Sometimes, late at night, Capt. Joe Liselli ’87 would go up to the roof of the FDNY Ten House for a view of “the pit.”
“I would just look out and take it in,” said Liselli.
The Engine 54, Ladder 4 house in Midtown — his former post — lost 15 firefighters the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Liselli was looking out at Ground Zero, where they and 328 other firefighters spent their final moments.
For the past half-decade, his assignment at Engine 10, Ladder 10 has been to honor them.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center left thousands dead, millions of hearts broken and two gaping holes in the ground. It was known to firefighters and others working around it as “the pit.”
After suffering the catastrophic loss of his friends and brothers in arms from 54-4, Liselli made it a point to get as close as he could to the place where fellow firefighters and so many other innocent people perished on 9/11.
“It’s devastating, it’s overwhelming. Even 10 years later, it’s hard to believe
it even happened,” said Liselli. While he was fortunate not be one of the first emergency responders to the terrorist attacks, he spent days helping sift through the wreckage and weeks grieving for fallen colleagues.
“If you aren’t working, you are going to memorials,” Liselli told Oswego magazine in 2001. The people cheering and waving American flags in the streets as a busload of firefighters passed on its way to Ground Zero along with the sea of flowers, letters and objects people left at his firehouse helped Liselli and his fellow firefighters push through a difficult time.
“It reminded me that there are so many more good people than bad people in the world,” Liselli reflected. “It brought out the best in people.
“I’m kind of a pessimist, but I was there and I saw it first-hand,” he said.
“I was really touched.”
His absence the morning of 9/11, while a blessing, created an emotional struggle in Liselli.
A part of Liselli’s therapy came while doing rounds at the Ten House, now home to the FDNY Memorial Wall. “Going down there to 10 Engine,” Liselli said, pausing. “I know it sounds corny, but it felt like I was going to see [the guys from Engine 54] … It was the last place they all were.”
Upon his promotion to lieutenant in 2006, Liselli knew exactly where he wanted to be. He would spend the next five years — roughly the same time it took to construct the National September 11th Memorial — at Ten House.
“With the number of guys [54-4] lost, people thought I was crazy going from my house to 10 and 10,” said Liselli, referring to the daily reckoning that comes with working next to the pit and seeing the constant stream of tourists and mourners.
But, it was also an opportunity.
“I felt like I had unfinished business,” said Liselli. He would become one of only a few doing inspections of construction — including the memorial site and One World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this past September, the National September 11th Memorial was dedicated and opened to the public.
“I just feel bad for the families that lost someone that day,” said Liselli. “They didn’t deserve to be there. Those firefighters and police officers didn’t deserve their fate.
“This was a way of giving back … I feel better having some small part in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center,” said Liselli.
He was promoted to captain just days after the national memorial was opened and is now filling a roving assignment in Queens. Liselli said he was ready to move on with the completion of the national memorial.
“I do feel better about what’s happened today compared to 10 years ago,” said Liselli, who lives in Long Island with his wife, Catherine, and 18-month-old daughter, Angela. “I do feel like I did what I needed to do.”