On September 11, 2001, Aaron McLamb, an amateur photographer, arrived at his 10th floor office near the Brooklyn Bridge when an airplane plane slammed into the North Tower. The then 20-year-old watched in horror as less than 20 minutes later, a second plane crashed into the South Tower.
Grabbing his camera, McLamb snapped an unforgettable shot of a red fire truck blazing across the Brooklyn Bridge, with the burning World Trade Center towering in the background.
The truck, NYPD Ladder 118 was charging towards a fire call in Lower Manhattan and at the time, no one knew it would be the last call that six firefighters would ever attend.
And McLamb, who frequently passed the station before, said he admired their bravery and that “not all heroes wear capes.”
Aaron McLamb, a 20-year-old from North Carolina, grew up wanting to be a firefighter and frequently passed the FDNY Ladder 118 station on Middagh St. in Brooklyn, speaking with the workers who were at the hall.
An amateur photographer, McLamb, under the Instagram handle rr_equipment_and_more. Often capturing photos of the truck, he never expected the one he took on the morning of September 11, 2001, would be an iconic image that immortalized the final run of six firefighters.
McLamb was on the 10th floor of the Jehovah’s Witness facility near the Brooklyn Bridge when the first plane, loaded with 20,000 gallons of jet fuel, struck the World Trade Centre.
He watched in horror as flames fired out of the North Tower, and then a little after 9 a.m., a second airplane appeared in the sky, and turning sharply toward the World Trade Center, it sliced into the south tower near the 60th floor.
Grabbing his camera from a storage room, he positioned himself outside a bay window and started snapping.
“When I saw the fire trucks going across the bridge, I just had to start taking pictures of them, with no understanding that those guys wouldn’t come back,” McLamb, now 37, told the Daily News. “It was almost surreal being that high up looking at everything going on down below. You couldn’t hear the crackling of the fire or the creaking of the buildings. The only thing we could hear were the sirens from the fire trucks going across the bridge.”
One of McLamb’s images, that shows Ladder 118 crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and the swelling plume of black smoke from the towers behind, became one of the most famous photos of the 9/11 attacks.
After the second plane crashed into the South Tower, firefighters Vernon Cherry, Leon Smith, Joey Agnello, Robert Regan, Pete Vega, and Scott Davidson left the Brooklyn Heights fire hall and were on their way.
Once they arrived, the six men from Ladder 118 ran deeper into the carnage and landed at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, which shattered around them when the 110-storey towers collapsed.
Survivors remembered seeing the heroes with the number 118 on their helmets running up the stairs to help guests.
They were never seen alive again.
Bobby Graff, a former elevator mechanic at the hotel said, “They knew what was going on, and they went down with their ship.” Referencing the hundreds of guests and Marriott employees that survived, he continued “They weren’t going to leave until everyone got out. They must have saved a couple hundred people that day. I know they saved my life.”
Days later, Graff spoke with the members of the station and explained how the brave team refused to leave until they safely evacuated the building.
Retired firefighter John Sorrentino shared, “They heard the rumble of the tower coming down and Graff, everyone just started running. After the smoke cleared [Graff] was in a spot where he survived and everyone else died.” Sorrentino continued, “[Graff] could see the look on the guys faces from 118, that they knew that this was going to end bad, but they weren’t leaving because they wanted to get as many people out safely that they could.”
Sorrentino added, “And that’s how we found out what Ladder 118 did that day.”
Some of the men from Ladder 118 were found within a few feet of each other, and others were found days or weeks later.
The truck, that was last seen charging across the bridge to the site, was a mangled wreck of steel and glass and recovered within days of the attack.
Two months later, firefighters digging through the rubble found tools engraved with the Ladder 118 logo.
The heroes of Ladder 118
Vernon Cherry, a 30-year FDNY veteran, was planning to retire at the end of the year. The 49-year-old, who lived in New York City with his wife and their three children, also moonlighted as a wedding singer. A firefighter at the hall said of Cherry, “He would just sing. He would be walking up the stairs, in the locker room, taking a shower. He had such a beautiful voice.”
A father of three, Leon Smith, 48, joined the FDNY in 1982 and was the chauffeur–the driver–for Ladder 118. His mother Irene said of her son, “He would wash his rig every single day, and when he went off duty, he’d say, ‘Listen, my baby better be clean.’ He called that his girlfriend.”
Joseph Agnello was a 35-year-old father of two “who loved his kids, his dogs, his life. “People on my block didn’t know my husband was a fireman,” said his wife, Vinnie Carla Agnello. “He never need to talk about himself or the job. He wasn’t the type of person who needed attention.”
Lt. Robert “Bobby” Regan, 48, started his career as a civil engineer but joined FDNY to spend more time with his young children. “He was Mr. Mom,” said his wife Donna. “There was never a day that went by that we didn’t know what we had. We told our kids not everybody gets to be as happy as we are.”
Before Pete Vega joined FDNY in 1995, he spent six years in the U.S. Air Force, serving at Desert Storm before being honorably discharged. Regan, his wife and the mother of his children, said Pete, 36, called her right before jumping on Ladder 118. She remembers his kind and generous heart: “If he was cleaning out our gutter, he would clean the neighbor’s, too.”
Scott Davidson–the father of Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson–began his firefighting career in 1994. The body of the 33-year-old man was recovered from the rubble only three weeks later. He was known for his humor, his heart of gold, and his love of Christmas. Pete said of the trauma he’s grown with, “You know, Dad says he’s coming to pick you up and he doesn’t. For life, I’m like, I don’t believe anyone…” he said.
Agnello, Vega, and Cherry are still together, buried in adjacent plots in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. “They were found side by side, and they should stay side by side,” said Agnello’s wife.
The team of Ladder 118 are six of 343 firefighters who died in 9/11, a number that–according to USA Today–represented almost half the number of “on-duty deaths in the New York City Fire Department’s entire 100-year history.”
Sorrentino was also at the Brooklyn Heights firehouse when McLamb showed up with a stack of photos that he shared with the surviving members, who identified the truck as Ladder 118.
McLamb then passed the chilling photo onto the media, where it was seen around the world as the fatal last call of the fire truck that represents both the patriotism and tragedy of September 11, 2001.
Two years ago, McLamb joined a conversation on Reddit, clarifying the story behind his image. He writes, “I took this pic. These [firefighters] were super nice guys. They always talked to me when I passed the station.” He continued, “I didn’t have a clue that any of these guys wouldn’t come back, but I admired their bravery headed in. I imagined them looking through the front windows of the rig knowing they were in for the fight of their lives. Not all heroes wear capes.”
Our hearts and thoughts go out to all the emergency workers who were so committed to their jobs that they gave their lives. Without their support, more people would have died.
For the family and friends of the men on Ladder 118, we hope you find some peace in knowing that hundreds of people credit your loved ones for their survival.
Please share this story and in memory of Ladder 118, let’s thank our emergency workers.
If you found this story moving, you should read about the unsung hero who saved thousands of lives on 9/11.