Battalion Chief John Norman

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

Norman: Yeah. The Ohio task force was staged over in one of the residential buildings in Battery Park City and in the process of doing a primary search of that building. They did find a person, not unconscious, but unable to move, injured pretty badly, in one of residential buildings and that’s a block and a half away from the towers. At that point, we put many of the incoming task forces as well as our resources, teams of firefighters, police officers and the FEMA people into the job of performing a good primary and then a secondary search of all of those buildings. And remember, we’re talking a lot of big buildings, 50 stories, 300-by-300-foot buildings with no elevators and no power inside them. We told them take their time, if it takes you eight hours to do that, go ahead. You’ve got to walk up. We want everything searched. I want the roof searched for bodies that might have fallen onto the roof. I want every setback searched. I want every staircase, every office, every elevator searched. And they did it. They did a great job. It was a very long, difficult, hot-weather task to do, but it was necessary. Unfortunately, for the some of the FEMA task forces, that’s not really their primary mission. They’re geared for the heavy rescue, the heavy movement of large pieces of steel or concrete. There were very little pieces of concrete to deal with here. And the steel, the voids under it either were empty because people lived and got out or they were so heavily compacted that not even the equipment the FEMA task forces brought with them was going to be satisfactory. We needed the heavy equipment, those 25-ton grapplers, 1,000-ton cranes.

Firehouse: Those cranes and grapplers, the ones that are in there right now, they can pick up 25 tons?

Norman: The biggest ones, yes. By now, we’re getting into areas where we’re finding firefighters or civilians and they’re in relative voids and people are saying or they’re wondering whether anybody could have survived in those voids. In some cases it might have been possible that they weren’t physically crushed in some of these areas, but given the high carbon monoxide levels from the fires, I didn’t see them as survivable voids. It took us over three months to get to these areas using the heavy equipment at the most rapid pace possible and we’re still looking for remains or victims. Without the heavy equipment, we weren’t making any headway. We were taking I figured about two inches a day off of those piles at the rate we were going with hand equipment. We would be there for a hundred years at that rate. Just had to go to the heavy equipment. One of the things we talked about with the voids was how would we – when we were getting into the 16-day, 17-day range, we were looking to make the decision to go back – to go to a recovery from a rescue operation, a tremendous number of considerations. Certainly, the families were a big one, but then we had to deal with the injury or fatality possibilities to rescuers, and we had to honestly evaluate what the people’s chances of survival would be in that structure. At that point, it didn’t look good at all. We hadn’t uncovered any voids where we didn’t find crushed people. We didn’t have anybody lying there who looked like he could have survived if it weren’t for the fact that he was just stuck there so long. We went beyond the outside window of survivability. We know we’ve had people trapped in earthquakes for 14, maybe 15 days survive. But that was without the carbon monoxide coming up from underneath them constantly. So we went to 18 days just to be certain that we could say that there would be no way that anybody could have survived because we talked about it. We asked each other how we were going to handle our own consciences if we came across a pile of bodies and they had a diary, this is day one, we know you guys are coming to get us, day three, where are you, and, day five, we’re out of air, we can’t stand it anymore, we’re dying here, come get us, help us.

Firehouse: Let me just stop you at one point. Were there any transmissions besides those from Jay Jonas and other people? Jay told me that he had heard three or four Maydays right after it collapsed or in and around that time, a couple of hours. But did you hear any other Maydays or did anybody hear?

Norman: The Maydays that I heard were from rescuers calling for assistance because they had trapped firefighters. Like I said, Captain La Femmina from Squad 270 was working, I believe he was working with 43 Truck on rescuing members from 6 Truck. There were some other members around the perimeter, Al Fuentes. I didn’t hear Al’s Mayday. There were several Maydays for trapped members given by the rescuers, not the members themselves. In some cases, they found firemen, but they were beyond saving.

Firehouse: The FEMA teams are coming in. You gave them tasks to go into the surrounding buildings.