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These 4 former FDNY firefighters each ran toward disaster on 9/11

Bob Aponte, Gerard Durkin, John Westfield and Eddie Zielman now live in St. Johns County

The world changed forever 20 years ago when a plane struck New York City’s World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later, another plane hit the second tower, and we would also learn that a plane flew into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth plane in Shanksville, Pa., went down without hitting its target.
The world changed forever 20 years ago when a plane struck New York City’s World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later, another plane hit the second tower, and we would also learn that a plane flew into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth plane in Shanksville, Pa., went down without hitting its target.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The world changed forever 20 years ago when a plane struck New York City’s World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later, another plane hit the second tower, and we would also learn that a plane flew into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

A fourth plane in Shanksville, Pa., went down without hitting its target.

The acts on Sept. 11, 2001 marked the deadliest terrorist attack in human history. They were also the deadliest incidents ever for law enforcement and the firefighters in New York City.

Bob Aponte, Gerard Durkin, John Westfield and Eddie Zielman all live in St. Johns County now. They were there 20 years ago during the attack on New York City, serving with the New York City Fire Department.

Each responded from different firehouses, different jobs and different schedules -- but each responded like a New York City firefighter.

They immediately ran toward the disaster, where 343 firefighters would die.

Westfield was the first of the four on scene -- dispatched before United Airlines Flight 175 struck the second tower.

(AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File) (2001 AP)

“I watched those buildings go up as a kid,” Westfield said. “And I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d watch them go out on flatbed trucks.”

None of the four could imagine how many in their brotherhood they would lose.

“All five boroughs, have a rescue company. All five rescue companies were sent to the World Trade Center, all five companies lost every member from each of those companies,” Zielman said.

Something happened that hadn’t in more than 30 years -- a call to each firefighter in New York City.

“Citywide recall is when they recall all firefighters from their off week back on,” Aponte said. “Never happens. Not in our career. And so I remained on duty, myself and two of my firefighters, we were instructed to the report to Shea Stadium.”

Aponte responded from that staging area when he was sent to ground zero.

Durkin was across the river in New Jersey and says he will never forget what he saw on a ferry ride to Manhattan.

“The next tower comes down,” he said.

The North Tower of the World Trade Center is shown on fire. (WireImage/Getty Images)

“I was in the cloud,” Westfield said. “I got caught in the cloud. I was right in front of the north tower on West Street when it came down. We all turned and ran. The cloud caught us.”

Durkin, a nurse, arrived to treat people for injuries.

His young sister-in-law -- he wouldn’t be able treat. She was killed in the attack.

“And ironically, she had been late the day before. She took the subway,” Durkin said. “That day she took a cab. And she got there early. Had she taken the normal subway, probably be alive today.”

Each of the four men suffered loss in the attack.

It seems each is unable, and it sounds like unwilling to let a day pass without remembering the horror and the heroes -- and those left behind.

“You know what kind of courage it took for those guys knowing what they had to go through to get to the top floors? And some of them got to the top floors,” Durkin said. “That’s the calling that makes these people.”

They’ll never forget the attacks and the work of trying to save lives. The final report on the attack concluded 87% of the people inside the buildings were safely evacuated and more than 15,000 souls were saved.

Now, these men are concerned that what has been prevented over the past two decades could lie ahead in the future.

“Nine-eleven just changed everything,” Zielman said. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it could happen to occur at any moment.”

“I got complacent over 20 years that we hadn’t gotten hit, and I was confident in our government to prevent us from getting hurt, but I don’t have that confidence,” Aponte said. “I’m afraid. We could be victims again.”

More than 70 million people living in the U.S. weren’t born on 9/11.

These FDNY veterans – want to make sure those young people understand what happened and why.

“It’s painful to talk about. It is,” Westfield said. “Everybody has wounds here.”

“It will happen again. The war on terror will go on,” Durkin said. “And it’s up to the next generation to pick up their bootstraps and carry this American dream forward another 250 years.”

These four men don’t talk about themselves as heroes, but they clearly are.

They said they feel a kinship with other first responders and members of the military, considering 9/11 the Pearl Harbor of their generation.


About the Author:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.