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Firehouse: You couldn't find anybody from 33?
Firehouse: Was that very chilling for you?
Photo Courtesy of FEMA
The fire department was divided into two divisions after the attack. One division was designated for firefighting and the other for rescue and removal operations at the site. Initially, 1,200 firefighters were detailed to the World Trade Center site on various shifts.
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.
Firefighter Peter Blaich
Ladder 123 (was in Engine 9 on 9/11)
I came in for the day tour, so I got there about 8 o'clock and relieved the guy on the backup on the engine. A fireman, Ray Hayden, was actually standing in front of quarters and he saw what he thought was a small plane and then an explosion right into north tower. You could just make out the tips of the towers from the firehouse on Canal Street, so he got everybody in the house on standby and we were waiting to be dispatched, which we never were. Then, at that moment, it flashed on the news that the north tower was on fire. We weren't dispatched yet, but Hayden turned everybody out. We took the satellite because we had the satellite with us. 6 Truck went. 9 Engine went and Satellite 1 went.
You could see the top of the north tower still, a lot of fire and a lot of smoke. As we got closer towards the towers, I lost the view I had from the cab of the engine. It was blocked out by the other buildings. Engine 9 pulled up on Vesey and West Street, and the satellite was behind Engine 9 and in front of 9 Engine was 6 Truck.
As soon as we pulled up, I remember getting off the rig and Lieutenant Foti from the engine said everybody grab an extra bottle along with our rollups. He's a captain now, he was promoted after 9/11. Then he turned to me and he said if I can, take the life-saving rope and try to keep that with me as long as I could because we had jumpers at that point.
So I had the rollup, I had an extra bottle, I had the life-saving rope and then I remember looking up and seeing the first body hit one of the lower towers in the complex. And then I saw another body land not too far in front of us, right on the hood of a car. I had never imagined seeing anything like that, ever.
We proceeded into the north tower and at that point Chief Pfiefer was just setting up the command post in the north tower. It was us, 1 Truck, 7 Engine, 6 Engine, 55 Engine was there. Chief Pfiefer told us and 6 Truck to stay together and to start making our way up the B stairway, which was the attack stairway. And I heard that over the radio too B is the attack stairway. I had a radio because in 9 Engine they have the satellite, so the backup man has a radio also.
We started going up the B stairway. As we got to the third floor of the B stairway, we forced open an elevator door which was burnt on all three sides. The only thing that was remaining was the hoistway door. And inside the elevator were about - I didn't recognize them initially, but a guy from 1 Truck said oh my God, those are people. They were pretty incinerated. And I remember the overpowering smell of kerosene. That's when Lieutenant Foti said oh, that's the jet fuel. I remember it smelled like if you're camping and you drop a kerosene lamp.
The same thing happened to the elevators in the main lobby. They were basically blown out. I don't recall if I actually saw people in there.
What got me initially in the lobby was that as soon as we went in, all the windows were blown out, and there were one or two burning cars outside. And there were burn victims on the street there, walking around. We walked through this giant blown-out window into the lobby.
There was a lady there screaming that she didn't know how she got burnt. She was just in the lobby and then next thing she knew she was on fire. She was burnt bad. And somebody came over with a fire extinguisher and was putting water on her.
That's the first thing that got me. That and in front of one of the big elevator banks in the lobby was a desk and I definitely made out one of the corpses to be a security guard because he had a security label on his jacket. I'm assuming that maybe he was at a table still in a chair and almost completely incinerated, charred all over his body, definitely dead. And you could make out like a security tag on his jacket. And I remember seeing the table was melted, but he was still fused in the chair and that elevator bank was melted, so I imagine the jet fuel must have blown right down the elevator shaft and I guess caught the security guard at a table, I guess at some type of checkpoint.
We figured by the time we got to the fifth or sixth floor, that's when the south tower was hit. I had no idea the south tower was hit, and I don't think that Chief Jonas - Captain Jonas at the time - or Lieutenant Foti knew at that point either. I remember the whole north tower literally vibrated. The only way I can explain it is if you were at the edge of a subway platform and the train was coming in, you felt that wind and the sound, but with an added effect like the floor vibrated. Everybody just cringed and really was not sure what was going on. I just assumed that it was something above us. I had no idea that the south tower was hit.
From the sixth floor, we went to the 12th. At the 12th floor there was a bottleneck of civilians still evacuating the tower. We also needed a little rest from the climb up. Lieutenant Foti had us take the people from the B staircase and lead them over to the A staircase because we wanted to clear the B staircase for us. He wanted to make the A the evacuation staircase. We took our gear, our tanks and everything off, tried to cool down, and then we just led people over to the A staircase. It was a distance, I would say 30, 40 feet.
Then from that point we proceeded up and we went up to as far as the 25th floor. When we got to the 25th floor, it was that same effect, like being on the subway platform, but you could tell like that something was really wrong because we heard windows blowing out on our floor. I remember looking at the top of the door, it crimped in. I remember looking at it and going oh, man, that can't be structurally good, it was almost like at that moment the door wanted to get sucked out, actually get blown out of the building.
That was the first time also that we encountered a smoke condition. We had to force open the door on the 25th floor from the B staircase. It was crushed and we had to force it open to get onto the floor just to see what was going on. There was a very decent smoke condition. You could stay low enough and be all right, but it was to the point if you stayed in there for a while, you're going to have to mask up.
At that point, 6 Truck came down from 27 to 25. I remember Captain Jonas and two other firefighters came running back into the B stairway. It was us, 1 Truck, a couple of other companies - 9 Engine, 7 Engine. And I remember him saying, oh my God, the second tower is down, if that can come down, being that this is burning longer than the south tower, we definitely have to get out of the north tower now.
We got a rush of air just flying out of the north tower, it was almost like you were getting wind in there, just whoosh, it came rushing out. At that point, Captain Jonas came running back in and said the south tower's down. I don't know how he did it. He was as calm as a cucumber, but he was saying we've got to start getting out of here now. He went up a couple of floors and made sure that he notified whoever was above him. He transmitted over the radio what he observed and that we were getting out, and at that point we started our descent. I heard Maydays after the collapse, there were Maydays all over the place.
As we were going down, we were trying to stop and double-check the floors that we got to. We did still encounter some civilians on the 20th floor on the way down. There was one guy downloading stuff off his computer and we just told him you got to go now. He really didn't want to leave, but we basically forced him out of the building at that point. I would say most of the civilians were out at that point.
We tried to check the floors as quickly as we could. Some floors had smoke conditions on them and some floors didn't. It was weird. I don't know if that's because maybe debris from the tower landed in certain floors and maybe lit certain floors on fire. I don't know. But there was definitely heavy smoke on one floor and then the next floor you'd go to there would be no smoke.
The lights were out. The emergency lights were on in the north tower at that point. The alarm was going off the whole time we were there. It was a deafening alarm sound to get out.
We got down to the third floor. It was us, it was 9 Engine, 6 Truck and there were about six civilians at that point and one lady, Josephine, who was not ambulatory. She couldn't walk. We were staying with 6 Truck to help them and a chief told 9 Engine, I want you to take these approximately six other people and get them out and I'll stay with 6 Truck. We didn't want to leave, but that's what we were told, so we did it.
We got down to the lobby and my first thought was when we did encounter Josephine and the six other people that looked like they could walk, our first thought was why the hell are you still in the building? And one of the women told me we can't go down there, there's smoke and we can't get out. So I said oh, what the heck is this now? Then we took them with us down to the lobby and when we got to the lobby, it was nothing but debris, heavy smoke and fire.
I masked up. Lieutenant Foti said to me and Sean O'Sullivan, see if you can still find the way we came in. So we had our masks on and we went out, me and Sean together, and we went over one pile of debris and we found one firemen that was definitely deceased at that point. I don't know who he was or what company he was from. He was in the lobby towards I guess the south tower side. We tried to drag him back with us, but Lieutenant Foti said listen, we can't do anything for this guy now and we got to get out of here. We didn't want to, but we had to leave him and we knew we had the other people to try to get out who were still alive.
And with that, Lieutenant Foti knew that if we dropped down into the loading dock area, we could get across a loading dock and come up on Vesey Street because he didn't want to take these people through this thick smoke condition and sheared steel and rubble. I didn't think we were going to get out of the lobby. But we dropped down and the smoke went from bad to tolerable and we were able to take the people across the loading dock out towards Vesey Street.
We were out now on Vesey Street and we were going to head back in and make sure that 6 Truck knew that they could come out this way because we knew that they had Josephine. And we turned to walk back down the loading dock and the whole thing just started coming down, the whole north tower. There wasn't even time to run. I got hit with some huge debris. I still had my mask on at the time and I guess that might have saved me too. I got hit with a huge piece of debris in the back of my air cylinder, which took the wind out of me and knocked me flat on the ground.
At that point, I was ready to curl up. I figured this is it, the whole thing is going to land right on my head. A firefighter, Michael Price in 9 Engine, pulled me under a Port Authority tow truck, one of the big ones that they would tow trucks with. He pulled me under that thing and it just went black as night. I thought I was going to suffocate under this truck now because a force came - I could have sworn the truck, if it didn't get lifted up, it definitely got moved to the side.
My helmet came blowing right off my head and the next thing I knew there was nothing but debris and dirt and that plume of crushed concrete all around us. You could hardly breathe. I just remember sticking my head in my coat and trying to conserve as much air as I could, figuring I'm probably going to suffocate because I know this whole thing came down around us and I have no idea if anybody's going to get us out of here.
We stayed in there. We talked to each other for it seemed like an eternity, me, Mike Price. And then eventually it did clear enough that we could see each other. We couldn't come out of the truck even the same way we came in. We had to back ourselves up out of the truck. I remember the whole top of the tow truck looked like somebody took a can opener and just peeled it right off. Maybe 10 feet from the truck was the biggest piece of steel I-beam I've every seen, and there was a dead Port Authority cop right there. We tried to get his body away from the steel beam, but we weren't moving the steel beam.
Maybe 30 minutes went by by the time the company found each other. At that point, we definitely knew that 6 Truck, if they were alive, they were probably still stuck in there somehow. Lieutenant Foti said let's just try to find all our guys first and let people know where 6 Truck is because we knew we probably couldn't get to them by ourselves. We had no tools or anything.
Then we heard a Mayday from 6 Truck - we couldn't believe they were still alive and we knew that we had a shot to go back in and get them at this point. We got back to where Engine 9 was, the satellite and 6 Truck was. Off-duty members from 6 Truck and 9 Engine were there now.
I remember my father was on the radio trying to locate me because he came with my uncle on the relocation. One of the lieutenants, Lieutenant Chin from 9 Engine, told me your father's over by the subway, just go tell him that you're alive. So I ran over there and then the first thing he did when he got me is he said do you remember how you got back in, you know, how you got out because we can get back in that way.
Lieutenant Foti and me and a couple of other firemen from other companies, in the dirt we drew the best way we thought to get in there, we made a little map in the dirt. We were trying to figure out if we went by the loading dock, we knew that we could get up to that B stairway again. And that's what we did.
It was pretty big down there. It was huge. And there were trucks on fire down there - the trucks were roaring. There was a good smoke condition.
We wound up getting hose off of another engine company. There was a building across the street on Vesey Street. We hooked up to a standpipe there and we ran a hose out because we needed to extinguish the truck fires in the subbasement because that was really just black smoke.
So we stretched a line from there, put out the truck fires, which cleared up the visibility pretty good, but then we could see that there was no way to get from the subbasement any more into the B stairway. It was just completely destroyed, caved in, rubble, everything.
We could still hear them talking and I said we're never going to get to these guys, there's no way we can get anything to get up there. It was completely sealed. It was like they were entombed. We stayed in there trying to figure things out. Other supervisors came at that point, other chiefs, and we knew that they were right above us, but we just could not reach them.
We stayed in there as long as we could and then there were other collapses starting now - small debris started coming down all around us. And that's when my father said that's it, we got to get out of here now, so we backed out. And thank God, at the same time, that's when 6 Truck radioed that they found a way out. We still really didn't know where they were. I went back after and realized what they did. They were basically entombed from the top and the bottom, so it was great that they got out. I couldn't believe that they walked out of there.
As soon as we got back and 6 Truck was out, we went back to trying to get water because now we had all this fire and no water- 9 Engine was completely blown out. It was burnt. It looked like it got hit with a blow torch. All the windows were blown out in it. So that was useless, but believe it or not the satellite - besides some debris on it - was fine in all other aspects.
We took nine lengths of satellite hose down to the water. We hooked up to a fireboat down there and we operated the monitor at that point into the seven-story building in front of Tower 1. It pretty much put that out, reached great. We had good water pressure. We were augmented by another engine company from the water to the satellite. They put another engine company in there which augmented us. And the stream was even good enough to almost reach Tower 7. And then what happened was, we heard this rumbling sound and my father pulled us all back and then with that Tower 7 came down. We were still operating the satellite at that point. We ran. It really didn't come up to where the satellite was, but it came close enough.
At that point, they lined up all the firemen on Vesey Street west of West Street down towards the water. Then they said all the firemen on one side, all the officers on another. And they had a meeting, all the chiefs, and then chiefs came over and grabbed an officer and they teamed the officer up with five firemen.
And 6 Truck all went to the hospital after that. They had to be treated. But 9 Engine, the off-duty members and the on-duty members, and the off-duty members of 6 Truck, we stayed together and we just stayed there trying to pull people out.
Me with only two years on this job, I just feel like I was so naive going in there because I had no idea what I was really walking into. I looked up and tried to get things into focus, but there was so much going on. The bodies - it was overwhelming.
At one point in the B stairway, there were still civilians coming down and we were going up, and I couldn't believe how small the stairways were. I thought in the Trade Center, you'd have these huge stairways that you could fit a truck or up there or something, but you couldn't. Every time a civilian came down, with the rollups and whatever extra tools you were carrying, you always had to turn to the side so they could pass you, and a lot of them needed help down so you would put your stuff down and help them down to a floor or two to another fireman, and then you'd go back, try to catch up with your company and make the walk up.