Shelton firefighter appreciates life after working at ground zero

SHELTON — Paul Wilson, walking through what had become ground zero, remembers being speechless as he stood on the site where the World Trade Center’s twin towers had stood only hours before.

It was Sept. 11, 2001, and Wilson, along with fellow Shelton volunteer firefighters Mike Ullrich, Nick Meresko, Dave Sekelsky Sr., and James Leonard, had made the trek to lower Manhattan to aid their “brothers” in what started as search and rescue but became recovery.

“When we finally got to lower Manhattan later that evening, we parked several blocks away and the dust and debris was everywhere,” said Wilson, who was 30 at the time and a volunteer firefighter with Echo Hose Hook and Ladder Company 1. “When we got out of the car none of us spoke, we just looked around and tried to absorb exactly what was going on.”

Wilson, now the department’s deputy chief, had spent the day watching the scene unfold on television as terrorists hijacked airplanes and flew them into the towers and the Pentagon. Some 3,000 people died.

“Once we heard about the events that were unfolding, several members responded to their respective fire stations as we were not sure what was really going on,” Wilson said. “We spent all day at the firehouse, like everyone else, watching the news and calling our loved ones.”

The five Shelton firefighters then hit the road to lower Manhattan. When they arrived, Wilson said they walked down West Avenue where they were assembled with several of their fire departments from New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. The groups waited for an assignment.

“After what felt like an eternity, we were assigned to FDNY Battalion 50, Team ‘K,’” Wilson added. “We began to walk to ground zero, and when we arrived, it was so much worse than what we saw on TV. The smell, the sounds of firefighters PASS (personal alert safety system) devices sounding in the visual was just absolutely incredible.”

One of the Shelton team’s assignments was to check the American Express building on the corner of West Avenue and Vesey Street. The crew was told to check for any obvious building integrity issues from the first through 12th floors.

“There wasn’t much glass that was intact on the first few floors, and the dust was several inches deep with many different pieces of debris throughout the entire building,” Wilson recalled. “When we got to the 12th floor, we were able to access a balcony that overlooked the sight of the World Trade Center itself.

“Even at the height you were at, we could continue to hear the emergency PASS devices sounding of the firefighters below in the pile of rubble,” Wilson said. “You could see where all the hundreds of firefighters covering the pile looking for their fallen brothers.”

Wilson said it took hours to complete their assignment. When they finally returned to their staging area, the Shelton firefighters aided in unloading the mass of equipment that was arriving.

“Unfortunately, we only spent about 16 hours down there before we were told to return to Shelton,” Wilson said. “The incredible part of the entire experience was as we walked out and passed other firefighters in the FDNY; they were asked where we were from. When we told them they would say nothing but give us a hug and continue walking on.”

Looking back 20 years later, Wilson said he only wishes he had stayed as long as he physically could have. He’s sure the other men who made the trip with him feel the same way, he said.

“For me having the opportunity to be part of that experience,” Wilson added, “I have come to understand that you were never guaranteed any more time on Earth, and we should enjoy every minute that we have with our families, our friends and try to be someone that you would be proud of.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com