Michael McAvoy looked across the East River to see smoke billowing from the World Trade Center’s north tower, and his thoughts raced to his best friend on the 104th floor.
McAvoy called Jimmy Ladley from his Brooklyn office.
Jimmy didn’t answer his office line. He didn’t answer his cell phone.
McAvoy pictured the beautiful golf course next to Jimmy’s New Jersey house. Did Jimmy enjoy the perfect weather on that Sept. 11 morning instead of going to work?
McAvoy rang Jimmy’s house.
“One of the worst feelings was his wife answering the phone, and she’s hysterical,” McAvoy said. “You could hear it in her voice. ‘Hello?’ Frantic and desperate, throat-curdling. Just a frantic ‘Hello?’ I knew Jimmy wasn’t home, and I knew she was hoping it was him.”
Jimmy’s wife asked which of the towers her husband worked in. McAvoy knew the towers well: He used to work on the 102nd floor of the tower that the first airliner had slammed into. Jimmy was in that same tower, he told his friend’s wife.
McAvoy had seen the fire and smoke out a window but retreated to his office. He heard his co-workers talking as they watched the first tower burn. A few minutes later, they screamed and fell to the floor.
The second plane had crashed into the other tower. He knew it was terrorists and not an accident.
McAvoy’s brother John, a firefighter, came to mind. Firefighters change shifts at 9 a.m. John’s firehouse was five minutes from the trade center.
McAvoy saw it was 9:05 a.m.
It’s 10 years later now, and McAvoy retraces the day as though it just happened. He moved to the Valley six years ago to distance himself from the painful memories of his hometown. For years, just the sight of a plane near skyscrapers would make him fear the worst was about to happen. Sept. 11 still haunts him.
“I look at the calendar and it’s 2011, and the date means nothing,” McAvoy said. “It feels like it’s six months ago.”
McAvoy met his best friend 36 years earlier, in the first grade. They were both born to Italian fathers who were cops. They both worked in finance. They liked the Yankees, the Jets, the Pirates and blondes. They were like brothers.
McAvoy’s actual brother was at his firehouse that morning. McAvoy called their mother because she kept John’s schedule. John’s shift had just ended.
McAvoy had to see for himself. He took the subway to Manhattan and entered a city caked in dust and debris.
“Everyone had the same look,” McAvoy said. “Everyone had a look like they’d just seen a ghost.”
He got to the firehouse in the afternoon. He learned a fire truck had taken some of the station’s 12-man crew to the trade center. Not everybody fit on the truck, but the others found their own way to ground zero. John went in his street clothes, taking a taxi with another firefighter.
McAvoy saw a dirty firefighter who he knew at the firehouse.
“He just looked at me with this blank look,” McAvoy said. “I’m like, ‘Billy, tell me something!’ and he’s like, ‘They’re not finding anyone.’ And that’s when I knew he was gone.”
McAvoy went to hospitals to look at names of patients. Jimmy and John weren’t on any list. Doctors were waiting for patients to stream in, but nobody was arriving.
McAvoy went to a friend’s Manhattan apartment. He blurted out that his brother and best friend were dead.
It took months to recover the remains of his best friend and his brother.
“Being a New York City firefighter is a tough job. I think it makes it easier knowing he died as a hero,” McAvoy said. “All Jimmy did was go to work and he died at his desk.”
McAvoy has read every book he can find on 9/11 to learn what he can. He’s convinced it could have been prevented. He’s angry the 1993 trade center bombing didn’t trigger a more vigorous response against terrorists. He figures we should have known terrorists wouldn’t give up until they destroyed the towers.
“We glorify life. Life is everything and the people who did this, they’re glorified in death,” McAvoy said. “And that’s the major difference between us and them.”
McAvoy, 52, feels obligated to take up speaking engagements and interviews to raise awareness of the attacks. He spoke at a Saturday 9/11 memorial that included Gov. Jan Brewer and Sen. John McCain. He also attended a ceremony in Gilbert when a beam from the trade center was installed in the town’s 9/11 memorial.
The events leading up to each year’s anniversary always leave McAvoy exhausted by Sept. 11. He said he won’t turn people down to speak about the pain New York City and its residents still feel.
“My home is here now,” McAvoy said. “I feel part of my job is to tell people in Arizona about 9/11. I think it’s important, and regrettably, most people don’t know.”
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