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Film

The story of how Steve Buscemi helped to rescue survivors after the 9/11 attacks

@SamWKemp

Twenty years after the 9/11 terror attack on New York, the shockwaves of the devastating terror attack are still being felt. It was the moment that has since come to define the modern American world, ripping a hole in the lives of countless people, people who, all these years later, can still remember precisely where they were when they heard the news that two commercial aircraft had crashed into The World Trade Centre in New York City. 

In the aftermath of the attacks, stories of the heroism of the New York fire and police services came thick and fast. The New York City Fire Department deployed 200 units to the World Trade Center in an attempt to rescue as many survivors as possible. Their efforts were supplemented by numerous off-duty firefighters, one of whom was the actor Steve Buscemi. 

Although known for his roles in films like Reservoir DogsBig Fish, and Ghost World, Buscemi began his working life as a firefighter. He took the FDNY civil service test when he was 18 and started working as an FDNY firefighter in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. With Engine Company No. 55, Buscemi fought fires in the Little Italy district of New York. By 2001 he was already an established actor, but when he heard the news of the attack on the twin towers, Buscemi made his way to ground zero, where he rejoined his crew and began searching for survivors amongst the wreckage.

The immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks proved to be the deadliest day in the history of the New York fire service. According to the 9/11 commission that investigated the emergency response to the attacks, New York City Fire Department lost 343 among its ranks. FDNY Division Chief for Lower Manhattan Peter Hayden later told the commission: “We had a very strong sense we would lose firefighters and that we were in deep trouble. But we had estimates of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, and we had to try to rescue them.”

Following the rescue attempt, Buscemi refused to give any interviews, feeling (quite rightly) that this was no moment for a celebrity heroism story. So, for years, nobody knew that the actor had even been there that day, wading through the rubble and the ash and the fire. The story only emerged when Jonathan Lusk, Captain of Fresno Fire, CA, recounted it in a post to the ‘Brotherhood Of Fire’ Facebook page. Lusk wrote: “After 9/11/2001… Brother Buscemi returned to FDNY Engine 55. On September 12, 2001 and for several days following Brother Steve worked 12-hour shifts alongside other firefighters digging and sifting through the rubble from the World Trade Center looking for survivors.”

“Very few photographs and no interviews exist because he declined them. He wasn’t there for the publicity. In 2003 he also gave a speech at a union rally supporting higher wages for firefighters and to stop fire houses from closing. He got arrested along with other firefighters,” Lusk added.

Buscemi later said that he had been a “privilege” to serve alongside his old colleagues on that tragic day. “It was great to connect with the firehouse I used to work with and with some guys I worked alongside. And it was enormously helpful for me because while I was working, I didn’t really think about it as much, feel it as much,” Buscemi said. 

You can watch an interview in which Buscemi describes his experience of firefighting below.

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