Students in Jim McNamara’s Fire Science classes at the East Valley Institute of Technology main campus in Mesa learn, according to the program website, “basic fire science fundamentals and technical rescue.”
McNamara was part of one of the largest, most complex, technical rescue efforts in American history: the 9/11 attacks response.
On Sept. 11, 2001, McNamara was at his Long Island home, getting ready for a doctor’s appointment.
“You better turn on the news,” his wife told him.
Like millions of others, McNamara watched live footage of the World Trade Center as smoke poured out of the North Tower – and then saw a plane fly into the South Tower.
At the time, McNamara was the Nassau County fire marshal, a teacher at Nassau County Fire Service Academy and volunteer firefighter.
“After the attacks, my technical rescue team was activated,” he said.
Within hours, his boots were on the smoldering grounds of the World Trade Center, where two giant towers collapsed, killing 2,606 people. (Another 125 were killed at the Pentagon and 265 passengers of four planes that crashed died.)
Of the World Trade Center deaths, 343 were firefighters who responded to the scene.
Some were McNamara’s friends.
“Almost all Nassau County was volunteer firefighters, so a lot of them were New York City firefighters. And police officers also were volunteers. I also taught at the fire academy, so I knew other instructors who were New York City firefighters or cops,” McNamara said.
As he and 15 others on his team drove in a truck across the East River to Manhattan, they could see the huge columns of smoke. After seeing the first tower collapse on TV, McNamara instantly understood this was a mass-casualty situation.
And that it would be personal.
“I knew I would know people there,” he said.
His sense that faces he knew would be among the deaths came true.
“From my battalion, we lost five firefighters. From the (fire) academy, we lost three instructors,” he said.
Once his team arrived at the site, even as the sounds of responder distress units filled the smoky, dusty air, McNamara directed his mind away to what he was trained to do – away from “do I know the guy with that chirper?”
As he recalled during a class break, “You kind of compartmentalize things. That was pretty much the thing the night of the 11th....When you’d run into friends, you’d immediately give them a giant bear hug.
“Then you’d say, ‘Did you hear about Tommy?’ Or George. Or ‘Brian’s missing.’ You kind of go down a roll call.”
Jim McNamara remembers the friends he lost every day – especially every Sept. 11. The smiling faces he forces himself to focus on will be sharp in his mind this Saturday, the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
As 14 years in Mesa have not put a dent in his New York accent, so his memories will never fade.
“What you try and do when you talk about (9/11) is think of your friends before the incident. The good times you had with those people or working alongside of them. That’s what I try to remember,” McNamara said.
“The day itself, those images you’ll never get out of your head. The smells will never get out of you.”
On Saturday, Jim McNamara will honor not just those who died on that historic day in 2001, but those responders who passed away since.
According to a Sept. 11, 2020, report by New York City TV station ABC Channel 6, “Twenty-seven former New York City firefighters have died of 9/11-related illnesses in the past year, bringing the total number of firefighters killed after the World Trade Center attacks to 227.”
Asked about his own health, McNamara gives a short sigh.
“I’m in pretty good shape,” McNamara said. “I had to get rid of my thyroid, I take a pill for that. And I’ve got some kidney issues.
“But knock wood, I’m better than a lot of my friends.”
As he points out:
“More guys died since 9/11 than on 9/11.”
Indeed, the World Trade Center Health Program says 3,496 deaths are attributed to a variety of illnesses related to the Sept. 11 attacks. Some of those who died lived in the area of the attacks. Others responded to the damage, breathing in toxic fumes in lower Manhattan and the other two 9/11 plane crash sites, in rural Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
Twenty years ago, McNamara had extensive training and experience in technical rescue, which has six disciplines: rope rescue, confined space rescue, vehicle/machinery rescue, structural collapse rescue, trench rescue and water rescue.
According to McNamara’s EVIT biography, he responded to the Avianca plane crash in 1990 and TWA flight 800 explosion and wreck in 1996.
On Sept. 11, 2001, McNamara’s team quickly shifted from “rescue” to “recovery” mode.
“Our heavy rescue (truck) had a big generator on it. We set up a command post on basketball courts or tennis courts on the northwest section of the center. We were all over the site,” McNamara said. “My technical rescue team was trained on rope rescue, high angle rescue, building collapse, heavy machinery…
“There were very few people rescued after that first day. The rescues were made predominantly before the towers came down.”
His team was instructed to leave plane parts in place and focus on personal items.
Many of those who died left hardly a trace, pulverized into dust by the weight of the towers collapsing.
“It was important to get closure by bringing something home to (families),” McNamara said.
“One cop was identified by the serial number on his gun.”
Six years after the 9/11 disaster, McNamara, wife Gail and sons Jimmy and Joey left New York for Arizona.
Being literally on an island outside Manhattan was part of the reason for leaving: “We always thought, could this happen again?”
But coming here was mostly for practical reasons.
“The No. 1 reason why we left was the cost of living in New York. It’s so much cheaper to live in Mesa than New York. I tease my friends back there that I pay in taxes in a year what they pay in a month,” he said with a laugh.
McNamara, 56, was a civilian fire inspector with the Mesa Fire Department for three years, then a safety officer and coordinator with Community Bridges and inspector with the state Office of Licensing until 2017, when he started teaching at EVIT.
No longer an active firefighter, McNamara enjoys teaching the next generation of responders.
“A lot of kids have graduated (from EVIT) and gone on to become firefighters, EMT’s, wildland firefighters,” he said.
Asked why his students say they want to become firefighters, McNamara chuckled.
“The profession chooses you,” he said. “It’s in your blood: wanting to help people.”
His father was a firefighter, as well as several uncles and cousins. “It’s kind of a family business.”
This Friday at the campus, he will give a presentation on 9/11.
After the Saturday ceremony at the Mesa Amphitheatre, he plans to jump in his car and drive to Las Vegas, where he typically remembers 9/11 with firefighter friends who retired to Nevada.
Though he wishes he could forget much of Sept. 11, the next day is a cherished memory.
On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, after working at the World Trade Center for nearly 24 hours, McNamara made his way back to Long Island.
“Coming home on the 12th, you were tired, your eyes were all burnt, itchy, scratchy, red bloodshot. I remember pulling into my neighborhood and seeing American flags on every house.
“Nobody wants to relive the 11th, but the 12th was a special day.”