9/11 Stories: Chris O'Toole

Chris O’Toole of West Nyack didn’t hear from her New York City Firefighter husband Joseph for 2 days after 9/11. Toolie, as he was called, was off duty on 9/11 and had gone to work his side job as a carpet Installer. When he got word of the attack, he immediately called Chris to say he was heading to his firehouse in The Bronx. Chris remembers the call lasted just a few seconds. Cellphones were going down. Toolie called Chris again when he arrived at Ladder 41, telling her he didn’t know when he’d be able to call again, that they were heading to respond. There was no shielding the children. Their oldest, Jeanette, has just started a teaching job in Westchester. Beth was a junior in college. Brian was only a junior in high school but was already following in Toolie’s footsteps, volunteering with the West Nyack Fire Department. Chris kept calling the firehouse but no one there knew if Toolie was ok. The family spent the next two days panicked, not knowing if Toolie was dead or alive until he finally was able to call Thursday. They didn’t’ see him again until Sunday, 5 days after 9/11. 

He didn’t talk much but he did tell Chris about the horror of finding body parts. A hand. A finger. Chris says the morning of 9/11 was the last day she knew her husband without PTSD, saying “How do you un-see that??!! He was never the same. But he was very good at hiding it”. Toolie would only stay hours with the family on that Sunday, before heading back to “The Pile”, as it was called. Before he left the house to return to the pile, Chris wrote Toolie’s name on his arm and leg, also writing his FDNY badge number. She didn’t know if she’d see him again. Toolie worked down there a full 9 months. His first 9/11 illness came two years later: nodules in his lungs. He continued to work for the FDNY, and in 2012, Toolie was diagnosed with 9/11 bile duct cancer. The prognosis was he’d probably live a few months, but for 4 years, this fighter refused to give up. Chris remembers Toolie telling her, “This is not going to get me”. He told her he had no regrets, that he’d do it all over again, in a heartbeat. Joseph “Toolie” O’Toole died December 12, 2016. He was 61.