9/11 Firefighters Told of Isolation Amid Disaster

The firefighters had 29 minutes to get out of the World Trade Center or die. Inside the north tower, though, almost none of them realized how urgent it had become to leave.The firefighters had 29 minutes to get out of the World Trade Center or die. Inside...

Slowed by firefighters entering the staircase below him, he switched sides. "In hindsight, I think that's what saved my life," he said.

He did not dawdle. "Around the fourth floor, I passed this civilian - he might have been 450 pounds," Firefighter Green said. "He was taking baby steps like this. I walked right past him like all the other firemen. I felt like a heel when I'm walking past him, and I'm thinking to myself, what does this guy think of me?"

Yet other chronicles show that a very heavy man in that location was eventually dragged to safety by rescuers who included Firefighter Pat Kelly of Rescue 18. Having helped move the man outside, Firefighter Kelly was the only member of his squad to survive. He did not give an oral history.

Elsewhere, crowds of firefighters lingered.

Lt. William Walsh of Ladder 1 said he heard a Mayday to evacuate when he was around the 19th floor, but did not know that a plane had struck the other building, much less that it had collapsed. As he descended, he saw firefighters who were not moving.

No Rush to Get Out

"They were hanging out in the stairwell and in the occupancy and they were resting," Lieutenant Walsh said. "I told them, 'Didn't you hear the Mayday? Get out.' They were saying, 'Yeah, we'll be right with you, Lou.' They just didn't give it a second thought. They just continued with their rest."

Three court officers reported seeing as many as 100 firefighters resting on the 19th floor minutes before the building fell, but they were not questioned by the Fire Department.

Mayor Bloomberg, in a letter to the 9/11 Commission, wrote: "We know for a fact that many firefighters continued their rescue work despite hearing Maydays and evacuation orders and knowing the south tower had fallen."

Asked to reconcile this statement with the oral histories, the city Law Department cited the accounts of eight firefighters and said that each of them surely had spread the word about the collapse of the other tower. In fact, in six of those oral histories, the firefighters specifically said they did not know the other building had fallen.

In the lobby, just yards from safety, survivors said that uncertainty doomed many firefighters.

John Moribito of Ladder 10 said there were maybe "40 or 50 members that were standing fast in the lobby." Roy Chelsen of Engine 28 said, "There were probably 20 or 30 guys down in the lobby mulling around." The interviewer asked, "They weren't trying to get out?"

"They were just - no, no," Firefighter Chelsen recalled.

His officer, Lieutenant Becker said, "There was chaos in the lobby. It was random people running around. There was no structure. There were no crowds. There was no - no operation of any kind going on, nothing. There was no evacuation."

Firefighters with Ladder 11 and Engine 4 came down together to the lobby, but not all made it out. "Everyone is standing there, waiting to hear what's going to happen next, what's going on," Frank Campagna of Ladder 11 said.

His company left, and a moment later, "it came down on top of us," Firefighter Campagna said. "Four Engine obviously didn't make it out. They were with us the whole time, so I'm assuming they were still in the lobby at that time."

The firefighters of Ladder 9 lingered briefly, and most were clear of the building for less than a minute when it fell. Firefighter Wernick remembered seeing two members of his company in the lobby, Jeffrey Walz and Gerard Baptiste. They did not escape. The funeral for Firefighter Baptiste, whose remains were identified this year, was held on Wednesday.

A Figure Coated in Dust

Over and over, firefighters who had left the building in those final minutes, bewildered by the sudden retreat, the ruined lobby, the near-empty street, mentioned a chief covered in the dust of the first collapse, standing just outside the north tower on West Street. Some knew his name: Deputy Assistant Chief Albert Turi.

"He was screaming, 'Just keep moving. Don't stop,' " Firefighter Thomas Orlando of Engine 65 recalled, adding, "I still didn't know the south tower collapsed." Chief Turi, he said, "saved an awful lot of people." The chief has since retired.