The 9/11 Rescuer: Alfredo Fuentes
You may wonder what you would do if confronted with almost certain death – and had the time to think about the end of your life.
On September 11, 2001, Alfredo Fuentes, a captain in the New York City Fire Department, got that opportunity and turned to the greatest source of comfort and hope he’d ever known.
That morning he was acting battalion chief for his division when the World Trade Center towers were struck by two hijacked commercial jets. His job was to lead fireboat rescue teams from the Brooklyn Naval Yard to lower Manhattan and ferry survivors to hospitals.
He relentlessly did all he could to find the wounded and get them to a fireboat as quickly as possible.
Before the south tower came down, he had assisted in evacuating seven firefighters and other personnel from the wreckage and moved them to safety. Then he went to the north tower, searching for more victims to rescue.
Suddenly, the north tower began to fall, with tons of debris dropping all around him.
Before he could rush to safety, a steel girder landed on Fuentes’ upper body, pinning him to the ground. The weight of the metal fractured his skull and smashed his left hand, snapping the bones in two of his fingers.
The girder broke nine of his ribs and collapsed his lung. He was in excruciating pain and drifted in and out of consciousness for the next 45 minutes. However, he was able to maintain radio contact with other rescuers and guide them to where he lay trapped. During that time, he also said the Hail Mary over and over again. He said it from the depths of his being and then said it some more.
In the face of death, that prayer was his most faithful companion. As the pain was about to overwhelm him, the rescuers finally arrived, removed the girder, and put him aboard a boat headed for a hospital across the Hudson River.
Fuentes’ injuries were severe – the NYC Fire Department ruled him permanently and totally disabled – and for the next four months he needed constant attention. His wife, Eileen, left her job to be with him every day and slept beside him on a cot at the hospital. His son, Matthew, took care of the two younger children at home.
His fellow Knights of Columbus from Queens regularly visited Fuentes in the hospital, which reminded him of why he’d spent 20 years in the fraternal Order and of how many men were now praying for him. His body had been crushed, but his faith in his fellow man and the Catholic Church was stronger than ever.
After recovering, he wrote his story in the book called American by Choice, in which he gives a detailed account of his ordeal as well as his great love for the United States, where he arrived as a child from Ecuador.
On the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, the Knights of Columbus held a Mass and patriotic program at a church in Washington, D.C. Despite his disability and the constant pain, Alfredo Fuentes made the trip to the nation’s capital and led the thousands assembled in the Pledge of Allegiance.
“It’s an honor to be involved in this day and to lead the pledge,” he said. “My wife and I this morning called all the widows of the firefighters we knew.”
Fuentes became a firefighter to serve as a rescuer. He was continuing in that role by reaching out to others who were hurting a year from the day he nearly lost his life at Ground Zero.
This article is excerpted from the book By Their Works, published by the Knights of Columbus.