After Sept. 11, 2001, New York City firefighter Ralph Esposito opened the newspaper and tried to read, in alphabetical order, the names of the 341 firemen lost in the World Trade Center. He got up to the letter D.
“I had to throw it away,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m killing myself.'”
Esposito, who now splits his time between field work with Engine 80 in Harlem and counseling firefighters, spoke to approximately 20 students at a Branford College Master’s Tea Tuesday about the effect the tragedy has had on the firefighters involved.
“Those guys were devastated that day,” he said. “I saw them; they were like zombies.”
Despite the trauma of Sept. 11, Esposito said many firefighters were reluctant to look for therapy.
“For a fireman, it’s considered a sign of weakness to seek counseling,” Esposito said.
Beyond the firefighters themselves, Esposito said the attacks had a dramatic impact on the families of firefighters. Normally, families are shielded from the harsh reality of the job; but after the intense media coverage of Sept. 11, that shield was destroyed, he said.
“Prior to 9-11, you go to work they figure they’ll see you come home,” Esposito said. “After 9-11, they figured it was maybe 50-50 if you came home.”
Esposito was also involved in the massive cleanup effort of ground zero and talked about the obsession of finding the bodies of friends killed in the attack. He described one friend who, after being ordered not to go to the site anymore, dressed up as a construction worker and snuck in anyway.
Though many firefighters have quit, Esposito said he has no intention of leaving the fire department.
“It’s the only job I ever had where I look forward to going to work,” Esposito said. “It’s the only job I ever had where I didn’t worry about the money.”
Nevertheless, Esposito said he would not recommend that Yale students become firefighters.
“I would never graduate Yale and take that job,” Esposito said. “If I went to Yale I would be a genius or something.”
During the talk, Esposito criticized former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s handling of funding for the fire department. He said he also disapproved of how Giuliani dealt with the firefighters who died on Sept. 11.
“I would watch him come to funerals and he would say the same shit every time,” Esposito said.
Michael Schulman ’03 said he found the tea insightful and appreciated Esposito’s honesty.
“I thought he was really heartfelt and really interesting and told a side of the story that students don’t know about,” Schulman said.
Branford College Master Steven Smith also said he was pleased with the tea.
“He was fantastic,” Smith said. “He gave tremendous insight into the culture of the fire department.”
Smith said that last year, Branford had invited a number of historians, journalists and political scientists to the college to speak about the impact of Sept. 11. However, none of the invited guests provided a personal, rather than analytical, account of the event, Smith said.
“We failed abysmally in finding someone who knew from the ground up and who could talk about what it was like and how it affected the people most directly affected by it,” Smith said.