Battalion Chief John Norman

From the April 2002 Firehouse MagazineBattalion Chief John Norman Special Operations Command - 22 yearsFirehouse: Please describe how you became involved.


Firehouse: Could you see if there was a lot of debris in the street after the building came down?


Norman: Yes, that’s why we couldn’t walk down Vesey. But I never expected it to fall the way it did as quickly as it did, 7. But we took some defensive positions, actually tied the lines off and pulled the companies back into the building. I didn’t feel too bad once we got back away from the perimeter just because that’s a real, real heavy, old-style building. We knocked down any fire and checked for extension in the phone company building. We tied the lines off and left them flowing out into the street onto the debris piles that were burning out in the street there between the phone company and 7. I came back outside and I forget who the IC (incident commander) was at that command post, but he says we’re getting a lot of reports of firemen still trapped. They think they know the location of the original command post and why don’t you get over there and see if you can get a hand, organize something over that way. OK, where is it? And he says it’s on the other side of that bridge right there. You had the north pedestrian bridge that was blocking the entire access. We had to go around, behind and through 3 World Financial Center and come back out onto West Street at Liberty. And again, an absolutely incredible amount of devastation. With the familiarity I had with the whole building, it was absolutely astounding. I really couldn’t see how bad things were up to that point because of the smoke condition. I was still expecting to see large sections of buildings standing and everything. Once I got out onto West and Liberty and see that there’s nothing left, the whole steel of that building is out covering the block, it’s just incredible. Now we’re still worried about 7. We have guys trying to make their way up into the pile, and they’re telling us that 7 is going to fall down – and that was one of the directions from the command post, to make sure we clear the collapse zone from 7 and this is a 600-foot-tall building, so we had to clear a 600-foot radius from that building. Guys are looking at me when I’m telling them to move away, we’re over by the north tower and we got to get out of here. They said what building you talking about? I said that building and they thought the phone company because through the smoke you couldn’t see what I’m talking about. They said that building isn’t going anywhere. I said no, not that building, the one next to it, the big one. It was tough getting them to understand what we’re talking about because until you had done either a couple of 360s around this whole site or if you got an aerial view somehow, you really couldn’t appreciate the scope of the damage. You come in and you see one thing and say oh, this is a big problem. Like 90 West Street. 90 West Street was burning and guys would say we got this big problem over here. 90 West Street would have been a big problem, would have probably been a borough call by itself during normal times. We had fire on South End Avenue in one of the apartment houses in Battery Park City. I’m looking at that and I’m saying that’s a third alarm in normal times and there were two engine companies dedicated to it. There was fire on the third and fourth floors. I guess it probably was debris got into the third floor and auto-exposed to the fourth with a good fire there. There was a fire up on the roof of 2 World Financial Center, again from debris landing on it. All of which would have been something to talk about normally. But now we get out there and we could crawl through this mass of steel. There were window openings in the steel – what used to be the windows of the exterior walls. You’d look down every step and say that’s an aerial ladder down there dropped down into the void. Guys are searching in all those areas. There’s got to be people here, they’ve got to be here. Where are the engine chauffeurs as we come across rigs? Some of the engines you could get in underneath and some of them were just flat right to the ground, pancaked to the ground, so that even if the engine chauffeur dove under the rig, there was no void space. The guys are saying that we’ve got to have a lot of people under here. Then, when they found (Chief of Department) Pete Ganci’s body and (First Deputy Commissioner) Bill Feehan’s body, we said there’s the command post, everybody else has to be right here too. But to lift that stuff – these were the massive, three-finger sections of steel. They weigh 25 tons. There was just nothing we were doing to lift them at that point. That’s when we realized we really, really needed heavy equipment in there, but with the access being blocked, that became a real major problem. I went back to the command post, reported what I saw and we tried to organize a plan. That’s where I said you’ve got to get this north footbridge cleared out of the way. We’ve got to be able to get some big cranes in to start lifting that heavy steel. They were bringing some cranes in. They had some mobile hydraulic cranes by nightfall and started working from the south end, but they were really very small capacity and they were 600 feet away from the north tower. That’s when they gave me the job of getting that north footbridge out of the way. I worked on that all night the first night. By 10 o’clock in the morning, we had started to get some heavy equipment in. We got the excavators in, the grapplers, and started to make some headway on it. We peeled off all the facing. This is a tremendous bridge, it’s a 300-foot-long bridge. It was a steel box, almost a truss, like a space frame. We started to make some headway through that and by about 1 o’clock that afternoon, I was just shot though. I said I’ve got the plan organized, we’re getting the equipment in to do it and this is where we’ve just got to keep going. I left and went up to Rescue 1’s quarters that afternoon. By that point, a lot of the families were there – Dennis Mojica’s fiancee, Maria. Just trying to deal with them was very hard. Mike Geidel was there with his father, Paulie. And naturally, Paul having been a lieutenant in Rescue 1, we’re trying to reassure him that, yeah, there are a lot of areas that we haven’t gotten to yet. We haven’t given up hope. We’re going to get him. It was tough trying to explain that. I went upstairs and laid down for about an hour and a half. I couldn’t sleep. I picked up some dry clothes. I stole some clothes from Mike Pena, a new T-shirt and underwear, and went back down. Worked on the north bridge that second night. First, Fellini sent me with the guys from Harlem, 35 Engine and 14 Truck, went down to check the subway, check the 1 and 9 subway entrance into the concourse to see whether there was a way to come into the collapse area from underneath. And we did. We got as far as up as we could until we were stopped by solid rubble. We came up into the concourse level from underneath. Again, areas that I was very familiar with, I worked in so I knew my way around. Checked right up to the PATH (train ) escalators. We got right up to the PATH escalators, started to go down them, got down to the first level and there were some signs that the area had already been searched. So we went back up.