May 5, 2002 – Two unsung heroes of Sept. 11 accepted an invitation to return to their St. Thomian roots for a welcome break from their ongoing labors in New York — just in time to get caught up in "A Cultural Roogoodoo for Carnival 2002."
That was okay with Vivian Lomacang, a bouncy 47-year-old New York Fire Department emergency medical technician with bright blue hair and lots of gold jewelry everywhere, including her right eyebrow.
Her friend Lester George, a 6-foot, laid-back New York Police Department probation section detective, was still looking for quiet days at the beach, a world away from the streets of New York, where he directed traffic on Sept. 11 and did driving, morgue duty and whatever else was needed after that.
Both were born in New York, but Lomacang is from a local French family. Her father was well-known musician Harry Lang. Her uncle, Juan Montes, is retired from the V.I. Fire Service on St. Thomas.
The blue hair isn't part of her island heritage. In an e-mail sent to the Source weeks ago, she included a photo taken at ground zero, pointing out, "I'm the one with the red hair. It changes from time to time." The red was as in fire engine, not your basic carrot top.
George's mother, Eulalie Ottley George, was born on St. Thomas and now lives in New York. George has family here and has been visiting since he was a child. At the seaplane ramp last week, just before flying off to St. Croix, he points to a green house with a red door on the Solberg hillside. "That was my grandmother's house," he says. "I used to sit there when I was a kid watching the gooses, Antilles Airboats, taking off."
Lomacang was in the thick of things soon after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Asleep after having finished her previous shift at 4 a.m., she was awakened with the news. "I'm about five minutes from my station in Brooklyn," she relates. "I dressed and ran in and we, the whole station, commandeered a city bus to get to Manhattan. We couldn't believe what we were seeing."
Lomacang didn't leave the site until two days later. Her 27-year-old partner didn't leave at all. "He never came out," she says.
"There was a big mixup at first with where they wanted us to set up a triage station," she says, noting that there has been criticism of how different units responded. "To me, it was just common sense, a mission. To figure out how to get around it was beyond procedures. There's no rules for that. You just did what you felt was best. There were guys hiding under fire trucks, there were trucks being thrown up in the air. We got thrown around, too, about 30 feet."
She got injured, but "you shook it off, and kept going. I didn't get out until early morning on the 13th. I injured my eye and shoulder. I could live with the shoulder, but I had to get attention for the eye. We had no masks."
When the second tower collapsed, "that was totally unexpected," she says. "I remembered what I'd heard in '93. I was here for that [when terrorists blew up the basement of one of the twin towers]. Somebody said then, 'You can't take the building down from the bottom; it has to be from the top'."
Lomacang kept looking for her partner, James Chyle, a "probe," or probationary, firefighter. "He just became a firefighter. We were very close. He was a nice, Irish kid, my partying buddy. He was so young. He was leaving for Chicago that afternoon on vacation," She pauses. "I don't think they have recovered his body even yet. I check the morgue book whenever I go down there. So many EMT's were lost, too."
Lomacang responds to questions sitting in her Aunt Gloria Turbe's front yard in Frenchtown, just before she and George head off to spend the day on St. Croix. Seaborne Airlines sponsored the trip and they were to be hosted by Chuck Ulrich, who has been putting together free vacation packages for New York firefighters and their families since last November. Lomacang and George are the second set of guests that Ulrich has sent to St. Thomas.
With the help of American Airlines, the Tourism Department and community donations, Ulrich and fellow Crucian business people Carl and Marti Gotts have been able to provide island vacations for 15 firefighters and their families so far this year (plus others late last year), with about 15 more scheduled. Donations still are needed to cover the airfare of family members. (For background, photos of visits to date and information on how to contribute, see the St. Croix welcomes firefighters web site.)
When Lomacang responded to Ulrich's invitation, which he sent to the NYFD's Family Crisis Center, she told him, "I am really in need of a rest."
According to George, Lomacang is resting on St. Thomas as much as she is able. "Look at her," he says, laughing, as she juggles belongings from one bag to another for the daytrip while giving a very animated interview. "Energy? Oh, please! Just try to get her to slow down!" Personally, George adds, shaking his head, "I think a vacation means doing nothing."
Lomacang laughs. "In the four years we've been together, he knows me like a book."
Both turn serious again, as Lomacang recounts the experiences that have shaped her past few months and will leave an indelible mark on her future. "The most horrible thing was watching people jumping out of the windows. They had no choice — you perished inside, or you jumped. If you saw that film they made, it was on TV, you could hear the bodies land … If they landed on you, they would kill you.
"The bodies and flying debris were what you had to watch out for. Cars, trucks, fire engines. It was like a kid playing with trucks and throwing them in the air. It was so chaotic, with people running for their lives, and the smoke, the air, got so bad. What you saw on TV was not like really being there. The TV cameras were blocks away. There were bits of things shoes, trees, cars. You never saw anything as large as a typewriter or a desk or a computer. We never found a chair."
Lomacang doesn't allow herself any slack from the experience. "We lost so many friends," but "New Yorkers are tough," she says. "Lots of people became asthmatic and messed up psychologically. I had a dry cough for months. We just did what we could to help, comfort, give first-aid. Remember, it was a very warm day. We got to hose ourselves off every once in a while from the heat from the fire."
Then came "my biggest worry. I thought, 'My God, my brother is on a plane coming back from England. He's in the air.'" John Lomacang was even more worried about his sister — as he himself relates, since he, too, is visiting their Aunt Teresa. "We were diverted to Canada, and I called a radio station, and we finally found out where Vivian was," he says.
The brother and sister are very close, having grown up together in New York with foster parents and with no idea where or who their real mother was. "My mom, Rosario, Rosie, was born here," Lomacang says. They found Rosario Lomacang in the late '80s. Their childhood is the subject of a book that John Lomacang, a writer, pastor and musician, recently wrote. It's titled "Abandoned But Not Alone."
George also shares his experience on Sept. 11: "I was going to the doctor about 9:30. I left Vivian asleep. I kept seeing people looking up. I was on the Atlantic Parkway going west to Hempstead. I heard on the radio and then I saw the first tower come down, collapse. I saw the second at the doctor's office. I raced back, but I couldn't get into the city. I had to use my shield to get back to base, and then there was a major traffic situation on Pennsylva
nia Avenue. I was stationed there until 2 a.m.I didn't know where Vivian was, but I knew she was okay. I talked to her."
In a busy week's vacation, the two have been to Trunk Bay on St. John, to Water Island with Vivian's aunt and uncle, and to Carnival. "We couldn't find a ride home from the Village one night, couldn't get a cab," George says, "so we went to the fire station, and before we knew it, they put us in car and whisked us out to the hotel." Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort provided complimentary accommodations. "They've really been treating us like royalty," George says.
Lomacang worked at ground zero until Oct. 27, "when I started coughing nonstop." She got away from the site for a while but was back in mid-December. "We go whenever they call us for extra duty now," she says. "I'm back in the streets of Brooklyn working, and on my days off I do overtime at the site. For instance, I just spent Easter there. That wasn't my idea of how to spend Easter, but …"
Nowadays, she and George work 12-hour shifts that are at opposite ends of the day — 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for her and 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. for him. "So we don't see each other often," she says.
The view from the morgue
Lomacang works in the morgue, which can take its toll emotionally. "We're still finding bodies," she says. "The firemen are almost intact because they are buckled in by their gear … I'm doing recovery, and we still find lots of bones, not full remains. At the big morgue at Bellevue they found 17 remains totally intact. The bodies were well kept. One guy had his shoes and socks on, and his jewelry. They found a policeman in an elevator bent over a woman he was protecting. They found 13 people in a circle, stooped down together."
She relates that all of the bodies from one of the planes fell atop a Marriott hotel. "Everybody from the plane landed on the roof," she says. "Amazing things happened. All the Bibles in the hotel fell onto the ground intact, so they gave them to the clergymen." Thinking over the events, still painful to talk about, she says, "The saddest one was a brother, a twin brother, who found his twin. He knew it was his twin from a pin he had in his knee. He picked him up and carried him all the way to the morgue."
After more than eight years on the job, Lomacang says she and the others who do it "really, really love our jobs. We lost lots of people from a new class. We do a lot of fund-raising for firefighters' wives, children, husbands … A lot of guys fall out of line with the psychological stress."
The following week, she says, "We are having a big candlelight memorial, a vigil for everybody, anybody."
Lomacang was working at an answering service and volunteering as an EMT in Brooklyn when a professional EMT noticed her potential. "He arranged to send me to the academy, I passed, and I've been here ever since," she says.
She pulls out a small photo album, looking almost in disbelief. "I've never seen Beirut, but that's what I thought, looking around me," she says looking at one picture of the tower's broken central water fountain. She says it again: "Nothing compares with actually being there, seeing it. Nobody did anything wrong; you can't say that. Everyone did the best they could, and there were lots of civilians helping, too."
She adds, "And funerals, we did so many funerals. In fact, I have to go to a funeral when I get back, an EMT who made it out of the towers and just lost his life in an ambulance accident."
She continues, "Can you believe it? He was 24 years on the job, and was going to retire in five or six months. The ambulance rolled over on him."
She stops talking. After a while, she says, "Little by little we are getting back into the street. Life goes on."
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