Growing up in Brooklyn, NY in the early ’70s, John Castellano was an avid reader and collector of superhero comics. With Captain America as his all-time favorite hero and the lessons offered from fantastic adventures, it is no surprise that Castellano would gravitate to a life of public service.
“Even as a young kid, I always had a feeling I was going to be a part of something really big, something the whole world would take note of. But, I also had the notion that I wouldn’t survive it, but I would be remembered for it,” he said.
After high school, Castellano furthered his education and then did some volunteer work to gain life experience before applying to the New York Fire Department as an EMT. “I pestered them with weekly or bi-weekly calls for two years until they decided to hire me in April of 1996. My first station assignment was Fort Apache, the Bronx, where I cut my teeth on all the craziness there.”
A lot of people are superstitious or ritualistic, even if they don’t realize it. Castellano is no different. His talisman of choice? Superhero T-shirts. John said he got into the habit of wearing them under his uniform as a reminder to be strong and do the right things.
John described the experience of being an EMT in New York as “times of complete boredom followed by extreme chaos.” He gravitated toward those chaotic situations, always running toward the sound of alarms.
Fast forward five years to the attacks on the World Trade Center, September 11, 2001. For those at Ground Zero during or immediately after the attacks, the physical and psychological trauma they experienced (and still carry with them) cannot adequately be described. Much like soldiers returning from war, many find it difficult to talk about it even so many years later.
“At the time of the attack, I had just finished my shift and was on my way home. My wife met me at the door and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re home!’ I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ She turned on the news and I said, ‘I’m outta here!’ Knowing about my notion of dying in a catastrophe, she begged me not to go, but I grabbed my gear and said, ‘I have to go. I have to go.’”
John headed off to the scene with a buddy from the department. They did so on their own authority, meaning they hadn’t been called in and weren’t on duty.
“Because we weren’t on duty, we didn’t know the location of the triage station, MCI, we didn’t know where anything was going to be set up. Moments after we got there, we heard a loud crack up in the sky and the first building started to come down. My buddy, Gary, and I turned and ran, got separated, and I didn’t see him again until much later in the day.”
John continued, saying, “You [EMTs and firefighters] keep a personal alarm on you. It’s very high pitched, staccato sound and in the eerie silence right after the crash, you could hear hundreds of them going off under the rubble.”
For their brave efforts, John and his fellow first responders received awards and commendations from the city of New York.
The attacks on September 11, 2001 resulted in 2,996 lives lost, includ¬ing 343 firefighters. More than 6,000 people were wounded. John’s marriage was also a casu¬alty that day as the fear and stress proved too much for the relationship.
In the months that followed, the wounds of grief, survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and others were repeatedly inflamed for John as he donned his Class-A uniform again and again to attend funerals of the fallen. John describes himself during this time as a “hot mess.”
As he worked to put his life back together, John met his second wife, whom he described as “a wonderful woman who brought me great comfort during that difficult time.”
Despite additional tragedies in his family, John continues to be as positive and optimistic as possible.
“I like sharing with people. I like taking people under my wing. Not that I know more, or that I’m better, or anything like that. I just like to give people a perspective that they may not have had prior. I like teaching and showing people things.
“I don’t like to be indoors or cooped up. I like to be outside where I can move around, and driving a truck isn’t much different than being in an ambulance all day. Its like therapy to me, helps me think, and I’ve got a lot to think about.”