People Who Inspire Me – Joey

Paul Harter Paul Harter
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I have a mate.  His name is Joey.  When I’m with my family in the States, Joey and I train at the same gym.  We are the same age (62 this year).  We both take our training very seriously.  We talk a lot (between sets).  Though we have ended up in the same place, our life paths could not have differed more.


Joey and his accent are unmistakably from Queens, New York.  He still lives on the street where he was born.  When in his 20’s, Joey joined the New York City Fire Department (OK, so you know where this story is going). 

Joey worked at the station house in Spanish Harlem.  It was one of the toughest possible assignments a young firefighter could get.  During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the so-called “crack wars” were waged on the streets of Spanish Harlem.  It kept firefighters very busy.  Danger occurred daily.  Drug dealers killing each other in the streets.  Firefighters called out to hose down splattered bodies.  It was also a time when absentee landlords were fond of torching their tenements to collect insurance proceeds and move to Florida – allegedly, of course.  Joey saw it all.  He learned to love the adrenalin rush and, therefore, his job.  

Though there was hell on the streets, there was a camaraderie among firefighters that made the station like home and coworkers like brothers and sisters.  Joey was in the kitchen of the station house with the rest of his company on the day it happened.  They were watching television.  The news flashed across the screen:  An airplane collided with the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

The call came.  They sped down the West Side Highway in record time and joined the ranks of other firefighters waiting for the order to go into the building to try to save lives.  Their turn arrived.  Joey and his company kneeled in front of the Fire Department chaplain.  He was administering last rights to the firefighters before entering the building.  They knew they may never come out alive.  In fact, the priest did not. (The New York City Fire Department in those days was not particularly diverse.  Most firefighters were Irish or Italian Roman Catholics).

Just before entering the building, orders changed.  His company was told to wait on the street.  Nothing further could be done in the building.  Bodies fell.  Exploded when they hit the pavement.  Some firefighters were crying, others screaming, others vomiting, others just staring at the ground.  Then the South Tower collapsed.

The force blew Joey and around 30 other firefighters into a garage.  The air was black, toxic and full of debris.  They were breathing lime dust.  In the almost total darkness, they banged axes against walls to find a means to escape.  Eventually they did.  Many ran up West Street, only  to lose their lives as the North Tower collapsed.  Joey and some others found a route to the marina, and survived.

This is when the
story actually begins.

Joey’s diagnosis was fairly typical among the firefighters who survived the day:  lung tumours, herniated disks, unspecified eye disease and, perhaps worst of all, PTSD (or as the firefighters call it, “survivor’s guilt).  In the days that followed, Joey attended two or three funerals each day.

Now, 18 years later, Joey still attends many funerals, though a bit less frequently.  Many if not most surviving firefighters did not age well.  Though published statistics do not exist, Joey recounts countless stories of alcoholism, addiction to pain killers and mental illness.  Abused spouses.  Failed marriages.  These days, many are dying from their 9/11 exposures and traumas, and the years of unhealthy coping techniques that followed.    Cancers of all sorts – leukemia, thyroid cancer, prostate cancer.  Lung disease.  Suicide.  343 firefighters died on September 11, 2001.  In the 18 years since then, over 200 firefighters have died from illnesses and conditions they contracted that day.  It’s time to write a book about the survivors.

Joey, on the other hand, is very much alive.  He chose a different path.  He chose exercise and spirituality.  The gym became his coping technique.  Watching him work out, I can see incredible intensity.  To me, it seems as if he’s fighting off old demons.  His spirituality, though perhaps born out of religion, is not a religious one.  To me, it seems to be a sort of mindfulness that allows him to be at peace with an unkind world that no one can explain.

Though he still visits doctors regularly for check-ups, he does not suffer, at least not in the physical sense.  The doctors call it a one in a million.  A man with lung tumours and herniated disks who takes no pain medication, lifts heavy weights as a hobby and seems to be in a perpetual good mood.  He is strong, fit and looks like he’s in his 40’s.

These days, whenever I feel stress or whenever my mood swings negatively, I think of Joey.  There is a lesson for all of us in his story.

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