‘It wasn’t the same after 9/11': How becoming a cop saved an FDNY firefighter’s life
After 9/11, Dan Rowan, a 21-year FDNY veteran, moved from New York to Arizona to become a fourth-generation police officer – a change he says got him through some of his darkest days
Every year, millions of Americans vow just that – to never forget those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.
But for retired FDNY firefighter Dan Rowan, every day is 9/11.
Rowan, who worked with Engine 33/Ladder 9, was off duty that day.
“Me and my partner, who were the two oldest guys on the team, switched days. He wanted one day, I wanted another. All of a sudden, I’m with two off-duty police officers that day … helping them paint a house.”
They hadn’t gotten very far on their project when Rowan’s wife called him in a panic.
“She said, ‘Dan, you’ve got to go to New York.’ I said, ‘What happened?’ ‘Turn the TV on,’ she said. And I kept asking, ‘What happened?’ She just kept telling me to turn on the TV. Finally, she blurted out, ‘A plane just flew into the building.’ Without hesitation, I said, ‘I’m on my way.’ I was only 15 minutes from New York City. All three of us headed that way to help.”
Rowan arrived to a horrific sight: The north tower of the World Trade Center was collapsing. Rowan’s crew from Engine 33 and Ladder 9 were all in that tower.
Half of the crew from Ladder 9, he said, made it out, but they lost the entire Engine 33 crew.
“I lost 10 out of 15 of my guys,” Rowan said, choking back tears.
He stayed at Ground Zero – a place he prefers to call Ground Hero – for 72 hours straight as he assisted with recovery efforts. He was ordered to leave but couldn’t. He was looking for his 10 men. He couldn’t leave them behind.
Twenty years later, Rowan remains committed to never forgetting his fallen brothers. In his left shirt pocket, over his heart, he carries 10 Mass cards – one for each of his fallen crewmembers.
“I still have everybody with me. They never leave my side,” he said.
Rowan retired from the department in 2004.
“After 21 years as a firefighter, it wasn’t the same after 9/11,” he recalled. “It was very solemn.”
A year later, Rowan, his wife and two daughters moved to Arizona, where he joined the Marana Police Department.
‘They couldn’t fight fire anymore’
Funny enough, Rowan is a fourth-generation police officer.
“I was hired for the NYPD in the same week as the FDNY,” he said. “I sat my mother down and she said, ‘I don’t want you to be a police officer. We have nothing but cops in the family. Let’s have you become a firefighter. You’ll be the first firefighter in the Rowan clan.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Rowan was hired with the FDNY on Oct. 23, 1983. His fire station was less than a mile from the World Trade Center towers.
“I stuck with it. I loved the job so much,” he said. “A lot of the guys and girls I worked with were second to none. We were hand-picked. We knew each other’s mannerisms like nothing else. I miss the camaraderie.”
But after 9/11, the job, Rowan said, wasn’t the same. Shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, a psychologist was sent to Rowan’s firehouse to talk to his crew. They gathered at a table made by their colleague, Robert “Bobby” King, an avid woodworker, who died during 9/11.
“We called it the ‘Knights of the Roundtable,’ but the table was rectangular,” Rowan laughed.
He quickly shifted his lighthearted tone to a somber one: “I’m at the head of the table and I’ve got 10 of my other guys there. I turn to this psychologist and say, ‘Listen, it would behoove you to actually leave the fire station now. This is not a good time.”
The psychologist left but recruited one of Rowan’s crewmembers – Ralph Perricelli – to talk to them instead.
“Ralphie, who’s on light duty but is going to school to become a psychologist, comes into the firehouse and says, ‘Dan I know what’s going on. You guys don’t want to talk.’ I said, ‘Ralph, you know what the hell it is. We can’t talk right now. We lost everybody. We’ll be going to funerals for the next two years.”
Two months later, the same psychologist, as well as Perricelli, shows up at Rowan’s firehouse, hoping they were ready to talk. Instead of shutting them down, Rowan decided to open up – his humor.
“I’ve got my probie, Brian, sitting next to me and I say, ‘All right, guys. I’m going to open up here. Brian, I’ve got to tell you, I love you. I’ve always loved you.’ The whole table blew up. Everybody started laughing. And then, all of a sudden, everyone started opening up about how they were feeling.”
Rowan wasn’t prepared to hear what came next.
“We lost our fire truck after 9/11, so I brought a fire truck in and had us clean it up. We got the truck in operation, but it turned out, they all made me cry. They all said, ‘You’re doing this for yourself, Dan. You’re not doing this for us. You want us to be like you. We are not like you.’”
At that moment, Rowan broke.
“I was doing it for me. I just broke down unmercifully. They told me how they felt. I was crushed. I thought I was doing the right thing. It was the right thing for Danny, but it wasn’t the right thing for my guys. They couldn’t fight fire anymore.”
One by one, they all left.
The officer from New York
Since 9/11, Rowan has only been back to Ground Zero a handful of times.
“It’s solemn to be there. It’s sad. I’ve been back to my fire station many, many times. But going down to the site, I don’t go. It’s just one of those things. It’s very, very difficult.”
Moving to Arizona and becoming a police officer, Rowan said, got him through some of his darkest days: “Arizona has saved my life. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
Making the transition from a firefighter to a police officer, he said, was difficult.
“It’s so hard walking away from something you are born to do,” Rowan said. “I love helping people and serving the public. Even though I walked away from firefighting, I never left being a first responder.”
But the Marana Police Department didn’t force Rowan to permanently trade his turnout coat for a ballistic vest.
“In the back of my patrol vehicle was all my gear from FDNY,” Rowan said. “Turnout coat, helmet, forcible entry tools, a medical kit … I was the only ‘rig’ out there with an AED when they first came out. I went to police, fire and EMS calls due to my background from the FDNY. I loved the Marana Police Department because they allowed me to do both.”
Rowan, known as the “officer from New York,” retired from the department in February 2021 after 16 years of service. He received the department’s “Officer of the Year” award twice. But, at 65 years old, Rowan wasn’t ready to stop serving and protecting just yet. And, as it turns out, the department wasn’t ready to let him go either.
“In November, I took on a code enforcement role with the department,” he said. “I’m 65 but feeling 25. I’ve got to do something. There’s no way I can just stay retired. I’ve been doing this – helping people – more than half of my lifetime. It’s very, very difficult to walk away from.”
Staying busy, he said, stops him from going down a rabbit hole: “I have to continue on. You can’t sit home and dwell on it. It eats you up from the inside out.”
There is, however, one rule he continues to live and breathe by – one he learned as an FDNY firefighter.
“I was told, ‘Rowan, you’re good, but you’re only as good as your last 15 minutes,’” he recalled. “I had to sit down and analyze that. I always try to be the best. I don’t want anyone to ever say, ‘You could have done this or done that.’ I don’t want that. That’s why I am who I am. You have to wake up every day and do the best you can do.”
In Rowan’s 37 years of public service, he did just that, but so did the 343 FDNY firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11. And that’s something he’ll never forget.
“I see my 10 every day. They’re in my car. They’re in my house. In my turnout coat, I even have some parts of their uniforms. They never miss a call.”