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: Some of them we deployed onto the pile looking in the voids. As we got more resources in, then we put them to work. We didn’t have enough work for them to accomplish in their normal missions. The FEMA teams made a lot of void entries and did a lot of good reconnaissance, but the type of debris that we encountered here was unlike anything that had ever been encountered. Even earthquakes topple primarily concrete structures. Concrete is easy to breach. A hundred-foot-long I-beam that projects 90 feet into this pile that’s got three-inch-thick members, it’s a box that’s five feet by three feet with three-inch-thick web members, you’re not penetrating. Even with the heaviest torches that we had in all the FEMA caches it would take hours to burn a single hole through that beam. This was something that we needed ,the heaviest industrial-sized equipment available. The grapplers that could lift that. We were we were cutting with the FEMA torches. We were cutting those box beam sections into eight-foot lengths because that was what was able to be moved. When we got the excavators in there, they could take the entire 40-foot-long section in three pieces out in one piece. We had to segment that probably into a dozen pieces, so we were really overwhelmed by the type of construction. It wasn’t a question of punching holes with a pavement breaker or jackhammer and getting through anything. Up to that point, we were burning up a lot of resources and it wasn’t very productive. That was a little bit of controversy within some of the FEMA responders. They wanted to continue burning, but again at that point I made a decision that we were being ineffective. We were putting people in bad places, places that had been searched. We knew we didn’t have any survivors in those areas and we were just burning up oxyacetylene. It was almost a feel-good effort, kind of like the bucket brigades. The bucket brigades that a lot of the police officers and firefighters were manning were ineffective. They didn’t do anything to get to anybody, but it was a feel-good effort. Everybody wanted to pitch in and everybody wanted to help, but in reality and hindsight now, we were moving tiny, tiny fragments of debris. Actually, it was impeding the operation, what we needed to do. We needed to get the big equipment in so we could start moving the big steel out of the way. At one point, we were getting a lot of cell phone calls, people reported to be cranks or psychics. They were in contact somehow with people trapped in the supposedly bombproof Port Authority police bunker. It was not anything that we could ignore. And we would get this call and (Assistant) Chief (Frank) Cruthers sent me, go find that bunker and somebody get to it, get a probe into it, however you do it, get to it. We had the plans for the building. We knew exactly where the supposed bunker was. The bunker was not a bombproof bunker. It had explosion-resistant glass in it, but the walls were Sheetrock walls. It had bulletproof glass so nobody could just shoot in through the window at a cop, but the walls were nothing substantial.

Firehouse: Is that where the fire command station was?

Norman: Yes. We had the plans and we looked at it from every angle of approach and there was 40 feet of solid steel between us and the bunker from any approach. And I had to just tell him there’s nobody that we’re going to get there. If they’re in there, which I seriously doubted, just because I was able to look into the B-4 level from the Marriott garage inside the Trade Center walls. It was just packed solid debris. If they’re in there, we’re not going to get them. We’re not going to get them for months, three months with the heaviest equipment available moving and we were just getting to that area.

Firehouse: By now, you’re now into the recovery mode. How did it change? The first couple of days you had a lot of guys there. You sent sent a lot of people home, so they can get some sleep?

Norman: We had to break off of the recall, absolutely. We had nearly 100% percent of the department. We had 10,000 firemen wanting to come to the site. Some of them who had gone to mustering sites by late that evening, we said we don’t need any more personnel here. The scene was overflowing with people, we didn’t need any more and we sent them back to their firehouses. But the guys in the firehouses, they weren’t going to rest, they weren’t going to sleep knowing that there were all these guys missing and buried. Then we had the problem with all the out-of-town units that came in unsolicited and out of control. We didn’t have any good handle on who was where. They really created a major, major morale problem for us. We would have our people in their firehouses wanting to come dig out their brothers and then we’d tell them no, we don’t need you, we don’t want you here, stay back there, protect the rest of the city, do what you have to do for the rest of the city. And they would turn on the TV and there would be coverage of a firefighter from out of town telling them how he just spent eight hours digging out New York City firemen. The guys were in rebellion. They wanted to come to that pile. We had many, many reports that guys were just saying if you don’t let us go, we’re going to leave the rigs here and go on our cars or we’re going to take the rigs with us and go and you’re not going to stop us. That was a real, real serious problem, especially the first week. Once the guys saw the capabilities of the FEMA teams and that these were not just volunteers who drove in on their own, that they had expertise, that they had all this ability and that we had requested them, that solved some of the problems. It didn’t stop it all because nobody could stop Joe Blow from giving an interview out in the street. The FEMA personnel were very disciplined that way. They didn’t give interviews off the cuff. They explained that they were part of the system and so on. But anybody who put a turnout coat and a helmet on and walked down outside the fence in the perimeter area was interviewed by some news network. A lot of them never spent any time at all on the pile, but they showed up in fireman’s gear and now they’re telling guys what a great job they did. We had cases of people arrested as impostors. Some of it made the news about the guy who was living up in I think 16 Truck quarters. Absolute impostors that got their hands on some turnout gear. Security was a major issue for us. We went through many many types of IDs. It created a couple of problems. One was without it, anybody and his brother walked into the scene. Right away I requested a company of Marines, active-duty U.S. Marines, for perimeter security and that was rejected. We ended up with police and National Guard. I wanted the Marines because I wanted some 19-year-old kid standing on the corner who, when his sergeant gives him an order, he stands to and nobody passes that point without the proper credentials. Instead, what we got was, well, listen guy, I got a friend of mine in there, or my brother’s in there, and some of that was legit and people let them go. And then there were others who just didn’t really care who showed up dressed as a fireman or a police officer, a mailman, if you had some kind of uniform on, they just waved you in. It took a long time to get security under control. We went through numerous challenges with it. OEM (the city Office of Emergency Management) was in charge of giving out the badges. They hadn’t pre-planned any of that or they had pre-planned it, but they hadn’t pre-arranged any of it. So now to get badges, everybody had to personally report to the pier. The operation at the pier wasn’t set up. Everybody and his brother went through the same line. Rescuers spent hours and hours and hours waiting on line to get their IDs so they could get down into the site. When they get there, they’d see other people walk right past them with no ID at all who weren’t even part of the rescue teams. If you brought a box of sandwiches in, you walked in through the gate on your own. Several times, we changed it because people were giving out ID badges to anybody who showed up. Now we had badges that basically became useless. Yes, you had a badge, but you didn’t belong getting a badge or maybe your commitment has expired, the things that you could do were no longer needed. We don’t need you coming into the site and gawking anymore. We ended up changing our system of badges several times. Some of the FEMA teams, FEMA teams in uniform on buses with an escort, were stopped at some checkpoints. Other guys, if you just drove two blocks over to the next checkpoint, nobody was there to even guard the gate, so security was an ongoing issue. The threat of secondary issues going on at the site was a severe issue for us. We had no certainty that there wasn’t going to be a secondary attack on all the rescuers working there. It was a challenge.