Chief Joseph Pfiefer

From the April 2002 Firehouse Magazine

Chief Joseph Pfiefer Battalion 1 - 20 years

Firehouse: What companies were you with?


Pfiefer: I was with Engine 7, Ladder 1, Ladder 8 and another engine. It was a gas leak in the street, it was Church Street and Lispenard. The meters went off. They called Con Ed. Everything was checked. It was basically routine on a nice, sunny morning.

Firehouse: The film crew that was riding, was it one person or two people?


Pfiefer: I had one guy riding with me. They had been there for weeks, whenever the probie worked. They were doing a documentary on the probie in Ladder 1.

Firehouse: Did you hear the plane come over or did you see it?


Pfiefer: Yes, we’re standing in the street. The gas leak’s all over and then we hear a plane going over, a very loud plane, which you never hear in Manhattan. We all look up and we see this commercial airline flying by very low. We follow it and it goes right into the Trade Center. You could see it didn’t veer off. It appeared to aim at the Trade Center, smashed into the upper floors, created a big fireball and then disappeared into the building.

Firehouse: What did you do then?


Pfiefer: I jumped in the car. Everybody else got into the rigs. I transmitted the second alarm for a plane into the building, into the World Trade Center. Twenty seconds after that, I transmitted a third alarm. I asked for the second alarm to report into the Trade Center and for the third alarm to stage at Vesey and West. And I told them at that time it was a direct attack.

Firehouse: Did 10 Engine come on the air also in that time period?


Pfiefer: Yes, 10 came on after that. They were in quarters. They heard it too and then after I gave the second, they gave a verbal.

Firehouse: Now you’re in the car and you’re traveling down?


Pfiefer: Yes, traveling down West Broadway. We have a direct view of the Trade Center. And opposed to what you’ve seen in subsequent pictures, we didn’t have fire showing at that time. When I pulled up, which would have been on the west side of the building, I got out of the car and looked. There was no fire and there was no smoke at that point, at least from that view.

Firehouse: Was anybody jumping at that time?


Pfiefer: No.

Firehouse: On average, how many times would you go to the Trade Center in a week or a month?


Pfiefer: It’s a complex of buildings, so maybe about 15, 17 times a month.

Firehouse: How many years have you worked down here?


Pfiefer: Five.

Firehouse: What did they have at that command center that’s in the corner? Do you have fire alarms for the building?


Pfiefer: Yes, the fire alarm panel. They have floor diagrams and next to it is the elevator status. And you had the all-star crew. You had me and you had Hayden. You had people in that new era, Orio Palmer, I mean Donald Burns. If you had to pick the all-star crew, you had them.

Firehouse: When you walked in, did somebody give you a rundown?


Pfiefer: We walked in. There was glass, all broken, and there were a number of people burnt in the lobby. I went over to command post and they didn’t have exact information. They were estimating from calls somewhere around 78. But that was just speculation. The elevators were out for the most part. One opened up at one point and let people out. I don’t know how that worked, but the elevators were out. I sent companies to double-check that.

Firehouse: You sent companies to check the elevators. Do they come back and tell you that it was negative?


Pfiefer: Yes, they said there were no elevators working. That was also confirmed by the control panels.

Firehouse: Did Chief Hayden come in right away?


Pfiefer: Yes, he was just four minutes behind me.

Firehouse: Did you formulate any type of plan?


Pfiefer: The game plan was to pair up the engines and to only take half the amount of hose. This way we could switch back and forth. And the trucks to get me some information.

Firehouse: There’s three stairways in that building. Did you tell them any which one to use?


Pfiefer: The B stairs. And the game plan was to do a rescue because we knew we had a lot of people trapped above.

Firehouse: Besides all this rush of companies coming in, there are other people there talking to you, giving you other information. Was there anything else specific that they were giving you?


Pfiefer: People trapped in the elevators, a lot of people trapped.

Firehouse: Under normal circumstances, if the fire alarm went off, shouldn’t those elevators drop down to the lobby?


Pfiefer: Depending on what was activated, so it’s a complicated question to answer.

Firehouse: If the smoke detector goes off on the 102nd floor, they’re not going to bring the elevators down from 17?


Pfiefer: No, and then you have sky lobbies. You had a sky lobby on the 78th floor.

Firehouse: There were a lot of people trapped in the elevators?


Pfiefer: Right.

Firehouse: Were you getting any reports of people trapped up above or anything like that? Via Manhattan, they’re giving a lot of radio reports over time that say there are people on so many floors. Were you getting those relays?


Pfiefer: From the dispatcher, yes.

Firehouse: Now, as more and more companies are coming in, are you directing them or is somebody else helping you? I know, eventually, the First Division aide brought in –


Pfiefer: – the command board of the division, the citywide tour commander. That was all officers taking part of directing people and keeping track of people. I sent chiefs up, the supervisors. We knew it was a long walk. If you average a minute a flight, it’s going to take over an hour to get there.

Firehouse: As you recall, was everybody going up that B stairs because they were right there?


Pfiefer: I got a report that the B stairs were crowded with people and some switched over to the C stairs. That has an effect on the end of the story.

Firehouse: I know there were jumpers coming down. Were all of those windows broken?


Pfiefer: I don’t know if all the windows, but a substantial amount were. And then what we heard was the jumpers actually hitting the canopy, which was where the battalion car was parked. A number of times, I had to send my aide out to the car to get a radio or turn on the repeater radio. The tracer has a repeater radio which operates on Channel 7 on our handie-talkies and we attempted to use that. I attempted to use that with Chief Palmer. We tried to communicate to each other, since we were very familiar with the system and that failed. It did not work.

Firehouse: When you would have had an incident or anything down here, he comes down on a 10-76 or whatever?


Pfiefer: Right, he’s coming from the Seventh –

Firehouse: So he would normally work with you or come down? You’ve done that before?


Pfiefer: Right. We’ve done that before. We’ve discussed personally high-rise operations communications and so on. We’ve talked this through long before this and practiced it and tried things out, but it didn’t work. Because that was going to be the command channel.

Firehouse: Were you monitoring your radio? Could you hear a lot?


Pfiefer: With any high-rise, you get some communications and you miss some. There were messages, urgent messages of firefighters having chest pains as they went up, but there wasn’t a lot of need for handie-talkie communication because there wasn’t any information to be passed either way. A number of times, we tried to contact people and we had difficulty. Then other times there was no problem, which was the typical high-rise.

Firehouse: More and more companies are going up. There are more and more people in the command post. It seems to me it was very loud. Was it noisy in there? Distracting?


Pfiefer: No, it wasn’t distracting. There was a lot of noise, but the Trade Center had a big lobby, so we were able to deal with that.

Firehouse: Where your car was parked, did it stay there the whole time?


Pfiefer: Yes. You’ve got a bridge coming across West Street. And right there is the traffic circle. And then right there in the middle is the canopy. That’s a large area. We came in and parked right underneath it, so it was actually a very good spot for us.

Firehouse: The jumpers are hitting that?


Pfiefer: Yes, but it must be some sort of plexiglass because they didn’t go through, but it made a very, very loud sound.

Firehouse: With all these jumpers coming out, was that a concern or was there nothing you could do about it?


Pfiefer: It was a concern. There’s nothing we could about it. We tried to contact people on the PA system. Basically, we wanted people to know that we were coming up, not to jump and that we’re going to try to get to them. Obviously, the people on the floors where the plane hit, they were on fire. The choice was made for them, but we didn’t want people to jump just because there’s a little smoke there.

Firehouse: Eventually, did you get any reports from upstairs? Do you recall any of the highest reports where you got somebody was upstairs?


Pfiefer: I know talking to people after, they were up around 40. Some of them might have gotten a little farther, but generally around there. One of the things that really should be mentioned is that very early on, Mike Hurley, the fire safety director, asked about evacuating the other tower. I mentioned that to Chief Hayden and we both agreed that it should be evacuated. This is a matter of a couple of seconds. We told them to evacuate the tower and that was very early on, which proved to save a lot of people and that was way before the second plane hit.

Firehouse: Did you hear the noise of the other aircraft or did you get a radio report?


Pfiefer: We heard the noise. That was very similar to the other one, a very loud plane coming in, and then the explosion.

Firehouse: Did you know what it was right away?


Pfiefer: Yes, I think we got the reports right away that a second plane just hit. That was almost instantaneous. At that point, Donald Burns said he would take command of the south tower and Chief Orio Palmer was going to go with him. And then I was going to stay with Hayden and Joe Callan and deal with the north tower.

Firehouse: Did you see the debris coming down from the other explosion?


Pfiefer: You could see some of the debris coming down into the plaza area to the mezzanine and then some stuff out on the street. But from our vantage point, we didn’t have a great view, but we knew. Once they split, that became a separate fire. So we had two separate fires going. Somebody told me that they transmitted a fifth alarm for each, and then transmitted a second for Brooklyn. People confused which was Tower 1 and Tower 2. At one point, I actually wrote it on the desk.

Firehouse: Were you receiving any other information? How about the building people, was there any other information that they were passing on at this time, anything else that was important?


Pfiefer: Just basically people trapped in the elevators. They were trying to call. At different points, some of that service came back on and they were able to contact the elevators.

Firehouse: What happened then?


Pfiefer: There was a report of a third plane, but that really wasn’t told too well to us and I tried to confirm that and I couldn’t get anybody to confirm it. That’s when Chief Callan called people down. I was involved in a different part of the operation. And I’m trying to get a hold of the helicopters and that wasn’t working too well because I couldn’t get an outside line or couldn’t get through.

Firehouse: Were you trying to contact the police?


Pfiefer: Yes, the PD, through the dispatcher, but we were having difficulty doing that.

Firehouse: Then what happened?


Pfiefer: All of the people that came into the lobby left the lobby. They were going to set up a command post across the street, so a lot of our guys left. And a lot of other people left. I’m not too sure what their reason was. Maybe they knew more than us. But the lobby kind of emptied out. And then the south tower collapsed. Actually, let me just back up a second. I don’t know if you know, my brother was a lieutenant at 33, and he reported in to me early on, on the second alarm. He came up to the lobby command post and we spoke a little bit. I told him what we knew and he didn’t say much. He just gave me of a look of a real concern. Pretty much, I gave the same thing. And then he took his company upstairs.

Firehouse: Did you hear from him after that?


Pfiefer: No.

Firehouse: Did you see other officers you knew?


Pfiefer: Oh, yeah, I knew them all.

Firehouse: Did you see anybody make it in from Brooklyn or other areas yet at that time?


Pfiefer: Yes, towards the end, we were getting some Brooklyn companies in.

Firehouse: So you were doing the same thing, sending them up?


Pfiefer: Yes.

Firehouse: What was it like when they reported the third plane?


Pfiefer: We weren’t getting any more companies in at that point. At that stage, the other command post was being set up, so things were kind of being filtered before it got to us. Then people were being moved into the south tower and the Marriott. By the time we got that report, nobody else was coming in.

Firehouse: And now the other building collapsed?


Pfiefer: Yes.

Firehouse: Did you hear the noise right away?


Pfiefer: We heard a loud, rumbling noise, very loud, and I kind of knew the building, so we were able to push around the corner to the entrance of 6 World Trade. And then what happened, the whole area, debris came in. You could hear the debris coming into the lobby and the whole lobby went black. And we thought – at least I thought – that perhaps the elevators collapsed because we did get reports of problems with the elevators, so we thought that might have collapsed and exploded into the lobby, or part of the plane fell off and came in, or part of the upper structure something came down, but never did we think the whole building collapsed. We knew something collapsed, but we never thought the whole building came down.

Everything is black. I’m not too sure exactly what occurred here. You couldn’t see the hand in front of your face. And we’re not too sure who’s alive with us at that stage, so we’re calling out to each other to see who’s here. And then, I called for an evacuation. I was able to contact somebody on the upper floor, one of the chiefs, and I told him to evacuate. I said that a number of times.

Firehouse: Did you know who you were talking to?


Pfiefer: I don’t know. I don’t remember. But it was acknowledged. Also right around that point, I’m not too sure if it was before or after, we found Mychal Judge, Father Judge. I grabbed somebody’s flashlight. I removed his white collar, opened up his collar and I checked for his pulse, and I didn’t find any. I knew he was gone. Now, one of the interesting things with him is that he really died praying. If you saw the tape, that segment, you could see his mouth moving and you could see him, you know, before this in the lobby with us, very intently praying, very worried, which is a little different from him. You would at least get acknowledgment as you walked by him. He wouldn’t interfere, but you would get a nod or something. He was very focused and very worried, almost like he knew what was going to take place.

Firehouse: Was he removed right then and there? Several other people are carrying Father Judge?


Pfiefer: Right. We weren’t too sure if the bridge was still there, so I told some of the people, including Chief Hayden and Chief Callan, because I know that they had the priest and it’s slow moving carrying somebody, I said let me see if the bridge is here and I’ll let you know. I walked across the bridge with my aide, the camera crew, an EMT lieutenant and somebody else. I went all the way across. We found out the bridge was there, and then I tried to radio back and there was no answer. I had promised that I’d let them know, so we walked all the way back across the same West Street bridge, and I was able to make verbal contact with them. I realized they went out one of the side entrances, a side window onto part of the plaza area and that wasn’t the best place to be so we went back the third time across West Street. It wasn’t a great place to be either, as you found out later.

Firehouse: It took you a long time to go across the bridge and all the way through until you finally reached the command post?


Pfiefer: Right, and there was nobody there at that point. We come out, we’re all full of debris and we can’t really see everything from underneath that bridge. It would be almost like a taxpayer, how smoke engulfs the whole building so you can’t see it.

So that’s what it looked like. Some of the camera shots showed it better because they had a zoom, but we didn’t see that. All we saw was the debris, a lot of paper and smoke filling the whole thing. So even when we got out, we still didn’t know that the building collapsed.

From there, we walked out into the corner by West and Vesey and went over to Chief Cassano, and Chief Hayden came. And then I was told to set up a command post up a couple of blocks. But before anything could be done, we heard a rumbling sound again and then people yelling to run. We ran maybe 50 yards the most. It was less than 10 seconds. The camera guy went behind the truck and I came up after him. He was a little faster than me, he didn’t have all that gear on, and I wound up laying across, protecting him, because he had no helmet or anything.

And then the white dust cloud came, engulfed us, immediately followed by the street now becoming black. At that point, I thought it was going to be it. We could hear things crashing and steel smashing down all around us and everything’s black and I thought we were just waiting for the squish at that point.

Firehouse: How far did you make it?


Pfiefer: I was maybe 20 yards up Vesey Street towards the river. We were on the side of 3 World Financial. We didn’t get far.

Firehouse: Was anything coming over the radio?


Pfiefer: No, at that point it was complete silence. And with the cement debris, it was like the first snowfall. So the sound you hear after a first snowfall, that quiet, very still quiet, that’s what it was like. After everything collapsed and stopped banging and clinking, there was no sound. There was no sound on the radio. There was no sound in the street. It was just still.

Firehouse: How long did it take you to get up?


Pfiefer: I have no idea, but it started to lift a little bit. We stood up, but couldn’t see anything and then we hear pop, pop, pop. We hear gunshots and somebody yelling get down, get down. Now we figured we were being shot at. We tried to hide behind another car. We found out later a police officer was taking out a window. Then we got up again and we noticed some law enforcement having a guy in handcuffs, so we figured that was the guy that was shooting. In reality, it wasn’t. Then, at that point, the cameraman went one way and I went back to the scene.

Firehouse: Was anybody else down there? Were people starting to come back?

Pfiefer: People slowly started to come back. Guys from home came in. Chief Blaich, Billy Blaich from here, he came down. I worked with him. His brother Charlie, two deputy chiefs came in. He took a section. Larry Burns, who was a chief here, retired, he operated out of 10 Engine’s quarters. Tom Haring, who was also another chief here, the deputy. Nick Visconti came. And what happened, just geographically people sectored it off pretty much like the four sectors you see now on the maps, but it was sectored off more by the name of the chief.

Firehouse: Where did you wind up?


Pfiefer: I was on the north side of the West Street bridge. We were getting reports of Jay Jonas, his Maydays. He was very calm, I’m trapped in the B stairs fourth floor. The thing is he had no idea what took place.

Firehouse: Had you heard any of the Maydays before that?


Pfiefer: Before that, it was just people injured in the street. It wasn’t any more than that. Nothing coming from the buildings.

Firehouse: So you heard Jay Jonas –


Pfiefer: Yes, and we tried from beneath to get to him through the parking garage and that was no good. We were going to go in through 6 World Trade and that wasn’t really working too well. The best part was hearing him, that he got out. That was incredible. We were very frustrated in figuring out where he is.

Firehouse: Were you watching 7 World Trade Center?


Pfiefer: Yes, I watched 7. At one point, we were standing on the west side of West Street and Vesey. And I remember Chief Nigro coming back at that point saying I don’t want anybody else killed and to take everybody two blocks up virtually to North End and Vesey, which is a good ways up. And we stood there and we watched 7 collapse.

I also remember at one point trying to contact my brother on the radio and not being able to do that and I figure he’ll find me, I’m the guy in the white hat. It’s a lot easier to find me than for me to find him. When that didn’t occur, I wound up walking the site, looking for anybody from 33. The rig was intact on the corner, but I couldn’t find him or anybody else from 33.

Dennis Tardio was coming down the C stairs in building 7. At about the 9th or 10th floor, he met my brother Kevin, who told Dennis, you can’t get down these stairs, there was all sorts of debris. He directed him to the B stairs and, according to Captain Tardio, they got out of the building and 30 seconds later it started collapsing. If they would have continued in the same stairs, there was no way they would have been out. I’m not too sure if my brother stayed there a little longer and directed more companies along with his guys or he was doing what firemen do, make sure all the brothers get out.

Firehouse: Did they all get killed?


Pfiefer: Yes.

Firehouse: You couldn’t find anybody from 33?


Pfiefer: Right.

Firehouse: Was that very chilling for you?


Pfiefer: You get that sunken feeling in your stomach, a sinking feeling. My wife’s at home watching the whole thing on TV, knowing I’m there, seeing the towers collapse, and she wound up saying to my aunt that she’s a widow. It was very traumatic for her. She was picking up my kids at school and she broke down crying because I couldn’t get any word out to her. Cell phones weren’t operating. I couldn’t get a cell site. I didn’t get her. I had to go through my aunt. I couldn’t get my parents. It was just kind of hit and miss with phones lines until after 3 o’clock. I was able to get word out. It was very emotional when I came home because I had worked for 40 hours. I got home around midnight. It was very emotional, a lot of hugs and tears.

Firehouse: How about your car, was it destroyed?


Pfiefer: About the size of a dime. I don’t know if they even found it. The number of times I had to send the aide back for the repeater radio, he’s dodging bodies and so on, and he was a covering aide. He did a fabulous job. For somebody for his first day, he was very good.

It’s kind of strange, Ladder 1, Engine 7. We were the first ones there. Only 10 beat us in, by seconds, and we were just able to make it somehow. I had two buildings fall.

Firehouse: Let me ask how you were organized, how you got companies down there or sectored it.


Pfiefer: Captain Justin Werner from the GIS unit produced a map. We just had four sectors on it. From that, the next map, was four sectors with a grid box, so now we could locate or document where we found people or things.

After that, we got real sophisticated and went into the GPS stuff, the handheld computers. That was only one small portion of it, but it illustrates how you go from very sketchy to a very fine system. That’s how the command structure worked. It went from four guys thrown together where Cruthers was the incident commander. Hayden was his exec, I wound up being the planning chief and Blaich had the logistics. And then we had the whole operational scheme working.

Firehouse: Did you work every day?


Pfiefer: Virtually, it was every day, long days, occasional day off and then using the FEMA teams to help us out with all this. The whole incident command thing is a whole other deal on how we developed it and how it came through. There are many different parts to it. I guess it just expanded to be the largest incident the country every had. The fire department had to grow with that change.

We wound up with three floors where we would have an interagency briefing in the morning with 100 people in the room. We would have the main command on the second floor, the general staff on the second floor and then the FEMA people on the third floor and in remote locations. We tapped into Pier 92. And FEMA also operated out of the Javits Center. It got big quite quickly.

Loading