If you’ve ever hung around “fire guys” you’d know that a good sense of humor is not just a personality trait – it’s a survival mechanism.
At 66, after 41 years of service to the New York City Fire Department, retired Deputy Director of Dispatch Operations, still maintains that funny bone.
Moving to Branford after his retirement in 2006, Higgins said he came to the assumption that here in Connecticut they must not make cars with horns. A native of the Bronx, Higgins said the peace and quite of his condo complex off of Brushy Plain Road has taken some getting used to.
However, when Higgins is not joking, he somberly talks about living through the terrorists' attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and how he watched hundreds of friends head off to their untimely deaths. for the public at St. Mary's Church on Sept. 14.
In addition to working his way from a dispatcher to the Deputy Director of Dispatch Operations for FDNY, Higgins also acquired the title of Fire Commissioner’s Liaison in 1998. His high-ranking positions had him rubbing elbows with the department’s top guys including Chief Peter Ganci whom he faced in an opposite elevator the day of Sept. 11 when they and dozens of other firefighters were racing off to ground zero. Though Ganci, recalled Higgins, did not make it out of the towers alive, he fondly remembers sharing a joke across the hallway as they bid farewell to each other.
Taking that elevator ride down from the Queen’s department where he was stationed, Higgins said, “There were nine of us – and I am the only one left.”
As Higgins toured through his condo showing off his collection of more than 50 firefighter’s helmets and more then 200 helmet shields, Higgins recalled the fateful events of Sept. 11, also pausing to share the history of every FDNY artifact he owned. Pointing to a wall of helmet shields, Higgins was proud to note that three generations of the McElroy family hung there. As he talked about each article and how he came to acquire it, he shared the name and rank of the firefighter the piece belonged to.
Next, Higgins showcased a piece of glass from the window of one of the towers at the Trade Center. Nearly one inch thick, Higgins said the windows were “this tall” making a sweeping gesture with his hand as he held the small piece mounted on a commemorative stand. A falling window, he said gravely, is what killed one of his men – nearly cut him in half.
Higgins then began to recall his morning of Sept. 11, which he said started at 6:40 a.m. in his Queen’s office. Higgins said he arrived at his desk, turned on the computer and then grabbed a cup of coffee. He talked with Ganci, who was going to be the guest speaker at the Fire Bell Club of New York, where Higgins was the President, that evening. A few minutes later, after meting with other members of the department, he said he started a fire investigation tape to research a call. Playing back dispatch tapes from the fire, Higgins said, “I am listening to this tape and I started hearing screaming and yelling.”
The yelling was coming from Engine 10 nearby the towers. The call, he recanted, came in like this: “Urgent: We have a plane that just struck the Trade Center.”
As the yelling continued, Higgins said, “I am thinking, the same time I am listening, am I hearing this off my tape?”
Higgins quickly learned that he was, in fact, hearing the first calls of distress of Sept. 11, 2001.
Arriving at the scene, Higgins said the rising plume of smoke made him believe he was in a Stephen Spielberg movie. “Once I got in the line of sight of the towers, I looked up in disbelief. This can not be. This can not be.”
Higgins said he was re-directed to the Manhattan dispatch center to handle the calls and leaving the scene that morning, he said goodbye one last time to many of his longest and closet friends.
At the center, Higgins recalled the experience as surreal. He remembers talking with Kevin Cosgrove who was on the 105th floor of tower two. They were on the phone he stated, nine minutes and 10 seconds. “The quality of the conversation was deteriorating rapidly because of the smoke inhalation,” he said. Cosgrove asked Higgins, he recalled, if the fire trucks were coming from Ohio? To Cosgrove, the rescue seemed as though it would never come.
Somewhere in the stairwells of tower two, firefighters were trying to get to Cosgrove but they did not make it. Higgins said, while on the phone with Cosgrove, he heard a rumble and then heard Cosgrove yell, “Oh my God.” Then, said Higgins, “the tower came down.”
Higgins attended 27 funerals post-Sept. 11 – sometimes three in one day he said. The pain, he added, stopped he and his wife, Angela Higgins from attending any more.
Since the attacks, Higgins said anytime someone hears he is NYFD, the first question is about Sept. 11. Before the attacks, he said, he can’t remember what the first question used to be.
Still involved with various groups to keep his hands in the FDNY, Higgins and his wife are also involved in philanthropic work. To pass the time, Higgins has become his condo association’s Supervisor of Maintenance and he is the Senior Communications Consultant for a company in Madison. “Sitting around,” he said, “is not my thing.”
Though there’s no FDNYD here in Connecticut, Higgins said he often visits with the as well as . Getting back into the station with the kind of guys he spent nearly half a century with he said he feels like he’s back where he belongs.
Surrounded in his home, literally, by a shrine of generations of FDNY history, including the most recent history of Sept. 11, Higgins said the transition from the department to civilian life has been tough. A near lifetime of devotion to the department with round-the-clock work, Higgins said, “There were not too many nights I got a full night of sleep, but I am not complaining. I loved it.”