A day of extremes
A firefighter's harrowing, frustrating experience
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A minute here, a chance decision there, and Maureen Schulman's story would be much different.
The New York firefighter was near the FDNY staging area, along with Chief Peter Ganci and other department officials, when the South Tower fell September 11. They went one way and died; she ran into a garage at the World Trade Center complex and lived.
Minutes later, she and another firefighter decided to leave the parking garage and move their rig. While they were doing so, the North Tower collapsed. The garage caved in on itself, killing all those trapped inside.
Schulman's day was all about extremes: She was generally either fending for herself or awaiting orders. She was in the middle of everything, but, after the towers collapsed, she was also on the outside looking in.
"It was horrible to walk away from a situation where you knew thousands of people were in those buildings and there was nothing you could do about it," Schulman said.
"I personally feel that I didn't do enough, so I can't say there aren't a lot more people out there [more deserving of praise] than I am. I was just following orders and doing what I thought I could do at the time."
But her daughter, Kerry Ann, thinks differently. Not just any woman can be part of the FDNY, says the senior at Lakeland High School in Shrub Oaks, New York.
"I definitely, definitely think she's a hero -- and she would never say that, ever," Kerry Ann says. "She worked through a lot of adversity to get where she is.
"She does risk her life for other people. Very few people actually ... have the strength and state of mind to do that. They'll get up every morning, go to work, and not know whether or not they'll be able to come home. But they'll do it anyway."
'The end of the world'
Maureen Schulman technically had September 11 off, but she had come in to earn some overtime. She raced down to Engine 91 on New York's Upper East Side, where she was assigned for the day, after hearing about the terrorist attacks. They arrived at the World Trade Center after both towers had been hit but before either had fallen.
"This is terrible to say, but I didn't think it was that bad. I knew that everyone on those floors was gone, that it was a matter of getting people above those floors out," she said. "But when people started jumping, I felt like it was the end of the world."
After several tense minutes of waiting, her unit approached the command center, headed by Ganci, and got its assignment: go into the South Tower's basement to fix the fire pumps so more water could be used on the upper floors. While they were getting their equipment for the task, the South Tower collapsed.
Schulman and most of her unit ran into the parking garage. "A blow torch of wind ... came in and it was pitch black," she recalled. "There was soot and nobody could breathe."
The firefighters yelled for each other, linked up and walked out of the garage. With one firefighter unaccounted for, however, they soon returned to the garage. "You can't leave an area without all your members," Schulman explained. "You can't do that."
She and another firefighter eventually left the group to move the unit's rig, then just two blocks from the North Tower, and hook up its hose to a fire hydrant. Both jumped into the truck when that building collapsed, darkening the skies once again.
Schulman walked away, rinsed out her eyes, then made frenzied calls to her husband, a police officer in New Rochelle, New York, and her parents. She then joined up with the Engine 91 members, waiting and waiting and waiting for their orders.
"Finally I said, forget it, I'm going down" to Ground Zero, said Schulman. "You pass rigs of people you knew and you have to find out if there is anybody alive, anybody who has seen anybody."
Like hundreds of other firefighters, Schulman spent much of the following weeks down on "the pile," searching for her fallen co-workers and thousands of civilians killed that day.
An exception to the rule
Even after marking her 20-year FDNY anniversary this month, Maureen Schulman does not look like a typical New York firefighter. According to Women in the Fire Service, an organization for women firefighters, Schulman was but one of 27 female FDNY members in 2001 -- in a group of more than 11,000 people, all but a few of them white men.
"Maureen is very determined, flip side being stubborn," said Brenda Berkman, who spearheaded the lawsuit that in 1982 paved the way for her, Schulman and a host of other women's inclusion in New York's fire department. "I would characterize most, if not all of the original women firefighters in New York as being that way."
Schulman says she's experienced resistance "from day one" from male firefighters not keen on teaming up with a woman, griping that females don't have to pass the same physical tests to join the department and that they can't do the job.
"But there is always going to be people like that," said Schulman. "They don't like change, that's all it is."
In other ways, though, Schulman echoes the sentiments of many New York firefighters since September 11. She vigorously emphasizes the unit above the individual, deflecting all suggestions of personal heroism, and pointing to firefighters' training and purpose.
"To us, this was just another job -- this was something we had to do," she said of the vibe among firefighters before the towers fell. "We go in, we save lives, we put out fires."
Firefighting is in her family. Two of her brothers also belong to New York's fire department. Both survived September 11, although one of her brother's units lost nine men, according to Schulman.
"My mother could have lost ... three [out of her six children] at once -- very easily, very easily," she said.
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