Having gone to my first FDNY incident in December 1960 and being an honorary assistant chief in the FDNY, I knew, met or made acquaintance with at least 93 members of the department who were killed on 9/11.
The deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil made this one of the darkest days in American history. With the loss of 343 FDNY firefighters it was by far the worst day in the American fire service. As of Aug. 17, 2006, of the 343 FDNY firefighters killed at the World Trade Center, 214 have been identified and 129 have not.
A 56-foot-long and six-foot-high bronze bas-relief memorial was recently erected on the side of the firehouse opposite the World Trade Center site belonging to the quarters of Engine 10 and Ladder 10. It depicts the events of that day and reads, "Dedicated to those who fell and those who carry on. May we never forget." This memorial was made possible through the help of the law firm of Holland & Knight, whose offices sit across from the World Trade Center site.
Having gone to my first FDNY incident in December 1960 (a plane crash and seven-alarm fire in Brooklyn) and being an honorary assistant chief in the FDNY, I knew, met or made acquaintance with at least 93 members of the department who were killed on 9/11. You didn't need to be a relative or active member; we all lost a little that day.
Listed here are selected comments from interviews I conducted after 9/11. Since we said we would never forget, we thought by reprinting some of these you would get a feeling what the FDNY firefighters, fire officers and chiefs were confronted with on that fateful day.
Operating at a gas leak, Battalion Chief Joseph Pfiefer said, "We heard a very loud plane, which you never hear in Manhattan. We all look up and see this commercial airline flying 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. I transmitted a second alarm...20 seconds after that I transmitted a third alarm."
While responding to the scene, Chief of Department Peter Ganci told Chief of Operations Dan Nigro, "This is going to be the worst days of our lives." Ganci died in the collapse of the second tower.
While attending to a firefighter from his company with chest pains on the 31st floor of the North Tower, Firefighter Mike Cancel of Ladder 10 said the building started to shake. "We were being tossed around. I thought the building was going to come down. Someone said the South Tower came down. I said, what do you mean it came down?"
Firefighter Steve Modica, assigned to the Special Operations Command chief, said, "When I first got there, I couldn't wait to get in the building because I thought it was totally unsafe to be outside anywhere around these buildings because there was so much debris coming down. Once you were inside, I think, everybody was confident that this was kind of the best place to be." After operating as high as the 30th floor, Modica heard companies talking about conditions on the 65th floor. He was told to evacuate the building. Outside, he was caught in the debris cloud from the collapse. "This is a 110-story office building," he recalled. "You couldn't find a file cabinet. You couldn't find a piece of wood, a piece of carpet, a computer. There was nothing. It was just dust and big pieces of steel. Everything was pulverized."
Told to form up with Engines 21, 22 and Ladder 13, Chief Tom Galvin told Lieutenant Bill Wall of Engine 47 to check the 40th floor in the South Tower for a report of a fire, the lowest floor from which they had received a report of a fire. "Units followed a person who worked in the building and was going to take them to a working elevator," he said. "This guy took us to the North Tower. He took us to the wrong tower. Saved our lives. Wrong place at the right time. The first three companies each went up separately. Engine 47 was waiting for their turn when the South Tower collapsed. Many of those who went up first died."
Deputy Chief (now retired Chief of Department) Peter Hayden described the collapse of 7 World Trade Center. "It seemed like a somewhat smaller event, but under any normal circumstances, that's a major event, a 47-story building collapsing," he said. "It seemed like a firecracker after the other ones came down, but I mean it was quite an event. But having gone through the other two, it didn't seem so bad." (A complete interview with Chief Hayden appeared in the April 2002 issue of Firehouse Magazine.
"We had just arrived and we walking toward the South Tower," said Lieutenant Ray Brown of Ladder 113, when he "heard incredible explosions. I looked up and I thought fire was breaking out on the upper floors. The debris starting hitting us. I ran and people to my left and right were getting hit with debris. I'm sure they were getting killed. I hid behind a wall. My mouth filled with the dust. I couldn't breathe. All of a sudden, it was pitch black. I thought it was the end of the world. I made it back to my rig. It was on fire as well as many ambulances. After the collapse of the first tower, firefighters from Engine 58 told us their lieutenant was trapped in the Marriott Hotel. There were a lot of ducts, pipes, aluminum and shelves. There were heating and ventilation ducts, just a tremendous amount of debris, (as) if you took an accordion and you squished it completely and then tried to cut a piece out of it."
Brown continued, "We were talking to the lieutenant. He said there were two chiefs and a company trapped behind him. We were able to get about 10 feet in the pile. We had five to seven feet to cut. The guy next to me says, you were in Rescue 1, weren't you? I said, yeah I was in Rescue 1, but I never saw anything like this. I don't care how many years you spent in any rescue company, this was just beyond anybody's capability. The second tower came down and I was thrown 15 to 20 feet across the room. I was carried from the hotel and remember waking up six hours later in the hospital in New Jersey."
More: Ground Zero: This is Their Story, from Firehouse Magazine