WTC: This Is Their Story - Part III

I sent out a couple of more guys, so we got about four or five people out of the stairway before 43 Truck made it into the stairway. We sent out David Lynn, Matt Comaraski was out. Lieutenant Cross was out. Fireman Bacon was out, and then I kind of held back. I was the last one out of our group. The only person we couldn't take out with us was Josephine Harris because she wasn't walking before the collapse. She certainly wasn't walking afterwards. So I had to wait for 43 Truck to get there and I kind of briefed them I said you need a Stokes basket for her.

I told them about the Mayday from Mike Warchola. I didn't realize the 12th floor wasn't there. I told them about the other chief, and Engine 39 was at the base of the stairway. And so I basically turned the operation over to them at that point.

We worked our way down, there was a ledge. You had to climb down and basically we had to start heading toward West Street. We were told don't go that way because you had craters and everything else. As soon as we exited the building, the Customs House, the ammunition depot for the Secret Service, starts blowing up. So we had all that to deal with at the same time.

We just kept making our way across and down. This crater had to be two stories deep that we had to shimmy down and then climb up the other side. Mind you now, everybody's pretty well beat up. One of my guys has a separated shoulder, one guy's got a concussion, one guy's got bruised ribs, so everybody's not doing really well, plus they climbed 27 stories with heavy gear just before that, so they're pretty well shot. They needed some encouragement to keep moving, you know. Every once in a while they'd stop. I said no, don't stop, you don't have to move fast, but you got to keep moving, just keep going, keep heading west, keep heading towards the river.

Eventually we could see, eventually. Once we got out of that crater, then we could see west. It was starting to clear out by the time we exited, the dust was starting to settle out, so we had decent visibility. Once we got past 7 World Trade, then the smoke cleared up, you know.

All the dust made like a fine powder. It was like trying to crawl on a slew of beams that are coated with talcum powder, so it was slippery. You had to be very deliberate in whatever you were doing. I kept my search rope because I thought that maybe we would need it making our trek across, and I kept my officer's tool. I think everybody else jettisoned everything else.

It had to take us a half hour by the time we left the stairway to reach a point of safety. You know, it was it was a long trip. We had to actually go through the World Financial Center. They had ambulances staged on the other side of that. The first thing I wanted to do was go to the command post and report in, but when I was out, I knew I was talking to eight guys on the radio. I wanted the command post to know that I'm out. If you got a search party looking for me, stop them, get them to a point of safety.

Chief Hayden was on top of a fire truck running the show and I just yelled up from down below. I said Chief Hayden, Chief Hayden. And then somebody gets his attention. He looks down and his eyes are full of tears. It's good to see you, Jay. I just stuck my hand up and I was happy to see him, too. He did one heck of a job there. He was there standing on the roof, him and Deputy Chief Jim Di Domenico.

We all got treated for eye injuries right away. Some guys, like Matt Comaraski, he was swept away right away. So was Bill Butler. They were taken by ferry to Jersey City immediately for medical attention. I think Rich Picciato too.

Just hearing different stories of survival from guys that were outside the building. Mike Rodbeck from Engine 210 called me up. He just narrowly escaped. I think he separated his shoulder. Jack McGinty from the officers' union I heard had a real close call. I heard Mike Telesca was unbelievably close a couple of times.

When we're in there, because our visibility's poor and our stairway's quasi intact, we had no concept of what it was like outside. We know there's twisted steel. We can see that in front of us, big mountains of it. But we're not sure if the whole building fell, you know. If the whole building fell, we had to be entombed in a 106 stories of rubble. We're thinking that maybe there was a partial collapse. The collapse itself in my mind lasted only about 30 seconds. You look at the tapes, it was probably half of that or it was probably only about 15 seconds. I said no, this whole building can't fall that quickly, I thought that maybe we had a partial collapse.

Once we finally made it out, once we finally exited the stairway, I couldn't believe what I was seeing, you know. The first thing I saw was the corner, the facade, that's still left standing. What an eerie sight that was. There were two times that I felt that I was like oh, my God, I can't believe I survived it, which was right after the collapse stopped. When we were coughing and gagging, I was like, oh, man I can't believe I just survived that.

Basically, that stairway was our life raft. And don't be so quick to jump out of the life raft. If you see an island five miles away, don't be so quick to jump out, float a little closer to the island, make sure that that's good.

We were very conscious. We were making incredibly lucid decisions about what we should do, what we shouldn't do. We didn't want to make a move just to make a move. We wanted to make sure it was going to be the right move. We didn't want to backtrack anything or have to rescue somebody from making a bad decision. We were closely evaluating everything that we did.

But once 43 Truck came, basically we were no longer their mission because we could get ourselves out, but we told them you got to get her out, she needs a Stokes basket. We're shot, we can't do it. And we told them about the chief and the guys from 39 Engine. We gave them a new mission, so they felt very useful and they did a heck of a job.

The fire department asked me to go to Vienna, Austria, to receive an award on behalf of the fire department. This world body calls a Men's World Day and they give out several awards. They give out one for entertainment. They give out for physics. They give out one for medicine. And New York City firemen were given the men of the year award. And it was quite a quite a weekend. It started out as a press conference on a Saturday and had a big room filled with press and everything. Ironically, they didn't ask me any questions during the press conference. They focused on Ted Turner. He was getting a media award, you know. Then they focused on Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the presenter of our award. But after the award ceremony, the press surrounded me. They wanted to know all kinds of different things about our experience.

The award ceremony itself was very impressive. It was this big gala at the emperor's palace in Vienna. And the award was given to me by Mikhail Gorbachev and Paul McCartney. And Paul McCartney was very happy to present the award to me. The organizers later told me that he only agreed to come when he heard that I was going to be there. I found out later, talking to him, that his father was a fireman.

He was in New York on Sept. 11. He was in an airplane awaiting takeoff at Kennedy Airport when they shut down the airport, and he had a view of lower Manhattan and he saw the whole thing unfold from the airport. He came to Ladder 6 to get T-shirts for a concert that they had. The day he was there, I was covering in Coney Island. I was working in the 43 Battalion in Coney Island.

They didn't have any T-shirts for him because when people came with donations, they were given a shirt, to thank them for donation, so their supply locker was tapped out. When Paul McCartney's fiancee came to ask for the shirts, they said we don't have any - well, wait a minute, and they gave them their personal shirts and says here, tell Paul that these have been in real fires, you know, so the shirts that he's wearing in his video are guys' personal shirts. Once he heard that the captain of Ladder 6 was coming to Vienna, he made the decision to come. That was an honor that I never thought I'd see. I brought a couple of shirts and hats, and I saw him after the awards ceremony. I says I hear you got some used T-shirts for the concert. He said, yeah, how did you know? I said oh, my guys told me. I said I got some brand-new ones for you if you want, so I gave him a couple of brand-new shirts.

You have preconceived notions of people. I had high expectations for him and he far exceeded them. He was great. Mikhail Gorbachev was great. I was sitting with Professor Robert Gallo, who identified the AIDS virus. I was sitting with a physicist from Vienna who was able to transport matter, like beam me up, Scotty. I just happened to think, boy, my high school physics teacher probably never thought I would have amounted to anything and I'm sitting with two Nobel Prize winners. But it was quite an experience. You know who was also good was Sir Richard Branson from England, the guy who owns Virgin Atlantic Airways. He was tremendous.

The whole organization, they were very happy to have me there. I gave a nice speech and it worked out good. Vienna's a beautiful city. If I wasn't for this, I probably never would have gone there, but what a fabulous city. Really nice.

Lieutenant Glenn Rohan Ladder 43
15 years

I heard the attack. Both rigs were fueled. An off-duty member from Ladder 43 remained in quarters. Engine 53 was dispatched on the fifth alarm to the second tower. Was on the phone with my wife and was watching on TV. I knew it was going to be a really tough job, the guys were going to get their butts kicked.

I had the company check their gear and the rig for equipment. We received a run to East 41st Street and Lexington Avenue for a person with their foot stuck in a revolving door. We were assigned with Engine 26. There are normally numerous trucks closer than we are, but they were already sent to the World Trade Center. The response was over 60 blocks.

We arrived and an ambulance was already there. The guys got off the rig and said, yes, there is a person with their foot stuck. We went into the lobby, a large building with subway access. As I walked in, the first guys inside said they had him free.

After entering a 10-37 for assist civilian and 10-8 to be in service for another run on the mobile data terminal, I asked the Manhattan dispatcher, do you want me to go downtown? The dispatcher told us to remain in service. That took the heart right out of everybody on the rig. The chauffeur said, come on, let's go. I said there is nobody left on the East Side. Every other truck company in our area is already assigned to the WTC - 13, 16, 14 and 26. I instructed the chauffeur to head up town, but go slowly.

Firehouse Collection
The fire that consumed the 47-story building 7 amazed many firefighters - that a fire of that size in a building so large could burn for so many hours.

At 3rd Avenue and East 50th Street we heard a firefighter screaming for help. Who is he? I told John, my chauffeur, there is something wrong. I heard the Manhattan dispatcher calling Field Communications numerous times with no answer. Then the dispatcher was trying to get any unit operating at the scene. I called the dispatcher and said that Ladder 43 would proceed south and give them a report. The dispatcher sent us.

We could see smoke from the towers. We didn't hear any report of the building coming down. I thought only pieces of the building came down. The way we were driving south you could only see one tower, we didn't know for sure. We parked as close as we could, about four blocks north near Warren and West streets.

Walking south near Barclay Street we heard a noise loud enough to make you look up. It looked like ceramic tiles popping off. We backed up and ran north. We ducked into a loading zone. The smoke and dust were coming. I told everybody to mask up. We had two search ropes with us. We now were with 10 cops. After the smoke and dust started to clear, there were cars, trucks and apparatus burning. We walked near the north pedestrian bridge and checked in, around and under rigs for trapped firefighters. Engines were started and the 500 gallons of water in the booster tanks were used to extinguish some of the fires in the rigs.

While we were searching for civilians, we ran into Chief Mark Ferran, Battalion 12. He told me he had a report that Chief Rich Picciato, Battalion 11, was trapped in one of the towers. He said the chief reported he was with a number of firefighters in Tower 1 in a stairway and he can't tell where they are. We started asking everybody and anybody did they know where Tower 1 was? One firefighter said if you go through building 6, up a ladder to the veranda, but it was all collapsed inside.

We went out and around building 6, down to the parking garage and to Vesey Street. We walked east. There was a 40-foot-high pile of steel in the street after Tower 1 collapsed. The fire had entered building 7. Fire was visible in 30 windows spread across four of the lower floors. We found off-duty members from Engine 53/Ladder 43 operating an engine and aerial ladder at a building where people were trapped on the upper floors.

We were now traveling further away from our objective, but still didn't know where Tower 1 was located. Someone else told us if you go around building 5, to the mezzanine entrance, but that was collapsed and burning. Directions were given to the driveway entrance, to the mezzanine level, walk west to the escalators that lead to the courtyard; you'll find tower 1.

Before we had left building 6, Chief Picciato had a megaphone with a siren unit. He was asked to sound the siren. We couldn't hear it. On our way into the mezzanine we could barely hear a guy yelling for help. We found the escalators and they were covered in debris. We now thought let's try the courtyard. We heard someone else yelling. It was a firefighter from Rescue 2 with a civilian.

We asked Battalion 11 to hit the siren again. We were just barely able to hear it. You couldn't get through the hole in the crater. Three firefighters went with Chief Ferran and four others went around another way. In the crater you had to walk on steel with 40- to 50-foot drops. The siren noise was coming from the southwest, but you had to walk west to north to go to the southwest. It was very steep, very dangerous with fires burning underneath. If anyone falls, I'll have another operation. Portions of the surrounding buildings were collapsing.

Building 7 was starting to fall apart. There were five floors of fire inside. I knew we didn't have a lot of time. Picciato, Battalion 11, had said you're going to need rescue and other tools to get them out. We only had halligan tools and roof ropes. I said let's take one problem at a time. Visibility was about 100 feet. There was no daylight, just smoke overhead. As we moved further in the pile, the smoke and fires continued. Every 20 minutes we could hear the siren echoing.

Firehouse Collection
Firefighters looking for Ladder 6 in the north tower worked for hours climbing over steel, with flames and smoke hampering their vision. There were also voids as deep as 50 feet.

There were eight of us now within two groups. Chief Ferran said we might have to pull out. The fire in building 7 was causing a great concern that it would come down soon. Then, Picciato said we could start seeing outside and see the blue sky. At this time, it was about one hour that we were inside the crater searching. Picciato was asked if he could see a vertical steel like stair-riser. Picciato said you yell out. We did and he said that's right outside where we are.

It was a real climb to get through this. Looking at where they were trapped it looked like a three-story-high section, 30 to 40 feet wide. You couldn't tell it was a stairway. I said a prayer a second time. Firefighter Jerry Suden was standing on an eight-inch piece of steel 50 feet in the air. He could see Picciato and hooked up a roof rope to get the people inside out 12 or 14 feet from the stairwell.

After talking with Picciato, he said there were two firefighters trapped below two floors below their position and a chief trapped below them. Trapped in this area between the third and fourth floors were 12 people, including Chief Picciato, Captain Jay Jonas and five members of Ladder 6, a lieutenant and two firefighters from two different engine companies, a Port Authority police officer and a female civilian. Suden was going to have to take the rescued firefighters back out the way we came. After the first group emerged, they went about 50 feet and the fires burning beneath the steel wouldn't allow them to go the way we came in.

Additional firefighters entered the stairway. The group awaiting removal was told that more firefighters were on the way to assist them and we would get them out. The remaining group of firefighters and civilians were removed outside. I asked where the two other firefighters were trapped. Maneuvering down the remains of the stairway to what was left of a landing. Tools were going to be needed. I could talk to the two firefighters from Engine 39. I asked if they were OK, were they hurt in any way?

Jimmy Lanza and Corrigan came with me. I got a roof rope. If another collapse occurred, I would know where they were located. I cleared some rubble and concrete with a halligan tool near the corner of the landing with the standpipe. I hit some sheetrock. I was able to remove two layers of sheet rock and opened a four-foot-by-eight-inch void. That's going to be enough to get them out.

I told them crawl up to the next level. Take the halligan and remove some of the sheetrock. Step on the halligan tool, put one hand on the rope and pull yourself up. The next firefighter was larger. The next firefighter, Jeffrey, climbed up, we grabbed on and he just made it. If he needed another inch it would have been tough.

Apparently, a door had opened and held back other debris from reaching them, saving their lives. I asked them where the chief was. He said that he hasn't talked for awhile. Several firefighters made it down four levels from where they had entered the remains of the stairway.

Additional personnel made it to the location. Firefighters used sawzalls and ropes for two hours, but to no avail. We were totally dehydrated. Everybody was yelling to evacuate now. We said a prayer and had to leave. We retraced our steps. When we finally made it back outside, there was a line of firefighters as long as you could see. It took 40 minutes to walk off the pile. We made it to Liberty and West streets and were there for an hour when building 7 collapsed.

When we received an assignment, it was a relief. We are trained to do this job. We focused on the task. The pressure was off thinking of something to do. Let's take care of this problem. It was so discouraging that more of that wasn't going on. I thought guys were being pulled out all over.