Gerritsen Beach council candidate pivoted to volunteer firefighter on 9/11

Doreen Garson of Gerritsen Beach talks about 9/11 as a volunteer firefighter.
Photo by Todd Maisel

Doreen Greenwood-Garson was canvassing for votes for her New York City Council primary run on that fateful Sept. 11, 2001.

At age 49, the life-long Gerritsen Beach resident was standing with supporters at the Volunteer Hall of the Gerritsen Beach Fire Department where she served as a captain at that time when somebody yelled to turn on the radio.

“I didn’t pay much attention at that moment, but then I went to my daughter April’s house to join her at the polling site at PS 277. I turned on CNN and I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center, and then I realized why they were telling me to turn on the radio,” Garson recalled.

Garson is a 30-year veteran and only woman to achieve the rank of chief in the Gerritsen Beach Volunteer Fire Department (GBVFD), one of seven volunteer fire companies in a city with more than 10,000 paid municipal firefighters.

On that day, all of those volunteer companies were called on to run to the site of the terror attack on the World Trade Center or to man firehouses after the collapse killed 343 firefighters and thousands of other rescuers and civilians.

At the time, Garson went to her son Paul’s house and convinced him not to run to the disaster until the NYPD gave the go-ahead. A contingent of  the GBVFD was immediately deployed to Engine 321 on Gerritsen Avenue in Marine Park, but the company’s leadership had “a pow wow” to discuss deploying to Ground Zero after the collapse of the two towers.

At 8 pm that evening, she and a group of GBVFD members arrived through a dust-filled Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in a volunteer vehicle with emergency supplies and first aid gear.

“An NYPD cop told us to make a right onto West Street and we then set up a first aid station on South Thames and Albany,” she said. “We thought they would bring people, we would assist the injured and we brought a lot first aid gear. We went to find water in a nearby hotel — nobody was there. We just kept fishing and looking for stuff. When we ventured out, it was eerily silent and we couldn’t really find anybody to help.”

Garson had been an EMT since 1986. She was inspired to join the GBVFD after her 5-year-old daughter fell unconscious and she called the volunteers.

“I called them to help and nobody answered the phone,” Garson remembered. “So I went down to the firehouse on a Sunday for drill and I asked what’s wrong with you that nobody answered the phone. They told me, ‘we don’t have enough people – here’s an application.’”

She originally joined to be a dispatcher, but became involved in firefighting. Over the years, she became immersed in the daily workings and helped to develop the unit strength.

She also taught first responder first aid at Randalls Island, some of those people were lost on 9/11.

“I loved making a difference and I knew how it felt as I had called so many times for help with my father,” Garson said.

Garson and her team stayed through the night and into the morning into Sept. 12.

“We were tired and I was up more than 24 hrs so then we went home to sleep,” Garson said. “The next day it rained and I was out with my son, and President Bush came down in a helicopter.  A lot of people showed up that day – it was pouring rain and we stood on line and got into bucket brigade, passing buckets. There were a couple of friendly search and rescue dogs – but they were nervous.”

Nervous for a reason, Garson said. She said buildings were creaking, dust permeated the air.

“They said the air wasn’t toxic, but we had N-95 masks anyway,” Garson recalled. “Both my sons were down there a lot, Charles was in the electrical union and his and many other skills were needed. My son Paul was in the 60th Precinct down there directing a lot of traffic before he became part of emergency service units. They all took turns going there, but I didn’t go back.”

Doreen Garson, former Chief at the Gerritsen Beach Volunteer Firefighters in Brooklyn, photographed assisting with injuries and search efforts. She joined hundreds of other volunteer firefighters helping rescuers on 9/11 and after.Doreen Garson

Numerous Brooklyn residents died in that attack, including Firefighter Larry Veling, a resident of Gerritsen Beach. The little league field on Gerritsen Avenue was named for him because of his activism with children in the community.

While Garson did not win her primary for City Council against Lew Fidler, she remained busy with the GBVFD for 30 years. She currently runs a real estate brokerage in her community, and despite a bout with bladder cancer that she caught early on, she continues to work with her community.

Her volunteer activity is now as a member of the Community Emergency Response Team, (NYC CERT), who’s members are dedicated volunteers who undergo a training program that provides basic response skills needed for fire safety, light search and rescue, community disaster support, disaster medical operations, and traffic control.

She learned that it was important to take an active role int he community and “to care about others.”

“I think it is really important for the kids today to know that we are all brothers and sisters and we have to be there for each other – if we are not there for each other and united, even our smallest brothers and sisters and as large as America, the United States, we have to learn that we are only there for each other,” she said.

This story first appeared on amNewYork.