because they all survived and were among the first to be rescued. “Great guy, John Jonas,” he says.

For Feiner, one of the worst memories is the beeping of the alarms on the breathing masks of firemen who were in the rubble. “The masks have an alarm that goes off if you don’t move within a minute,” he said, “in case you go unconscious. To hear all those going off and you can’t get to them. It’s insanity, but we tried. We really tried.”

Feiner said he worked shoulder to shoulder with mates from his firehouse, Knucklehead, the Hurley Monster and Mikey the Clam. They are all dead of cancer. “Guys are still dying because it was such an environmental catastrophe,” he said. “Agent Orange in Vietnam took 20 years. This was so concentrated, guys were dying of the weirdest things in a year or two. I’ve had five guys die since retiring, thinking they were going to be OK. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer. It just keeps going. It will not stop.”

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