When Al Fuentes enrolled in UConn’s master of professional studies homeland security leadership program, it was an opportunity for the retired New York City Fire Department captain to stay involved in a profession he loves.
For other participants in the program, it was a chance to share experiences with and learn from a man who almost died beneath the rubble of 9/11.
When the First Plane Hit
Fuentes’ memories of that fateful day, and the long recovery from his injuries – some of which still affect him – are vivid and poignant.
A member of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) for more than 30 years, Fuentes also worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on national and international urban search and rescue teams, including the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the Humberto Vidal explosion in Puerto Rico in 1996.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in charge of New York Harbor as acting battalion chief for the FDNY Marine Division when the first plane hit the north tower. He immediately surrounded lower Manhattan with three fire boats, and responded on another fire boat to a command post near the World Trade Center.
“A second plane flew over my head and turned as I was responding,” Fuentes recalls. “I just couldn’t believe it. All of a sudden, I hear the engine roaring and he banks his wings and crashes into the south tower when I’m right at the lower tip of Manhattan. It was so vivid. A fireball erupted and I realized we were being attacked.”
Concerned that there would be at least 10,000 to 15,000 civilians trapped above the impact zone, Fuentes banked his boat on the Hudson River side, and reported to the command post.
“One of my worst memories is – and still is to this day – the way the civilians were jumping,” he says. “I couldn’t believe the landscape – it was a combat-like landscape. People were running west to the river; they were running north to Chambers Street, running away from the scene.”
Fuentes did what he could to get into the south tower. He survived the south tower collapse, and then went to what was left of the Marriott, a 24-story steel frame building located between the twin towers, where he could see some civilians were trapped.
As the north tower began to come down, he found he was unable to walk through the debris. “I bent down on my knees, put my hands over my head, and started saying the Hail Mary. I guess I lost consciousness. I was buried for two hours,” he says.
Fuentes was rescued by two firefighters who heard his radio crackling under the rubble. “They looked into a hole, saw the yellow reflective stripe on my bunker gear, and were able to dig me out,” he says. “They transported me by fireboat to a triage center on the Jersey shore, where a priest gave me the Last Rites.”
The Road to Recovery
Fuentes’ injuries were extensive – both lungs were burned, his left lung had collapsed, he had nine broken ribs, and the rubble had torn away half of his scalp. He underwent a tracheotomy, was put into a drug-induced coma for three weeks, later spent some time in a pulmonary intensive care unit, and had about seven more operations.
When he finally went home, he had to be in a recliner for about nine months.
After a couple of years on medical leave, he was told the fire department could no longer use his services because of his injuries. “I was officially retired on Feb. 1, 2003,” Fuentes says.
But as his recovery progressed, he was determined to stay involved in the work he loved. He discovered UConn’s master of professional studies in homeland security leadership, a program offered through online courses supported by residential immersion sessions on the Storrs campus.
The program admits a cohort of 20-30 students each fall. Students follow a prescribed course of study for two years. Fuentes began taking classes in fall 2006 and graduated in August 2008.
He especially enjoyed learning online, with the opportunity to interact with students from different backgrounds. “We had people from Alaska, Chicago, Ohio, New York – military people, first responders, and individuals from private organizations,” says Fuentes. “It was fantastic to hear someone else’s responses to questions. You would hear from somebody in the military, I would talk from a local jurisdictional point of view, then someone would come in and give a different point of view. You’re really learning from each other … not just from the bias of your own point of view, of what you’ve been used to individually in your career.”
As a former firefighter, Fuentes learned new ways of thinking. “I’m an operational individual, so in my mind, I’m thinking tactics: we have to put this here, we have to set up this situation,” he says. “The coursework was geared at thinking strategically: what do we need to do to fix these problems? Learning about strategic thinking and policymaking made me think at a higher level.”
He also enjoyed the residential sessions, which gave him the chance to meet faculty and get to know his classmates.
“Our classes ended at five o’clock and then we went to dinner and continued talking on our own,” he says. “I would talk about my 9/11 experience and mistakes that we made, because a lot of mistakes were made on 9/11. My presence there brought it home to them, and the friendships we built were terrific.”
To earn their master’s degree, students must complete a capstone project that demonstrates their ability to identify strategic solutions to deal with a major issue, problem, or opportunity within the field. Fuentes’ project focused on challenges during catastrophic events with 911 dispatchers. He developed the idea for his project after listening to the FDNY’s 911 tapes of seven mothers who had lost sons who were firefighters.
After listening to the tapes, he realized how critical the 911 dispatchers were in the communications loop. “They’re talking to the individual who’s trapped on the 106th floor and they’re also talking to first responders, so they’re getting tremendous information regarding logistics, and the situations people are in. My capstone focused on utilizing the 911 dispatchers to get more intelligence for the first responders team, and also using communications like text messaging, phone pictures, and videos.”
In memory of the 343 FDNY firefighters who died on 9/11, Fuentes formed a non-profit organization known as the Patriot Group, which assists first responders with planning for and managing crisis situations in urban settings. All proceeds from his memoir, American By Choice, are donated to the group.
Fuentes says earning his master’s degree in homeland security leadership has enhanced his career. He now leverages the knowledge gained at UConn, together with his own experience, to provide consulting services to organizations throughout the U.S., including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
“To say I have my master’s legitimizes everything,” Fuentes says, “especially from an institution like the University of Connecticut.”
This year on Sept. 11, Fuentes is in Japan, where he is being honored by the U.S. Navy. He is also featured in a Knights of Columbus 9/11 tribute ad promoting volunteerism.