The amazing story of Steve Buscemi and 9/11

Ben Falk
Steve Buscemi, the star of “Boardwalk Empire,” has produced a new HBO documentary on the lives of NYC firefighters.

Fargo and Boardwalk Empire star Steve Buscemi was a New York firefighter for four years from 1980 to 1984, before quitting to become a full-time actor. But when the Twin Towers fell, he found himself back at his old company in Little Italy.

“It’s very chaotic. There’s lots of noises, you hear glass being broken, you have a mask on so you can’t really see a lot,” Steve Buscemi has said of his time fighting fires in the Big Apple. “It’s very hard to describe but all your senses are going. Your adrenaline is pumping and your mind is trying to stay focused.”

For some, it might be hard to imagine the impish, interestingly-toothed performer as anything other than one of Hollywood’s great character actors known for brilliant performances in everything from Reservoir Dogs to Armageddon. But before Hollywood came calling, there was Engine 55.

Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth, from left, attend the “Reservoir Dogs” 25th anniversary screening during the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, April 28, 2017, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Based in Little Italy at 363 Broome Street in downtown Manhattan, the then-22-year-old was part of the engine company, having taken his civil service test four years previously.

“It was very intimidating,” he told CBS about arriving at the firehouse for the first time. “I was just nervous, you know? I was, like, the quietest guy in the firehouse for a long time.”

“It’s all about bringing in a hose and putting water on the fire,” he continued. “You know when you have a job a few blocks away because there’s a certain smell. It always helps that you have people surrounding you that help you through it.”

Buscemi would moonlight as an actor during his firefighting career, eventually leaving the FDNY when he got his breakthrough role as a young man with AIDS in 1986’s Parting Glances.

Steve Buscemi with Engine 55 from his HBO documentary (HBO)

Then 9/11 happened and everything changed. The Twin Towers fell and central Manhattan found itself overrun with debris and dead bodies, most buried deep beneath the rubble. Desperate to help and clearly still bound to his previous unit, he returned to Engine 55, which itself had lost four men in the tragedy. He didn’t tell anyone, didn’t give any interviews and there is little photographic evidence, though the picture below purports to be him.

From 12 September, he worked 12-hours-a-day for a week, helping his former colleagues search for survivors (343 firefighters were killed when the towers collapsed), digging through the remains of the World Trade Centre for signs of life and helping to take away the dead.

It was only when a Facebook post emerged written by Jonathan Lusk on a group page called Brotherhood of Fire that anyone realised what he had done.

“He wasn’t there for the publicity,” wrote Lusk. “Once a brother, always a brother!”

His devotion to his former profession didn’t stop there. In 2003, he was arrested at a union rally organised to protest against fire station closures and for higher wages. Nine years later in 2012, after Hurricane Sandy battered the Eastern seaboard, he again joined the FDNY at Breezy Point to help with the clean-up.

And in 2014, he produced a documentary for HBO called A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY in which he examined what it was like to work as a firefighter up close.

He still refuses to talk about returning to the old job in September 2011, preferring to get on with it rather than worry about the plaudits.

But as Brotherhood of Fire put so succinctly, “Just so we’re clear…this guy is a Badass!!!”

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