NEW ORLEANS – In the middle of a shattered neighborhood, stepping around glittering shards of glass, breathing the unavoidable stench of death, Lt. Bill Butler surveyed what was left of the city and went to work.
And then, four years later, the New York City firefighter came to New Orleans and did it again.
Butler was serving on the Fire Department of New York’s Ladder 6, based in Manhattan’s Chinatown, on Sept. 11, 2001. He was in a stairwell of the World Trade Center’s north tower when it began to collapse. He got out with scrapes and bruises.
Now he is one of about 350 New York firefighters working in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Even after living through 9/11, Butler struggles to comprehend what happened here.
“Then,” he says, thinking back four years, “it was so concentrated – 16 blocks, or whatever. Here, it’s – what did they say, 90,000 square miles?”
The sheer size of it, the scope: That’s what strike Dave Fekety and Pete Cafarella, two young New York police officers who were taking a break at Harrah’s casino, or what is left of it, where police who have come to New Orleans from across the country gather to munch on hamburgers.
“It’s heartbreaking to see an entire city destroyed like this,” says Fekety, of the 120th Precinct on Staten Island. “Nine-eleven, even as horrible as it was – this is an entire city.”
For police and firefighters alike, the notions of family and brotherhood come up often when they are asked about the tie between Sept. 11 and Katrina, the two great American catastrophes of their time. Many New Orleans firefighters showed up at Ground Zero, or at the long procession of funerals for their colleagues that followed.
“You sort of feel like you’re repaying the debt,” says Frank Naglieri, a battalion chief from the Bronx who was at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. “But if 9/11 never happened, we’d be down here. These guys need help.”
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