Former New York firefighter shares his memories of 9/11

Capt. Peter Davis stands at attention fronting a ceremonial bell as firefighter color guards Jerime Storey (left) and Joshua Dukes approach to post the flags on each side of the bell Monday in front of the Kahului Fire Station. After a moment of silence, Davis rang the bell 16 times in remembrance of the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Maui County / RYAN PIROS photo

Even as 16 years have passed, the emotions and sounds of Sept. 11, 2001, remain raw and vivid for Maui resident Adam Morsi, a former New York firefighter.

The 45-year-old broke down in tears Monday afternoon as he recalled hearing the eerie and intense chirps of fellow New York firefighters’ breathing apparatuses that let out high-pitched sounds when a firefighter’s body stops moving.

“When you don’t move for about 30 seconds, the chirps start going out . . . and the sound of over 300 of those going off at the same time” Morsi said, stopping as he tried to hold back tears.

That was the case when the Queens, N.Y., firefighter responded on his day off to the World Trade Center on the afternoon of Sept. 11. It was just hours after terrorists hijacked two commercial airliners and crashed them into the 110-story buildings, killing more than 2,000 people.

Morsi, currently a concierge at The Westin Nanea Ocean Villas, said he doesn’t think anyone could be prepared to witness what he saw as a 29-year-old firefighter.

Adam Morsi, a former New York City firefighter who now works as a concierge at The Westin Nanea Ocean Villas, spoke at a commemoration ceremony Monday morning at The Westin Ka‘anapali Ocean Resort Villas. Morsi responded to ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, as a Queens borough firefighter. Imaging Plus Hawaii photo

He pointed to circulated photos of New York on that day, and one in particular that depicted a firefighter standing in the middle of a street.

“There is fire on all sides of him,” Morsi said.

In one corner is a building on fire, in another area a car. Another fire burns nearby and on and on.

“It was so overwhelming. You don’t know where to start,” he said.

Morsi spoke during a commemoration ceremony Monday morning on the beach fronting the Kai Lani lawn of The Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas. An estimated 150 people attended the event, including Maui County first responders. It included a ceremonial canoe paddle, with Lahaina and Napili canoe clubs and Alii Maui Outrigger Canoes, hotel officials said.

A ceremonial sail at the beach fronting The Westin Ka‘anapali Ocean Resort Villas was part of 9/11 commemoration events Monday. Imaging Plus Hawaii photo

The Maui County Fire Department held a separate memorial service Monday morning at the Kahului Fire Station.

Morsi moved to Maui in 2006. He said that Monday was the first time he has spoken publicly about his experience.

He said he wanted to share his story to remind people, especially the teenagers who were not even born then, that “this was real.”

“I think people should remember because in times like these, whether it is a man-made disaster or natural disaster, the proof that people can come together . . . that can be a positive force,” Morsi said.

Morsi owns a music studio, Fuzz Box productions in Lahaina, and does rescue diving to assist underwater film crews. He said he fell in love with Maui when he came for a visit in 2005.

Maui County first responders attend a Sept. 11 commemoration ceremony at The Westin Ka‘anapali Ocean Resort Villas on Monday, the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Imaging Plus Hawaii photo

“I instantly knew I was going to move here,” he said. “That’s a true story.”

He then left the New York Fire Department to pursue his creative side on Maui with his wife, Magdalena. Nevertheless, he returns to New York annually for a physical to ensure he’s in good health. He’s part of a health monitoring program for emergency responders to the 9/11 disaster.

So far, he hasn’t had any breathing or other health problems.

Morsi recalled that he was heading from Queens borough to Brooklyn on the day of the attacks to meet a friend for breakfast. Then he saw the twin towers on fire.

“They looked like matchsticks were burning,” he said.

Morsi recalled that when the towers fell, his car was covered in debris even though he was across a river from ground zero. He had driven to a grocery store to pick up a disposable camera.

“It was very strange. That’s the first thing that came to mind. I started taking a bunch of pictures,” he said.

The debris looked like snowflakes falling, he said.

He then went home to Queens to wait for his mother, a teacher in Manhattan. She took a couple of hours to walk home.

Then, he responded to the twin towers. He even drove on sidewalks to get to ground zero. He parked his car 15 to 20 blocks away and walked in.

“It was totally mayhem,” he recalled.

Morsi said hospitals went into high alert, expecting a lot of people with injuries.

But “there were actually no bodies,” he remembered.

Everything was destroyed, he said. And he recalled that tattoos on body parts helped identify firefighters.

“I’ll never forget,” he said of his fellow firefighters who went into the buildings, sacrificing their lives to save others.

Sometime after Sept. 11, Morsi suffered more heartache when he learned a good high school friend and fellow firefighter had died. Morsi said he didn’t know his friend was among New York’s more than 10,000 firefighters.

“I was devastated, when I found out. I had no idea,” he said.

Over the years while on Maui, Morsi said he commemorated the anniversary of Sept. 11 in his own way, whether it was providing dinner for Lahaina fire crews or bringing cakes to first responders.

Since joining the resort in May, he got the opportunity to participate in Monday’s ceremony.

He said he was very impressed by how many of the local police officers, firefighters, state Department of Land and Natural Resources officials and the mayor’s office staff came out “to support and remember.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at