A Hempstead F.D. family recalls the horrors of 9/11

At 106 Liberty Street, across from 4 World Trade Center, George Sandas, fourth from right, 48 at the time of the WTC attacks and from Hempstead, took a break from his work at ground zero. The photo was taken Sept. 12, 2001. The firefighters were from Hempstead Victory Engine Company No. 4. Sandas was third assistant chief at the time. His nephew Michael Sandas can be seen with his back against the generator in the white shirt. He was 18 and is from Massapequa. 

By Dylan Sandas

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center tore a gaping hole in Lower Manhattan and forever left psychic and physical scars among the men and women — the firefighters and police officers — who responded to the catastrophe, running toward the dangers to help save as many lives as possible.

In this Long Island Advocate/WRHU podcast, three members of the Sandas family, all volunteers with the Hempstead Fire Department, recall the terrifying events of that day and the long days of recovery thereafter. The author of this piece, Dylan Sandas, was a child at the time of the time of the attacks and produced this podcast in tribute to his family.

Jim Sandas, from Hempstead, on the day he retired from the FDNY’s Rescue 2, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on June 1, 2020. He was 65 at the time.

“It’s 8:52 here in New York, I’m Bryant Gumbel. We understand that there has been a plane crash on the Southern tip of Manhattan.”

Sept. 11th, 2001, is a day that changed the very fabric of history. There have been tens of thousands of stories that have emerged from that day and the days that followed, but these stories you are about to hear are from one family of brothers. George, Jim, and Fred Sandas, members of Victory Engine Company Number 4, in the Hempstead Volunteer Fire Department, all responded to the World Trade Center.

First you will hear Jim Sandas, an ex-chief from Hempstead, who has been in the department since November of 1974, and a 30-year veteran of the FDNY, who was in the prestigious Rescue 2 when 9/11 occurred. 

“So on, the morning of September 11th, I was off that day.”

 Next is George Sandas, a two-time ex-Chief from Hempstead, who has been involved since December of 1975. He was living in Garden City at the time and was heading to work when he heard the news.

“All right, I remember that morning, I was getting ready for work, and I happened to, we had on, I remember it was Channel 5 News, and Greg Kelly at that time was a reporter and he came on and he said you know, we just want to interrupt everything, we just got a report that a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan.”

Finally is Fred Sandas, also two-time ex-chief from Hempstead, who’s been in the department since he turned 18 back in January of 1977. He was responding to a routine call when the events of that day began to unfold.

“9/11 was a nice clear day out. A matter of fact we went to a call, up on Dartmouth Street, and all of a sudden somebody said, ‘Oh, a plane hit the World Trade Center.’ I said get outta here. Then we were coming back from the call, we went to the firehouse, and we watched it, and another plane hit.”

The Hempstead Fire Department Installation of Officers Dinner on June 11 this year. From left was Second Ex-Chief George Sandas, 69, Department Chief Fred Sandas Jr., 63, their mother, Virginia Sandas, 95, and Ex-Chief Jim Sandas, 66.

Once both planes hit, Jim knew that due to the amount of smoke and fire, it was going to be a rough day for the firemen on the job at the World Trade Center, never thinking about a future collapse of both towers. Fred said that he was more worried about getting the people and planes out than the buildings or the fire, while on the other side of the Village of Hempstead, George called his brother Jim. 

“And he says, ‘Yeah, we all got called, we’re going in, you know we were called to come back in, so I’ll give you a call later, so I knew he was on his way in.”

After that call, Jim left a job he was doing in Woodmere to go back to Rescue 2, located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, except that apparatus was already parked on the West Side Highway, two blocks from the World Trade Center. Plus the South Tower had just collapsed. They had no way to get to Lower Manhattan, so they had to improvise.

“With that, one of the guys goes in the middle of Bergen Street, and stops an MTA bus, and we basically threw everybody off the MTA bus, the bus driver has no idea what we’re doing, and just prior to getting on the bus, the captain had us all kneel, say a prayer, because he though that was the end of it, we were never going to come back alive. Once we got to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, before we went over it, she saw the second tower burning, and that’s when she realized what was going on, and we told her, ‘Just keep going, just keep going, don’t stop, just keep going, get us over to the Manhattan side.” So, she dropped us off right outside of City Hall, by the church, and at first, she wouldn’t open up the doors because she thought we were all going to die, and we’re just begging her to open the doors up and let us off the bus. And when she opened the door, that’s when the second tower came down. 

Around the time of first anniversary of the attacks, in September 2002, at Victory Firehouse, Fred Sandas is to the left, then 43, then Second Assistant Chief George Sandas, 49, the author Dylan Sandas, 5, and Jim Sandas, 47.

 But back home in Hempstead, George and Fred were watching the news, and when the Twin Towers collapsed, they both felt their middle brother Jim was gone. 

“And I was wondering, ‘Jeez, I wonder if my brother was in there yet, and I said probably because enough had elapsed from when I spoke to him that they could get to their firehouse in Brooklyn and get down there, so I said, ‘Ah, you know.’ Then when the second tower came down, I said, ‘Oh, he’s got to be in there.”

After those thoughts, George had a meeting inside of Hempstead Village Hall to prepare the next steps for the village, as they have a seat-of-power governmental building and courthouses in the village, which were deemed high-value targets. 

“So, I remember I was the fire chief at the time, the third assistant chief, and we had gotten called down to the mayor’s office in the afternoon to meet with the police chief, and they just said that everybody’s gotta be on heightened alert.”

It was in this meeting that Jim was finally able to contact George after he got a hold of a man near the World Trade Center site, whose cellphone ran off of a New Jersey tower.  

“It was during the meeting and my phone rang and I saw it was my brother Jim, and you know I spoke to him, and was glad to see him, and you know glad to hear from him, and you know asked him if he was OK. He says, ‘Yeah,’ he says, ’ but it’s totally destroyed down here. You know without seeing pictures you figure, ‘Ah, it’s a building collapse’, you know people live in building collapses. So, I started asking him about different people in the Hempstead Fire Department, you know how’s this guy Kevin, how’s this guy Mike, how’s this one, and I got around to our good friend Bronk, and he says he’s gone. I said, ‘Yeah, OK, Jim you know just keep looking, keep digging, you know you guys will find him. He goes no, you don’t understand, you don’t know what this looks like. He’s gone, they’re all gone, there are no survivors.”

After that phone call, George made his way back to Victory, the nickname of his firehouse, and told the men in his company about the situation. After that news they were itching to go and help, but they were told by the head chief at the time to not go to the site, but early on Sept. 12th, 2001, Chief George Sandas made a call. 

“And so finally you know I said, heck with it, get on the trucks, we’re going. So, we took a contingency of one of the fire trucks, an engine, we took a rescue truck, we had two chief’s cars, and we had a police escort down to Ground Zero.”

George drove in his chief’s car, but among those driving the apparatus to the site was his brother Fred.

“I drove at the time the fire police van, and that’s when we went in there looking like I said we had a whole bunch of people looking for people. We got onto Rescue 84 and Engine 4. They both went to the city, right next to the building, the Ten House, which was right across the street.”

On their trip to the site, George and Fred talked about how many people were lined up on the roads with American Flags to greet them, but as they got closer to the site the people disappeared and they were greeted by something far worse. 

“And I remember the closer we got, the less color we saw. Everything seemed to be covered with this grayish-pinkish type of dust, and when we finally were about a block away, I remember it was maybe four to six inches deep this dust that was on the sidewalk.”

Once they arrived at the pile, George and the rest of the crew from Hempstead joined in on one of the many bucket brigades. George said it was very moving that people from all walks of life were involved in this mass moving of debris, but all of them were serious in their actions. 

“The people on the line were, it was silent, you didn’t hear any talking, no one was conversing with each other, and I remember, you know you had people of all races, creeds, nationalities. I had a rabbi on one side, I had a doctor on another side, there was a nurse across from me, and all we did was constantly hand buckets back and forth to each other.”

So, on Sept. 12th, after working on the bucket brigade for a few hours, George set out for a new mission — to attempt to locate his younger brother. 

“So in between the first and second trips on the pile, you know I was looking for my brother, I had seen where his destroyed truck, Rescue 2 was located, but we didn’t find them.”

As George entered the center of the pile, what was the old Austin J. Tobin Plaza at the World Trade Center, someone familiar emerged from the rubble. 

“We were doing a search in a void and came out of the void and that’s when I bumped into a bunch of guys from Hempstead, and I bumped into my brother.”

“Then all of a sudden they heard his squeaky voice saying, ‘I’m over here,’ and they found him digging with Rescue 2 at that time, and they all started digging together on top of the pile, and everybody was happy, but it wasn’t happy, but they knew his father was alive, and our brother was alive.”

George Sandas had finally found his brother in the pile. 

“And you know we were looking and we saw firemen, you know have you seen anybody from Rescue 2, no, no, and all of a sudden we saw some rubble when we were near the pile and guys started coming out of a hole in the ground in the rubble, and I think the second or third person out happened to be my brother, and he looked like hell. He was covered from head to toe in all this dust and everything, his eyes were squinting, you know he had blood coming out of the corner of one of his eyes, but it was just so good to see him.”

After talking with his brother on the pile, Jim was approached by someone else at that time. 

“But while we were on the pile someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey’, someone had a cell phone and they gave it to me and they said, ‘Here talk!’ I go all right, whatever. So, I talk, and my wife is on the phone. I go how did you get this phone number, someone just handed me a phone. So she goes, ‘Where are you?’ I go I’m on a pile, I must be 40, 50 feet up here I have no idea where I’m at. So she goes, I go someone just handed me a cell phone I don’t whose phone it is. So she goes, it’s your son’s phone. I go, I can’t see, I go my eyes are that bad. And then I basically had to grab him by his shirt collar and pull him close to me, and then I could see it was my own son.”

 Jim’s then 18-year-old son Michael had joined Engine 4 on their trip to the World Trade Center to look for his father. But this family reunion was to be short-lived. 

So, we spoke for a while there, we gave him water, we washed his face off, I remember, and he says come on, we’ll go down by our truck. Well, before that happened, someone had put out a warning, I guess they had engineers there, and they were watching the buildings, and they said one of the buildings looked like it was going to collapse, everybody scattered. So, I know they went one way, I grabbed my nephew, we went another way, and we went through the 10-10 House, and we went through the back of that, and we wound up, I don’t know where, but it took us almost a half hour to get back to where we started, and by that time we were exhausted, we got on the trucks and went home.

After that, Hempstead returned the next day, did some hose work on the pile and then left again for good, but Jim Sandas stayed for months after they left and talked about those first days.

“I mean the first week you lived on the street like homeless people, you slept on the sidewalk, if you found something to put under your head, that was your pillow, and that’s where you slept. From Sept. 11th, I didn’t get home till that Saturday morning, so I was down there for four straight days, living on the streets.”

Jim also defined what good days and bad days were at the site. 

“But there are good days, good days for us were trying to find members, you know who had passed away, and recovering their bodies so that we could bring ‘em home to their loved ones. Bad days were when we didn’t find anybody, those were bad days.”

After 9/11, and all the cleanup had been completed, James Sandas and the rest of Rescue 2 were sitting around their firehouse and started to wonder about their hero bus driver.

About two years afterwards. We were sitting in the firehouse like whatever happened to the bus driver. So, all of us were like, don’t know. We just got off the bus, we never, we don’t even know if she even survived.”

So, the members of Rescue 2 went to the Brooklyn MTA terminal and told a supervisor about the story. They had no idea this had happened and told them to wait a moment as all bus drivers would be changing tours and they might see her. 

“Sitting there for about 15 minutes, here comes this woman through the door, and she makes eye contact with us, and we make eye contact with her, and we knew it was her, and the woman just started crying. So, we asked her what did you do, she goes I waited till midnight, I thought you guys were going to come back, and then you didn’t come back at midnight, so I figured you all died, and then she was surprised that everyone she brought on that bus came home alive.”

 They now knew their bus drivers name. Her name was Barbara Byrd. New York City would later honor her, and Rescue 2 dedicated a plaque in her name in their firehouse later on. 

“For the fifth, 10th, 15th, and 20th anniversaries, she showed up at our firehouse to celebrate a mass, and you know, and recognize the guys who passed away in our firehouse, so she always kept in touch with us and became basically a part of the family of the firehouse which was pretty good.”

When asked if they had been to the World Trade Center before 9/11 George said had not, Fred was there multiple times over the years to drop off village insurance papers, and Jim took his children there each summer to go to the Observation Deck at the South Tower. They were asked about if they had ever been back since 9/11, or will they go back to the newly rebuilt World Trade Center, and they all had varying answers.

“The only time I’ve ever been back there was with our fire department a few years ago around Christmastime, we went there and took a tour of the museum, and it was kinda strange. It was kind of, it gave you kind of an eerie feeling because I remember the last time I was there I was standing on a pile of burning rubble with a few thousand people buried beneath me. You wanted to be there, but part of me didn’t want to be there, part of me wanted to just get up and leave. Do I want to go back again? Probably not, I think once was enough for me.”

“No, I have not gone to the museum, I really don’t care about going to the museum. I know it’s very sad, and I don’t want to see sadness again, about this. It was, you know we saw it the first hand, so why you wanna see it again second handed.”

“But uh, 21 years, and I have yet to go back since the last day. I don’t know, I really don’t know, you know you lived it. I don’t know, don’t know if I’ll ever go back, I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”

Finally, they shared their thoughts on now 20 and a half years later, are we starting to forget about the term “Never Forget” and is 9/11 fading into the background of history.

“There is a feeling that some people are starting to forget”

“I think nobody really cares about 9/11 till it comes back to Sept. 11th. That’s when everybody thinks about that day and their families are there, but I think their families have never forgotten about 9/11 and you can’t blame them, it was a bad day, bad day in New York City.”

The events of that day and the days that followed are etched into the psyche of all Americans who lived through that dark period in American history, but for these three brothers, those two towers, on that one day changed their lives forever and only strengthened the bond that they have between them. They will never forget 9/11, and we shouldn’t either. For Hofstra University, I’m Dylan Sandas