Inside Steve Buscemi’s Firefighting Career — And How He Returned To Help At Ground Zero After 9/11

Published September 10, 2023
Updated September 11, 2023

Before he became a famous actor, Steve Buscemi was a firefighter in Manhattan, and he donned his old gear on September 12, 2001 to help emergency responders dig through the rubble of the Twin Towers.

Steve Buscemi Firefighter

Facebook/Friends of Firefighters, Inc.A young Steve Buscemi as a member of Engine 55, a company of the Fire Department of the City of New York.

Steve Buscemi is widely known as an award-winning actor, with iconic roles in Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo. But long before Buscemi ever graced the silver screen, he was a New York City firefighter.

In the early 1980s, Buscemi, a Brooklyn native, battled blazes with Engine 55 for four years before hanging up his helmet and embarking on a new career as a full-time actor. But despite his success in Hollywood, Steve Buscemi’s firefighting days weren’t over.

After the devastating terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 left New York City in shambles, Buscemi returned to his old company for several days to aid in the cleanup and recovery effort. He worked 12-hour shifts, sifting through rubble and looking for any survivors — and with no media fanfare. In fact, it’s possible that Buscemi’s act of charity would have gone largely unnoticed had a photographer not captured an image of the actor at the scene.

Since then, Buscemi has spoken out about his experience at Ground Zero after the World Trade Center collapse — and the emotional scars it left behind.

The Start Of Steve Buscemi’s Firefighting Career

Steven Vincent Buscemi was born on December 13, 1957, in Brooklyn, New York to Dorothy and John Buscemi. His father was a sanitation worker for the city, and the biggest piece of advice he gave his sons was to take whatever civil service test was available when they turned 18.

“Lucky for me,” Buscemi wrote for TIME in 2021, “it was the Fire Department’s.”

As an 18-year-old in New York, Buscemi didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life. Of course, we know now that he would go on to become a major Hollywood star and work on projects like Boardwalk Empire and Con Air, but at the time, he was just another young man trying to figure things out.

“I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do for a career,” Buscemi wrote for TIME, “but at Engine 55 in Lower Manhattan, I found something even better: a brotherhood.”

Steve Buscemi Circa 1976

X (Twitter)/@Wonder_MagazineA young Steve Buscemi wearing an F.D.N.Y. uniform.

For four years, Buscemi worked with Engine 55, taking acting classes and dabbling in stand-up on the side. He mostly kept this other half of his life a secret.

Eventually, his co-workers discovered his interest in acting, but by then Buscemi had thankfully learned that “busting balls is how firefighters express affection.” However, it soon became difficult for Buscemi to balance his firefighting shifts and his blossoming acting career.

“I took a leave of absence,” he wrote, “figuring I’d be back.”

Buscemi’s leave of absence lasted longer than he ever could have imagined when he made it big in Hollywood. However, his initial assumption was right: he would return to firefighting. Unfortunately, it took a national tragedy to bring him back.

The Temporary Revival Of Steve Buscemi’s Firefighting Career After 9/11

When news of the 9/11 terror attacks broke, leaving the nation in shock, Buscemi said he felt compelled to put on his gear and temporarily rejoin Engine 55 to aid in the rescue effort.

Buscemi tried to call his old firehouse to ask if he could help, but nobody answered. So on Sept. 12, he hitched a ride to Ground Zero and began searching for his former colleagues.

Twenty years after the attacks, Buscemi opened up about the experience on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, saying, “I was driven to the site that day, walked around for hours and then found my company, found Engine 55, working there and asked them if I could join them.”

Working grueling shifts alongside his old company, Buscemi spent five days searching through the rubble left behind after the Twin Towers collapsed and helping survivors. He also learned that five firefighters from Engine 55 were missing — including “a good friend.”

World Trade Center On 9/11

Wikimedia CommonsThe Twin Towers smoking soon before they collapsed.

“It was just so devastating,” Buscemi recalled on the podcast.

However, the actor also noted that he experienced a sense of camaraderie amongst the destruction. “One of the strongest sensations that flooded over me on Sept. 11, 2001, was that feeling of connection,” he wrote in TIME.

And in 2014, Buscemi told CBS, “There was something about being there that was also very comforting, and I remember that surprising me. I went there to help, but I was the one who was helped, you know? It really helped me.”

Unfortunately, while the work of Steve Buscemi on 9/11 was healing for him in the moment, it left him — like many others who witnessed the aftermath of the tragedy firsthand — with deep mental scars.

The Emotional Impact Left On Steve Buscemi On September 11

Like many first responders who worked at Ground Zero following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Buscemi experienced mental and emotional turmoil as a result of his experience.

“I was only there for like five days,” Buscemi noted on WTF with Marc Maron, “but when I stopped going and sort of tried to just live my life again, it was really, really hard.”

“I was depressed, I was anxious, I couldn’t make a simple decision,” he recalled.

Even two decades after the terrorist attacks, Buscemi struggled with the mental toll that the experience took on him.

“There are times when I talk about 9/11… and I’m just right back there. I start to get choked up and I realize, this is still a big part of me,” Buscemi told CBS. “Once I stopped going down there, it was hard for me to see any images of it, or to be near it. I didn’t go again until months and months later when the site was pretty much down… It’s heartbreaking.”

Steve Buscemi 9/11

John Angelillo/UPI/Alamy Stock PhotoSteve Buscemi and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio after the funeral of New York firefighter Michael R. Davidson at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on March 27, 2018.

And even though the actor was only at Ground Zero for five days himself, he spent a significant amount of time in the following decades helping other first responders who worked in the recovery efforts. He took a spot on the Board of Advisors for Friends of Firefighters, which provides free mental health counseling to New York firefighters and their families.

Buscemi also began speaking out about the long-term health effects that many first responders suffered from working at Ground Zero after the attacks, like respiratory illnesses and cancers. “I don’t know if anything could have stopped any of the first responders and the volunteers who were there to do this enormous job,” he said on WTF with Marc Maron. “But it would have been good to at least know of the dangers going in.”

“I haven’t experienced any health issues,” Buscemi stated, “and I get myself checked out — but… post-traumatic stress? Absolutely.”

Buscemi ultimately returned once more to firefighting, though this time it was for a role in the Pete Davidson film The King of Staten Island. Buscemi also partnered with director Liz Garbus to produce the documentary A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY, which delved into the lives of New York City’s firefighters, and served as an executive producer of Dust: The Lingering Legacy of 9/11.

The actions of Steve Buscemi on 9/11 aren’t often brought up when discussing the actor’s legacy, but the tragedy played an important role in his life — which is made especially clear when he speaks back on his experience at Ground Zero.

He wrote: “‘Never forget,’ everyone said. Some people have no choice.”

After reading about Steve Buscemi’s firefighting career, learn about the life of Bob Ross and his time in the military. Then, dive into the surprising story of Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling career.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Harvey, Austin. "Inside Steve Buscemi’s Firefighting Career — And How He Returned To Help At Ground Zero After 9/11.", September 10, 2023, Accessed May 28, 2024.