A big day for Alex Morales came on Sept. 6, 2001. A firefighter his whole career, which now includes 35 years serving the city of Glendale, Morales elevated to the rank of captain that day.
Less than two weeks later, he was in New York City at Ground Zero helping with efforts at what sorrowfully came to be known as “The Pile.” It was all that was left of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, which had fallen in the wake of the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago in September.
Also a union representative with the International Association of Firefighters, Morales — “Chief Mo” as he’s affectionately known today at Glendale’s Station 159, at 17159 N. 63rd Ave. — was called upon for a different kind of service. He flew to New York for the member services’ task of creating a database to collect information from fellow members who were missing. In the end, 343 firefighters were killed in New York City while providing emergency aid that day, and IAFF members, like Morales, were now coming to their aid. Just a week after the attacks, in the midst of unimaginable mourning, it was clear that life was going on for the lost firefighters’ families, and that meant bills and rent and mortgage payments and groceries. The database was critical to get support started quickly.
“Everything was pretty solemn. You had your orders and you had a job to do,” Morales said, reflecting on a recent afternoon from inside Station 159. His flight to New York City was one of the very few able to take to the skies as an essential services flight that week while all other air traffic was grounded. “I wasn’t scared. I was happy to be able to help.”
Morales is the Northern Battalion Chief for Glendale, which has him covering a handful of stations on the north end of town. He spent the majority of his career at Station 152, at 69th Avenue and Bethany Home Road, before making captain that fateful week in September 2001. He eventually rose to chief in 2007.
Long before then, on Sept. 11, 2001, Chief Mo was off-shift that Tuesday and was home. He got a phone call from his mother who told him to turn on the TV. One of the towers had already fallen, and by then he watched live along with millions of others as the second fell.
A week later, he was on that flight, which landed in New Jersey. Guys were then loaded into vans and headed for Lower Manhattan. He had never been to New York City before.
“You always see it on TV, and the place is just constant with busy traffic and people,” Morales said. “Then you get there and it’s like a ghost town. There’s no one on the roads. Everything is shut down. Security is heightened to the max. Everyone’s super nervous still.”
The firefighters were taken to get credentialed, then to a hotel near Central Park. The IAFF set up the operation, and the hotel’s entire bottom floor was cleared out for the command center.
Morales’ days began at 5 a.m. with a workout, and he’d then be in the office by 7. He and the staff worked until late in the day.
“We’d go down to visit The Pile everyday,” he recalled. “Those guys were working around the clock. They were sleeping where they stopped. You couldn’t get them off The Pile. They didn’t want to leave.”
He was out there on what he called the toughest day — Day 14, when the rescue mission officially shifted into a mission for recovery.
“That’s basically telling you that it’s over,” he said. “The chance of finding anyone alive is pretty slim. Anyone who’s gone is gone for good. And that was a really difficult day for those guys.”
He remembers with clarity the enormity of the destruction on his first visit to Ground Zero.
“There were buildings on fire a block away. The tower — Tower 1 that fell — it was 110 stories up, but you go sideways and it’s blocks of damage. It was pretty shocking,” Morales said. “But after being there for just a little bit, the shock goes away when you see the effort that they’re putting forth trying to find people.”
He was on site when recovery personnel found the remains of an FDNY Rescue 3 firefighter.
“Everything stops when they find somebody, or a piece of somebody. And then they figure out where that person came from, and if they know then they call that company, and the company is the one that goes in to recover them,” he remembered, before struggling to find words even 20 years later. “Just seeing the respect how solemn everything was ... the respect they gave that person, it was ... just ... you know ... it just really reflected what the brotherhood and sisterhood is all about.”
Morales would be in New York City for a week, watching their database list tick down as more families found the help they needed thanks to efforts by IAFF union members.
“I felt grateful to the IAFF that they allowed me to do that,” he said, before continuing after a long pause, “... I was ready to come home. That kind of deployment is difficult.”
In his role with the IAFF, Morales has since gone for similar duty to New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and to Yarnell after the Granite Mountain Hotshots tragedy in 2013. He’d eventually spend a month in Prescott to fulfill needs with member services.
Next month brings Morales plenty of moments to reflect on 20 years after his crucial work on site with the 9/11 families.
“It’s gone by really, really quickly. Really fast,” he said. “The thing that I took away 20 years later is that we’re very resilient, as a people in this country. We’re very resilient. We’re able to get back on our feet and to start living again.”
He’s even gone back to New York City since — four times — as a tourist. He made his first visit to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum five years after he had been there last on the site of The Pile.
Chief Mo has a different kind of countdown these days. After what will mark 37 years as a firefighter, he’s set to roll into retirement in February 2022. His plans then? Well his parents live in Glendale, so he’ll spend more time with them. Definitely he’ll do some fly fishing. And he’ll combine two of his favorite things — travel and the Dave Matthews Band. He is a huge fan and has seen them in concert 60-some times. He’s thinking about taking even more time to see them by following the band around the country for shows.
Firefighting will always be at his core, though; his perspective long since cemented since his week spent at Ground Zero 20 years ago.
“If that would’ve happened in any city in the United States, or in the world, we’re all the same. Guys still would’ve went, they still would’ve climbed those stairs, they still would’ve done what they do. They all would’ve thought what those guys thought which is ‘We’re gonna get up there and we’re gonna kick its ass and put that fire out.’ We never thought that building was going to come down. I never did. I really didn’t.
“But it doesn’t change the way we do business. We’re still gonna go. If there’s someone we can help we’re gonna help.”