Top Image © 2016 Getty Images / Larry Busacca
By Raye Mocioiu
Twenty years ago, just days after 9/11 shook the world, New Yorker Nancy Carbone set out to find a way to help.
In a time of fear and catastrophe, thousands of active and retired firefighters responded to the collapse of the World Trade Center, and tragically, many lives were lost. Carbone recognized that these brave men and women were carrying an immense load; between funerals, spending long hours at the disaster site, and still working at the firehouse, firefighters were suffering from PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and physical and mental exhaustion.
Carbone went from firehouse to firehouse, from Brooklyn Heights to Red Hook to the Bronx, asking how she could help ease the burden on those who were putting their lives on the line at Ground Zero.
The requests ranged from funeral services to memorial supplies, but one request changed the course of Carbone’s life: there was a dire need for counseling amongst the first responders to help process the tragedy, the loss, and the impact of the disaster—and it needed to be done in a way that firefighters, notorious for keeping their vulnerabilities hidden, would feel comfortable.
Although Carbone had no experience in the counseling field, she took this request extremely seriously. Within months, she opened a space for firefighters to get confidential help without having it reported. Thus, Friends of Firefighters was born.
Twenty years later, Friends of Firefighters operates out of an old Brooklyn firehouse, a space that feels like a sanctuary for firefighters and first responders, a familiar setting that offers comfort, confidentiality, and peace. They can go straight upstairs for services, from counseling to acupuncture, yoga, painting, or even just a quiet place to reflect.
“There are a lot of counseling centers,” Carbone said. “But I knew that if I could get these guys into a firehouse, they would walk through the doors and feel at home. Over 400 firefighters, active and retired, came to help repair the firehouse and build a safe haven. That, to me, meant that they really needed it, because they showed up to do that work.”
Forging Good From Evil
Among the thousands of active and retired firefighters who responded to the collapse of the World Trade Center was Steve Buscemi, celebrated actor and former Fire Department of New York (FDNY) firefighter. Buscemi spent four years as a firefighter with the FDNY in the 1980s before taking a leave of absence to pursue his acting career.
“It was a time of my life that I really valued, even though being a firefighter wasn’t something that I necessarily wanted to do as a kid,” Buscemi explained. “But in taking the job, I really felt that I was doing something of real value and I was part of a community—a family. The work that firefighters and first responders do for their community is essential and important and it felt good to be a part of that.”
He shared that he always felt that he would eventually return to his team at Manhattan’s Engine 55, and 17 years later, he did exactly that. On September 12th, he found himself at Ground Zero, helping aid in recovery and rescue efforts. Day after day, he returned.
Times of catastrophe tend to bring out the best and worst of humanity. Buscemi recalls the powerful feeling of unity and purpose among the first responders searching the grounds—he says it was a true display of humanity.
“It was pure love that I experienced,” Buscemi shared. “There were people caring about each other, loving each other, having a job to do, and supporting each other so that we could all get through it. That feeling lifted your heart. You never lost the sense that this was horrible, tragic, and would stay with you for the rest of your life, but at the same time, that love was there.
“What I remember in the days after is that so many people wanted to help. People wanted to give blood, people wanted to volunteer. I just felt privileged that I was able to find a way to help and honored to have the trust of the firefighters.”
More than anything, Buscemi said that he felt grateful to rekindle his connection with the FDNY—since then, he has never let it falter.
“There’s just something about that consistency of all of us being together,” he said. “It’s simply showing each other that we care for one another and that we will never stop caring for one another. So many people can feel isolated or that they’re the only ones that are going through this. It’s important to know that we’re all going through this together.”
Buscemi has since returned to the team at Engine 55 time and time again, both in times of tragedy, like during Hurricane Sandy, and in times of togetherness, like the annual 9/11 breakfast and memorial service held at the firehouse.
Buscemi lends his voice to sharing the stories of firefighters in every way he can, including producing documentaries like “A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY” and “Dust: The Lingering Legacy of 9/11.” A few years later, he found another way to help the firefighter community when he met Carbone, who asked him to join the Advisory Council at Friends of Firefighters.
“Nancy was fulfilling a need,” Buscemi said. “Firefighters were dealing with heavy losses within their own firehouses and showing up at Ground Zero day after day, week after week, month after month. At the same time, they were going to funerals and they weren’t home a lot. She saw that they needed help.”
Buscemi, too, still feels the weight of the days spent on Ground Zero. Since working with Friends of Firefighters, he has started to share his own experiences publicly and recognizes that even though pain and heartache still follow every time he relives it, feeling it is part of the healing process. Perhaps even more importantly, sharing these stories ensures that we never forget the sacrifices made that day—and the ones that continue to be made.
“This is a responsibility that we all share,” Buscemi continued. “Maybe people aren’t aware that this is still a big issue. It’s important that we get it out there and bring it to the attention of the general public.”
Says Shelli Sonstein, a member of the Friends of Firefighters Advisory Council: “What people don’t know is that it’s not just that Steve feels a kinship to Friends of Firefighters—he’s there. He’s on the advisory board, he does fundraising, he really helps this organization. He’s the real deal.”
The Rescuers of Rescuers
“The brilliant thing that Nancy also recognized was that it wasn’t just firefighters that needed support and help,” Buscemi explained. “It was their families. It was their spouses, their kids, their parents. She opened it up to the whole community.”
Carbone explains that this was by design.
“How can you help a first responder if you’re not helping the family? Families have their own trauma relating to the jobs of their spouses and fathers and mothers,” Carbone said. “If you’re not helping the whole family, you’re really not helping the firefighter. Active or retired firefighters and their family members should have free services—not insurance-provided or noted on employment records—to give them the freedom to take down the barriers. And you have to include the families. If you don’t, you’re just putting a bandaid on things. If you bring the families in, you can actually help them move forward together.”
Financed by grants, private donations, and online merchandise sales, Friends of Firefighters has offered firefighters therapy and a regimen of holistic healing practices, like therapeutic massage and acupuncture. They hold monthly breakfasts led by peer counselors and organized family getaways to upstate New York, where counselors helped couples and families hone their communication skills.
In an article for TIME last year, Buscemi wrote: “Admitting vulnerability is a hard thing for anyone, but especially for people whose primary identity is as a protector.”
It’s a common feeling among first responders and can make them hesitant to reach out for mental health support—or even admit they might need it.
“They have a group mentality where each person is a part of a chain and they keep each other alive,” Carbone said. “Firefighters in particular, they go in as a team and they have each other’s backs. If there’s a perception that there’s a weakness in any one of them, it threatens the chain.”
Buscemi shares that part of what makes the work that Friends of Firefighters does so impactful is that it creates a space outside of the department for firefighters to share confidentially while at the same time feeling comfortable in an environment that’s familiar to them.
“It’s important for firefighters to have a place to go outside of the official fire department,” he said. “It gives those firefighters who are a little bit hesitant about coming forward that extra little bit of comfort and safety that they need. And once the members started seeking help, there were a lot of members on the fire department who realized that they never really had an outlet for what they went through.”
This was something that Carbone noticed as well, and still does to this day. However, she shares that after a few months of regular attendance, the same men who would have once described themselves as broken start to feel stronger. They start to feel whole again.
The effects of 9/11 are still felt today, especially in the FDNY. Hundreds of brothers fell that day, and more have fallen ill or passed away since then due to 9/11-related illnesses. The tragedy lingers, and although New York has since rebuilt, the repercussions of 9/11 follow firefighters and first responders to this day. Without a set of tools to help them cope in a healthy way, PTSD and repeated exposure to traumatic experiences can pose significant risks to firefighters.
Last year, Friends of Firefighters held over 3,100 counseling sessions, and Carbone shares that the numbers are only going up.
“We serve the FDNY firefighters active and retired, and their families, and then there’s another couple of thousand of officers, plus an untold number of retirees,” she explained. “And, of course, new firefighters. We go in there and talk to the probies [probationary firefighters] and we tell them what we’re about. During their career, they will have disasters, they will have injuries and experience the deaths of their brothers and sisters. I don’t believe in waitlists because these people call for help when it’s a mayday, not when they think something’s coming down the road. They need to go in there with a toolbox for mental health, so we tell them ‘This is where you can go.’”
“It’s been a process,” Buscemi said. “It certainly took a few years, but I think it’s so much more accepted now. It’s not a stigma, it’s just available. The members know it, and that’s a great thing.”
Friends of Firefighters continues to connect active and retired FDNY firefighter communities and their families with free tools and resources to greater mental health, but donations are necessary to expand their team and their services.