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Spotlight: Gary Smiley, Unsung Hero to Survivors

Few events in recent history conjure images of devastation like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That day, thousands of individuals rose up to become selfless heroes helping anyone they could.

FDNY Ambulance in Manhattan. (Image Courtesy of

During the coverage of the tragedy, there were many stories of people helping others in the aftermath of the attack.

Gary Smiley has always helped others, he spent 25 years as a New York City Fireman and Para-medic. Gary was one of the first people on site at the World Trade Center (WTC) after the first plane hit. His story did not end after the events of 9/11. He has continued to be a hero to many victims of that day, as an advocate for survivors.

The morning of September 11, 2001, started like many other days for Gary Smiley, a NYC firefighter, who was covering for a friend that day, and were getting gas, they heard on the radio scanner, an officer reporting that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

FDNY Fire Engine (Image Courtesy of
FDNY Fire Engine (Image Courtesy of

They quickly informed their dispatcher of what they heard, and because of their location, were assigned to respond, via the Brooklyn Bridge. As they approached the site, Gary said, “I saw smoke coming from the North Tower and my partner Danny, and I got this sick feeling, that it was more than a “small plane” had hit the building.”

When they arrived at the scene, they began aiding the evacuation of people and establishing a triage area as close and as safe as possible. Debris was raining down from the tower, so it was not safe being close to the tower.

World Trade Center (Image Courtesy of
World Trade Center (Image Courtesy of

A woman with severe cuts left the building, and as Gary was carrying her across Church Street, she started to scream “plane, plane!”

Gary thought she was speaking about the one that had hit, but what he did not realize was that she was facing south, down Church Street and saw the second plane coming towards the south tower.

I remember seeing the explosion but not remember hearing it. Gary threw himself over the woman as the fireball consumed everything around them.

He got her across the street and decided it was too dangerous where they were. Gary remembered that the FDNY staging area was on West Street, “I had also responded to the 1993 bombing.” He ordered the units that were within his vicinity to move their vehicles down Vessey Street.

Firefighters at World Trade Center during 9/11 attack. (Image Courtesy of
Firefighters at World Trade Center during 9/11 attack. (Image Courtesy of

Vessey street looked like a war zone covered with bodies, which had probably come from the plane.

We waited for further instructions, Gary watched in horror, as people jumped from the North Tower, Gary commented, “I have been told I counted them, 37 in all.”

Gary survived the collapse of the South Tower and was looking for his trapped friends, calling for help over their radios, when the North Tower collapsed.

World Trade Center aftermath of 9/11 attack. (Image Courtesy of
World Trade Center aftermath of 9/11 attack. (Image Courtesy of

Gary was found approximately two-hours later, under an ambulance, critically injured. He was rushed to a hospital where he spent a week.

Eventually, Gary was able to return to work, and retire, but has since contracted multiple illnesses related to 9/11, and currently, there are around ten-thousand 9/11 first responders who have gotten cancer, over 2000 of them in the New York Fire Department alone.

Gary is the volunteer WTC Liaison for the FDNY Local 2507 paramedics, EMT’s, and Inspectors Union.

Gary spent 25 years of his life in the NYC Fire Department, as a Rescue Paramedic, and other capacities, he is a proud father to his two children, his son Ben, who is also a NYC Firefighter, and his Daughter Robin, a stay-at-home mom. He currently resides in NJ, with his two pets, a service dog named Hannah, and a beagle named Heidi.

For more about the effect of positive news and everyday heroes visit


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