John Bruckner can never forget because he was right there. Only a modicum of the trauma has decreased with time, but the pain still runs deep. For his fellow firefighters and for the country.
“Everyone thought the fire department would fall apart because we lost so many guys,” said Bruckner, a New York City fire department firefighter on Sept. 11, 2001. “Somehow we got through it.”
For what feels like yesterday, 22 years has allowed Bruckner to reflect on the meaning of that day and the entirety of his 25-year career at Battalion 27, which includes coverage of Riverdale and Kingsbridge. His climb up the ranks was noteworthy, becoming a lieutenant in 1985, captain in 1990, and battalion chief in 1997.
“The money was good and the opportunity for advancement,” Bruckner said of his profession.
He followed in the footsteps of his father by risking his life to fight infernos, after spells in teaching. Bruckner was born and bred in the Bronx. Eventually, his family packed up and moved to New Jersey when he turned 18.
Yet, the Bronx would never leave Bruckner. He had opportunities to go elsewhere for college but Manhattan College offered a major in physical education and allowed him to stay in the city and play college football. In the summer, Bruckner lived with his grandmother in the Castle Hill Houses.
Playing MC football
When Bruckner arrived at Manhattan in the Fall of 1970, Manhattan football was in full swing. The only gripe was that they had club status, and not the varsity designation of many of the schools they played against.
“We were really disappointed,” Bruckner said about the school’s decision to keep football a club sport. “Once Fordham was going varsity, Georgetown was too, and all these programs became varsity.”
Bruckner wasn’t the biggest guy, but there was no measuring his heart. He played mostly linebacker but also had shorter stints on the offensive line and at center snapping the ball. Not all that different from his versatile career on the gridiron at Cardinal Spellman High school before arriving at Manhattan.
“If you were a starter for Coach Larry Kelly your freshman year, you were a talented ball player,” says former Manhattan teammate Pat Boyle. “John Bruckner fits that description.”
Despite the lack of glitz with the positions he played, Bruckner racked up the team accolades and honors. You name it, he won it or earned it.
“That’s what wins games,” Bruckner says, referencing the offensive line.
He captained the team his senior season in 1973, best known for its send-off of the Manhattan-Fordham rivalry most commonly known as the “Battle of the Bronx.”
The final football edition of the rivalry saw Bruckner, playing with a separated shoulder, make six solo tackles, seven assisted tackles, one pass break up, and one interception, according to historical records. The tabloids ate it up and so did the local news stations, as Fordham outlasted the Jaspers, 28-20, at Rose Hill. The Manhattan program later shuttered after the 1987 season due to the expenses.
The grit and determination Bruckner exhibited as a firefighter can be attributed to his days playing football at Manhattan, he said. Nothing beat making crisp hits, or more gently, the playing of the national anthem before taking the field.
“The adrenaline would always be flowing during the national anthem,” Bruckner recalled. “I still get chills.”
After all, Bruckner was a patriot having dealt with the lowest of lows in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. He helped play a role with arranging funerals for fallen firefighters. That process lasted three months and there were roughly some 400 funerals, Bruckner said.
“I was leaving my house at 4:30 in the morning and coming home around 11 at night,” Bruckner said. “Some nights not coming home.”
The stress and fatigue grew even more when Bruckner was told he had to retire due to a lung disability, a condition which grew worse during the clean-up efforts.
“I was devastated about that, too,” Bruckner said. “You work together, you sleep together, you go to fires. You cry together.”
But for Bruckner, that was only the beginning of his service. Over the years, he has helped out with the FDNY Counseling Unit by serving those with similar experiences as him.
Volunteering to help
His involvement with the International Association of Firefighters took that counseling spirit nationwide to first responders of deadly fires and school shootings, to name a few examples. His volunteerism has brought him from Kansas City, to Charleston, to Sandy Hook, with many stops in between.
“It was to let the first responders know the way they felt was normal and it’s better to talk to somebody,” Bruckner said. “For me, it was a healing experience.”
To this day, Bruckner has phone calls with firefighters who are struggling mentally. He hears stories all the time through his son, Matthew, who currently is a firefighter for ladder 37 at the same station his father was at.
“The stuff you see doesn’t go away,” Bruckner said.
In 2011, Bruckner was named the FDNY Holy Name Society Man of the Year by virtue of his efforts with the counseling unit.
He is not always active with the unit anymore now that he and his wife Carmen spend most of their time enjoying retirement in Florida. The couple met in high school and have been married for nearly 52 years with three children.
Bruckner has also teamed with another retired FDNY Battalion Commander, John LaBarbara, in bringing to life a Sept. 11 mobile exhibit.
It goes without saying since LaBarbara is quick to tab Bruckner as a traveling tour guide for the portable memorial which goes across the country.
“He’s one of my favorite guys in the world,” LaBarbara said. “He played a major role on Sept. 11 and the excruciating days that followed.”
The Tunnel to Towers Foundation holds an annual 5K run each year, designed to retrace the steps of fallen firefighter Stephen Siller who traveled by foot from the start of the Battery Tunnel to the Twin Towers on Sept. 11.
“I saw him push a participant in a wheelchair through the tunnel,” LaBarbara said of last month’s event. “John represents all of us firefighters.”
It is how Bruckner, one of the Bronx’s own, does his part to keep “New York’s Bravest” remembered during his retirement years. He never forgets the day that changed his life in far more ways than one.
“My thing is, out of evil comes good,” Bruckner said. “So many people came to help us. It increased my faith in people and God.”