FDNY lieutenant who survived 9/11 collapse finds his spiritual side

FDNY Lt. Raymond Brown holds a photograph of himself, center, taken by New York Daily News photographer Todd Maisel, and recalls how he survived the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center.
Photo by Debbie Egan-Chin

Lieutenant Raymond Brown and his company out of Brooklyn risked their lives to enter the partially collapsed Marriott Hotel on Sept. 11, 2001 to dig out his trapped firefighter brothers after the south tower fell.

He and his company only survived the collapse of the north tower because it had been reinforced after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Brown, seriously injured in the collapse, was rescued by other firefighters that day and taken to Jersey City Medical Center by fire boat, where he spent two months recuperating from serious neck, leg and back injuries. But he was determined to go back to work — a trait of many firefighters who, unlike other first responders who retire after 20 years, tend to stay well beyond minimum retirement threshold.

His biggest lesson though from 9/11 was the love and respect he felt from members of the public who sent letters, gifts, offered free treatments related to 9/11.

“After Sept. 11, I learned how much pain the human heart can take and how much love it can absorb,” sighed Brown, born in Queens, but raised in Sag Harbor, Long Island. “There was so much love and support — people were offering acupuncture and all kinds of things even voodoo, yoga. People wanted to avail themselves of their help. I found out two women were paying for my acupuncture. I started to practice yoga. I started to ride my bike more, kayak, fish, chase after my nieces and nephew. My daughter Molly was 9, and her whole class adopted me.  An upstate class sent me a flag, six feet high by nine feet wide with children’s hand prints children. So many firefighters received so much love and support. Everyone was waving flags, but not like today where people wave flags and claim, ‘I’m a patriot, you are not.’”

He did eventually returned to his company, Ladder 113 in Flatbush, Brooklyn — but in 2003, he fell through the floor while battling a house fire on Lenox Road.

“When I fell threw that floor, guys were like, ‘Ray, I think this is the message,’” Brown recalled that day he was nearly killed yet again on the job. “Firefighters don’t do it for the money because there are other ways to make money. To this day people say ‘oh, you are so lucky you retired early.’  If I had my way, they would’ve had to force me out at 65 – I would’ve sat in the chief’s car. Yes, I was beat up. Two years later, I needed a double hip replacement.”

The day of 9/11, he and his company responded to the World Trade Center from Flatbush and parked their tower ladder rig on West Street and proceeded towards the tower. Shortly after, the tower collapsed and Brown said he was blown off his feet and across West Street along with others from his company.

After the collapse, his men rallied back at the fire truck and then entered the heavily damaged Marriott Hotel to rescue firefighters and others who were trapped.

“Police officers were running away because their radios were working, but there were firefighters running away too, but I can’t blame them,” Brown recalled

Brown said they were trying to reach Lt. Robert Nagle, but then the north tower collapsed, injuring him and others who were trying to claw through the debris. Nagle was killed in the second collapse.

Brown said Firefighter Ritchie Nogan found him — Nogan only having taken part earlier in the rescue of Firefighter Kevin Shea who was found outside in the debris field, the only survivor of his company.

Amazingly, his company survived the collapse because they were in the reinforced Marriott, while 343 firefighters were killed. Brown had to be carried out by Firefighters Frank Dileo and James Heaney of Engine 209 based on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. They put him on a fireboat that took him to the hospital.

FDNY Lt. Raymond Brown hugs his wife Karen Kluglein.Photo by Debbie Egan-Chin

“The doctor came up to me after I woke six hours later and I was told my men are alive, and ‘your daughter knows you are alive,’” said Brown who then requested that he not get drugs for the pain – he had been sober for 37 years.

And while in the hospital, he found out his friend and co-worker when he was in Rescue 1 in Manhattan, Captain Al Fuentes had also survived and was in the same hospital. It was Fuentes’ wife, Irene, who came walking into his hospital room to give him a bit of good news.

That’s when the letters started to arrive. The get-well cards and well wishes. One card in particular came from Karen Kluglein, also a Sag Harbor resident – the phone number was there so Brown being single at that time, eventually contacted her. Today, he and Karen, a widower at the time, are now married and living in East Hampton.

Brown’s family also became involved in the rescue operations, including his brother Paul, a fire captain in Manhattan, and his other brother Tom, who was already retired and living in Arizona, came back to help.

His older sister Laura Brown-Amodeo, a year older than him, was a cop in the 101st Precinct in Rockaway, Queens at the time of 9/11 and was then sent to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, referred to at the time as “the pile” to search through debris removed from the World Trade Center, where small bits were searched for human remains.

Brown-Amodeo worked several weeks at the landfill and like many others, contracted cancer, believed to be from her exposure to the many toxins deposited there.

“It was absolutely brutal,” Brown remembered when his sister became ill. “She got sick in the beginning of July 2019 – may be two or three weeks it was in her liver and spreading. She was going to Sloan Kettering, but we knew she was dying. It was devastating for me – I’ve never been in such pain – everything was in slow motion –  she’s survived by three kids  – I’m close with her two oldest boys they are like my sons.”

Lt. Raymond Brown’s sister Laura, died of 9/11 related cancer.FDNY Lt. Raymond Brown

Today, Brown says he has become “spiritual” and spends time with wife, his daughter Molly who is now a grade school teacher, and his step-daughter Lilly, who is now in her third year of law school – currently doing internships processing visas for Afghans fleeing the war torn nation. Despite continuing health issues from his injuries including a double hip replacement and what he said was recently a minor stroke, he is thankful for being alive.

“There is no way I can think why I was spared –  I don’t know, I don’t question it – it’s God’s universe and while I grew up Catholic I consider myself a recovering Catholic and so now God for me is not God I grew up with.  It’s now about the spirit and nature.”

He also bemoans the current divisions in society, including some of his own brothers who he says are overly critical of political opposition — reminding fellow firefighters that “it was a Republican President, a Republican governor and a Democratic senator who worked together that we are all benefiting from now.”

“This helmet saved my life,” Brown said.

“Whenever a firefighter criticizes Hillary Clinton, I ask them to name one politician that did more for us,” he said, referring to the 9/11 World Trade Center Health and Compensation Act. “To me, that is what we should never forget – how people in this country came together and I hope we can learn that lesson. Last year was a very sad year – a lot of people died of COVID and I have friends denying there was COVID.”

“We can’t forget the real reason we can’t forget is what happened afterwards,” he added.  “People in this world that want to kill us. I am not your average firefighter politically, but I just tell them we must stick together because there are people who are evil around the world, and so we should learn never let guard down.”

This story first appeared on amNewYork.