DOWNTOWN — 9/11 firefighters returned to Ground Zero Sunday to pay their tributes — not at the memorial on the World Trade Center site, but at a dive bar around the corner.
Every year for the past decade, the men who ran into the burning towers and dug for months through its smoldering rubble have made a pilgrimage to the Raccoon Lodge, a bar on Warren Street, where many of the rescue workers spent countless hours after 9/11.
“It was a place of refuge,” said FDNY firefighter Ken Bohan, 48, of Long Island, who worked at Ground Zero during the recovery efforts.
He said the bar was among the first businesses to reopen after the attack, using candles to light the place and keeping beer cool in an ice chest. It quickly became a safe haven for off-duty rescue workers desperately in search of a place where they could escape the horror and numb the pain that others couldn't comprehend.
“It was kind of a sanctuary,” said Larry Cummings, 40, a retired firefighter from Staten Island, who spent a month working at Ground Zero after the attacks.
“Guys could just talk and blow off steam, let the other guys know what was going on… sometimes drown your sorrows,” Cummings said, as he stood outside the bar, beer in hand, choking up and struggling to find the right words.
Bohan offered several: “This stupid little hole-in-the-wall saved lives,” he said.
On Sunday, Bohan, Cummings and other firefighters returned to the Raccoon Lodge, filing in by the dozen in fresh-pressed uniforms and shined black shoes, to catch up with old friends and remember those who died. They had spent the morning at an annual ceremony at the Firefighters' Memorial Monument on Riverside Drive and 100th Street.
Inside the bar and pouring out onto the sidewalk, they hugged, reminisced and ordered bottle after bottle of Budweiser. Jackets from fellow firefighters who'd traveled from around the country to be there hung from hooks along the walls, and neatly folded blazers rested under fire caps on the pool table.
“It’s our tradition,” said firefighter Salvatore Belmonte, 46, who lives and works in Brooklyn and also helped in the recovery effort.
Even the mayor of La Puente, Calif., John Solis, was there, asking firefighters to sign the shirt he was wearing with blue ink. Solis said he’s collected signatures there each year since 9/11 and hangs the shirts on his office wall as a tribute to firefighters and police.
But despite the air of revelry, emotions ran deep.
With more than 340 firemen killed on 9/11, it was almost impossible to find someone who hadn’t lost a friend.
“It’s tough. It’s heart-wrenching, very emotional,” said Chicago firefighter John Hedrick, 50, who worked in the recovery and has traveled back to New York for the anniversary every year since.
“We’re laughing and drinking here, but every one of those [guys] wants to cry. I want to cry. It’s hard,” he said, adding that the 10th anniversary made it even more important that he return to New York.
Simmering under the surface was also deep resentment over the fact that first responders were shut out of city's ceremony, which was limited to victims’ families because of space constraints. (First responders were invited to watch the ceremony on a screen in a nearby park.)
“This is for the families, but they’re a family,” Solis said. “For them to not be included was a blow."
However, some said what really mattered was being together to celebrate the lives of those who died.
“It’s a brotherhood. We’re here to support and to honor them," Hedrick said, before ordering another round.