In the back of the Newark Fire Department's Training Facility garage on Orange Street, a glossy, red antique fire truck glints in the sunlight, tiny American flags waving brilliantly near its engine. Inside the Mack truck, a bolt with the words "WTC Never Forget" on a gold strip is fashioned into the dashboard.
Surrounding that piece of metal is New Jersey's official caisson unit, used to display and carry caskets of firefighters who die in the line of duty. To date, the truck has been used in more than 60 funerals resulting from the most devastating attack ever to occur on American soil. Though small in size, the bolt, salvaged from the ruins of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, represents the blood, sweat and tears left behind at Ground Zero a decade ago by Newark's Bravest - and the camaraderie that continues to bond them to this day.
It's a story no Brick City firefighter has the heart to tell without cracking under the flood of memories conjured up with the slightest mention of that day in 2001, a day that left some of the our nation's bravest devastated.
"It looked like World War III"
The instant John Agoston heard the news of the attacks on television while wrapping up his shift at Newark Engine 12 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, instinct took over. Then in his mid-30s, he phoned his colleagues to assemble a team of 12 to head over to Ground Zero.
"At that point, when the buildings collapsed, we said to ourselves, 'We have to go. We can't just stay and not do anything,'" said Agoston.
Most of the guys Agoston was trying to reach had already gone home when their shift ended at 8 a.m. Firefighter John Wilson, then 37, was home with his then-wife when he saw the news on television.
"As soon as I saw it come down, I just collapsed because I knew they were all dead," Wilson recalled. "That's the first thing that came out of my mouth … That's why I had to call him (Agoston)."
Getting across the Hudson was a task in itself. Dispatchers refused to let any first responders leave Newark, fearing an imminent attack on New Jersey's largest city. Firefighters were specifically told there would be repercussions - including immediate termination - should any step foot in Manhattan.
"Now we were worrying about what's going to happen to us (at Ground Zero), and if we were going to have a job when we got back," said Agoston. "We just blanked all of that out."
Agoston credited Frank Bellina, a firefighter with NFD's special operations division and the "quarterback of the whole thing," for getting him and others first on a Police Athletic League bus over to Jersey City, where a command post was set up, and then onto a boat to cross the Hudson River.
By the time they reached lower Manhattan around 12:15 p.m. that day, Ground Zero had been decimated. Nearly a foot of ash covered crushed cars and twisted metal and fires were burning everywhere. The scene looked like World War III, Wilson said, a stark contrast to the boat ride he took moments before under a clear, blue, cloudless sky.
"All the firemen that didn't die, they were all sitting there on the curb," Wilson recalled. "Some were looking at the sky, some were looking like they were just defeated."
Firefighter James Willis remembered storefronts like Bank of America with windows blown wide open amid a scene that looked like one from "The Terminator."
"The first fireman I encountered was alone, he was a probationary firefighter. I asked him, 'What do you need us to do to help?'" Willis, then 37, remembered asking the young fireman. "He said, 'There's nothing you can do. I lost my whole battalion.' Him and his chief were the only ones alive."
Brick City's Bravest split into teams of six that afternoon; one for search and rescue and one to battle the blazes. They worked near West Street, at the spot where the FDNY command post stood earlier that morning, until about 5 p.m. when the area was evacuated before WTC 7 collapsed 21 minutes later.
A fruitless search and rescue on 9/11 left Bellina feeling empty and fearful of his children's future.
"At the time, my two sons were 18 and 19 years old, and I just thought that they were going to wind up in a war," said Bellina, now 53. "I didn't want to go back the second day. But John Agoston called me and said, 'We gotta go back.'"
Gathering again at Jersey City one day after the attacks, Bellina and the other Newark firefighters met Wilson's father-in-law, William Regan, a retired Bronx battalion chief.
"He missed the first day because I left without him. He got mad at me," said Wilson of his father-in-law. "He went the second day and he didn't stop going back."
Donning his signature white rag under a battered helmet, Regan was greeted heartily by fellow first responders, Bellina recalled. But still, Bellina was skeptical of being under Regan's command that day; the chief was, at that time, 69 years old and had retired from FDNY in 1995.
But the impression Regan would leave on Bellina - and the rest of NFD - would be indelible.
Once at Ground Zero, the Newark firemen began search and rescue efforts again, this time with a search dog who sniffed out a dismembered body about four feet below debris.
Hopeful the victim was one of their own, members of the FDNY congratulated the Newark men for the discovery, Bellina recalled. But it was quickly realized the body was that of a civilian.
"When I pulled the body to try to get it in the bag, there was a big bolt from a building, a big bolt that holds steel together, and it was on the guy's chest. It rolled off the guy's chest and I grabbed it and looked at it," said Bellina. "(Regan saw) me looking at it and he says, 'You take that bolt. Put it in your pocket,' and he goes, 'You build something around that bolt.'"
Destined to be Newark's
Agoston and Willis estimated that about three-quarters of NFD's roughly 700-member workforce, including firefighters and superior officers, stepped foot on Ground Zero to work in the subsequent weeks of 9/11.
The firemen also attended virtually every one of FDNY's 343 funerals. Entire battalions were wiped out by the attacks (FDNY suffered the brunt of first-responder casualties, losing 341 firemen and two paramedics). Agoston knew a unified showing of respect and support was crucial to morale at the time.
"At this point, I felt like I didn't do enough," he said. "Frank said, 'What else can we do?' and he said, 'Well, what about funerals?' So I agreed with him."
New York City was overwhelmed with performing sometimes more than a dozen FDNY funerals a day with just two of their own caisson units, according to Bellina. So, in 2002, the Newark firefighters decided to get their own antique fire truck to offer the city.
After hitting the internet, Bellina found a 1958 B-model Mack truck, a popular model in the 1960s, up for bid on eBay. Twelve Newark firefighters banded together to co-sign on a $70,000 lease to acquire the truck, located in Kentucky. Deputy Chief Mike Nasta and his father, who together owned a trucking business, drove in a flatbed cross-country to pick up the vehicle, which arrived in Newark Feb. 24, 2002.
Almost immediately after the truck made its way back to Engine 12 in Newark, Bellina said it "just clicked" to drill the bolt prominently into its dashboard.
"The Mack was built around it. That's what he meant," a tearful Bellina said of Regan's advice the day after 9/11.
It took roughly one week to restore the antique truck at the firehouse, then located on Irvine Turner and Muhammad Ali Boulevards. Improvements included building a casket lift in the back, having magnetic door signs created so that each town could personalize the truck, and giving the apparatus a good polish job.
Over a four-month span, the truck was used in roughly 60 FDNY funerals to carry either caskets or flowers. Bellina vividly remembers the truck being requested by a battalion chief whose young son, a New York firefighter, had perished in the 9/11 attacks. The truck carried his casket from Brooklyn to St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan.
The truck was also used as a flower car in Regan's funeral in 2005. He had died of pancreatic cancer at age 74. To this day, Wilson continues to wear the helmet his father-in-law used while working at Ground Zero in honor of the man who, he said, led by example.
"That's who taught me how to be a firefighter," said Wilson.
A holy purpose
In 2007, on the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Newark had the honor of using the caisson unit to deliver a 7-foot, 300-pound Our Lady of America statue from St. Peter's Church, situated across from the WTC, past Ground Zero to St. Patrick's Cathedral.
"It's like it took on its own life. It was amazing what happened. People falling to their knees, making the sign of the cross," said Bellina, who was behind the wheel that day. (See video above.)
The role of the truck in transporting the statue of Mary from church to church was conceived by Sister Mary Ephrem, who envisioned in the 1950s a red antique fire truck carrying the religious icon. Ephrem had said Our Lady of America had told her she wanted her final resting place to be at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., which features a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
"I believe all the funerals we did, those guys are attached to that truck," said Bellina. " … That's why I believe she picked this truck."
The fire truck was designated as New Jersey's official caisson unit for firefighters' funerals across the state by then-Gov. Richard J. Codey in 2005.
The truck now sits inside the Orange Street training center, ready to be pulled out, polished and sent off once again to carry the casket of one of NFD's fallen brothers with honor and grace. Bellina will always maintain that the story behind the bolt and fire truck, told in detail by him for the first time to Patch, was never about the Newark firemen. Instead, it's a story about the brotherhood of firefighters touched by 9/11, a bond that can never broken and will never be forgotten.
"I truly believe all the funerals that we did with (the truck), that it was meant to do that. That's its real purpose," said Bellina. "It's my biggest accomplishment in life, that fire truck."