Water is used to extinguish fire, and in the days following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Ed Cammon can attest to that in more than just a literal sense.
For more than four decades, Cammon split his time between two very different worlds. Born and raised in New York City, he spent 41 years as a firefighter for the FDNY before retiring a few years ago, putting out flames and saving lives on a daily basis.
When he wasn’t on the job as a firefighter, Cammon could be found at Fordham’s Lombardi Center swimming pool. Still active teaching technique to student-athletes, he is in his 41st year as the Rams’ assistant swimming coach.
Ten years ago on Sept. 11, Cammon was working an overnight shift at Engine Co. 36 of East 125th Street. That morning, he remembers listening to the dispatch radio when the World Trade Center was hit.
“When they were calling companies down they left our company out,” Cammon said. “I called dispatch, and asked why, and they said we were going to go to a house fire. I asked if we could go down [to the World Trade Center] and send another company to the house, and the dispatcher said no, that was not in the plan. Indirectly, it may have saved my life, because knowing me I would have been right in the front.”
More than 340 firefighters and rescue workers were among those who lost their lives that day, Cammon was among the first of thousands to help in the almost insurmountable recovery effort.
“The next day, I went down with other guys from our firehouse and we were the first group to start digging,” Cammon said. “I had no idea where the heck to start when I looked at it. There was a chief there, and I asked him, ‘Where do we start?’ He said, ‘I don’t know myself, Ed.’”
In the weeks that followed, Cammon spent countless hours at Ground Zero.
“I’ve been asked many times about it, and what I say is there were no negatives for me because we were working towards a goal – helping to find people,” Cammon. “It was all on the positive side being that you could help families rejoin with their lost loved ones. It wasn’t all doom and gloom. I think that’s what kept us all going. We would go down there as much as possible and hopefully, we would find someone. We would find jewelry and watches, and turn that in, and hopefully families could identify those things.”
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After a day of searching through the rubble, Cammon and his fellow firefighters would make their way to colleagues’ funerals to pay their respects regardless of whether they knew the deceased or not. Then, Cammon would head to the pool for Fordham’s swim practice.
“Swimming was a catharsis for me because I just went from one place to the other not thinking, just helping,” Cammon said. “Swimming helped keep me focused, and brought me back to reality after digging for people – or what was left of people — all day. Fordham helped me tremendously … it kept me balanced.”
While several of the rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero have struggled with emotional issues over the last decade, Cammon credits his family and Fordham for keeping his outlook positive.
“It always seemed to work hand and glove with the two things – firefighting and swimming … positive in both respects,” Cammon said.
The incredibly humble Cammon has been recognized for his efforts at Ground Zero and for his longtime service on Fordham’s pool deck. At the FDNY’s Medal Day Ceremony in 2003, Cammon was chosen to represent the thousands of department members receiving WTC Campaign Medals, given to those that participated in the recovery effort.
In 2002, Fordham University honored Cammon for his integral part in the program’s success over the years by inducting him into the athletics Hall of Fame. The 1981 Fordham graduate has witnessed every men’s and women’s swimming record set.
Cammon has no intentions of retiring from coaching any time soon, and says it keeps him young in his attitude towards life. He enjoys helping student-athletes prepare for their futures, not just sharing his swimming knowledge, but also his life experience and how he has remained so upbeat despite being exposed to such tragedy.
“I always tell the kids here, ‘You do the best you can with what you can,’” Cammon said.