FDNY At Ground Zero Part 2

The FEMA teams made a lot of void entries and did a lot of good reconnaissance, but the type of debris that we encountered here was unlike anything that had ever been encountered. Even earthquakes topple primarily concrete structures. Concrete is easy to breach. A hundred-foot-long I-beam that projects 90 feet into this pile that's got three-inch-thick members, it's a box that's five feet by three feet with three-inch-thick web members, you're not penetrating. Even with the heaviest torches that we had in all the FEMA caches it would take hours to burn a single hole through that beam. This was something that we needed ,the heaviest industrial-sized equipment available. The grapplers that could lift that.

We were we were cutting with the FEMA torches. We were cutting those box beam sections into eight-foot lengths because that was what was able to be moved. When we got the excavators in there, they could take the entire 40-foot-long section in three pieces out in one piece.

We had to segment that probably into a dozen pieces, so we were really overwhelmed by the type of construction. It wasn't a question of punching holes with a pavement breaker or jackhammer and getting through anything.

Up to that point, we were burning up a lot of resources and it wasn't very productive. That was a little bit of controversy within some of the FEMA responders. They wanted to continue burning, but again at that point I made a decision that we were being ineffective. We were putting people in bad places, places that had been searched. We knew we didn't have any survivors in those areas and we were just burning up oxyacetylene. It was almost a feel-good effort, kind of like the bucket brigades. The bucket brigades that a lot of the police officers and firefighters were manning were ineffective. They didn't do anything to get to anybody, but it was a feel-good effort. Everybody wanted to pitch in and everybody wanted to help, but in reality and hindsight now, we were moving tiny, tiny fragments of debris. Actually, it was impeding the operation, what we needed to do. We needed to get the big equipment in so we could start moving the big steel out of the way.

At one point, we were getting a lot of cell phone calls, people reported to be cranks or psychics. They were in contact somehow with people trapped in the supposedly bombproof Port Authority police bunker. It was not anything that we could ignore. And we would get this call and (Assistant) Chief (Frank) Cruthers sent me, go find that bunker and somebody get to it, get a probe into it, however you do it, get to it.

We had the plans for the building. We knew exactly where the supposed bunker was. The bunker was not a bombproof bunker. It had explosion-resistant glass in it, but the walls were Sheetrock walls. It had bulletproof glass so nobody could just shoot in through the window at a cop, but the walls were nothing substantial.

Firehouse: Is that where the fire command station was?

Norman: Yes. We had the plans and we looked at it from every angle of approach and there was 40 feet of solid steel between us and the bunker from any approach. And I had to just tell him there's nobody that we're going to get there. If they're in there, which I seriously doubted, just because I was able to look into the B-4 level from the Marriott garage inside the Trade Center walls. It was just packed solid debris. If they're in there, we're not going to get them. We're not going to get them for months, three months with the heaviest equipment available moving and we were just getting to that area.

Firehouse: By now, you're now into the recovery mode. How did it change? The first couple of days you had a lot of guys there. You sent sent a lot of people home, so they can get some sleep?

Norman: We had to break off of the recall, absolutely. We had nearly 100% percent of the department. We had 10,000 firemen wanting to come to the site. Some of them who had gone to mustering sites by late that evening, we said we don't need any more personnel here. The scene was overflowing with people, we didn't need any more and we sent them back to their firehouses. But the guys in the firehouses, they weren't going to rest, they weren't going to sleep knowing that there were all these guys missing and buried.

Then we had the problem with all the out-of-town units that came in unsolicited and out of control. We didn't have any good handle on who was where. They really created a major, major morale problem for us. We would have our people in their firehouses wanting to come dig out their brothers and then we'd tell them no, we don't need you, we don't want you here, stay back there, protect the rest of the city, do what you have to do for the rest of the city. And they would turn on the TV and there would be coverage of a firefighter from out of town telling them how he just spent eight hours digging out New York City firemen.

The guys were in rebellion. They wanted to come to that pile. We had many, many reports that guys were just saying if you don't let us go, we're going to leave the rigs here and go on our cars or we're going to take the rigs with us and go and you're not going to stop us. That was a real, real serious problem, especially the first week. Once the guys saw the capabilities of the FEMA teams and that these were not just volunteers who drove in on their own, that they had expertise, that they had all this ability and that we had requested them, that solved some of the problems. It didn't stop it all because nobody could stop Joe Blow from giving an interview out in the street. The FEMA personnel were very disciplined that way. They didn't give interviews off the cuff. They explained that they were part of the system and so on. But anybody who put a turnout coat and a helmet on and walked down outside the fence in the perimeter area was interviewed by some news network. A lot of them never spent any time at all on the pile, but they showed up in fireman's gear and now they're telling guys what a great job they did. We had cases of people arrested as impostors. Some of it made the news about the guy who was living up in I think 16 Truck quarters. Absolute impostors that got their hands on some turnout gear.

Security was a major issue for us. We went through many many types of IDs. It created a couple of problems. One was without it, anybody and his brother walked into the scene. Right away I requested a company of Marines, active-duty U.S. Marines, for perimeter security and that was rejected. We ended up with police and National Guard. I wanted the Marines because I wanted some 19-year-old kid standing on the corner who, when his sergeant gives him an order, he stands to and nobody passes that point without the proper credentials. Instead, what we got was, well, listen guy, I got a friend of mine in there, or my brother's in there, and some of that was legit and people let them go. And then there were others who just didn't really care who showed up dressed as a fireman or a police officer, a mailman, if you had some kind of uniform on, they just waved you in.

It took a long time to get security under control. We went through numerous challenges with it. OEM (the city Office of Emergency Management) was in charge of giving out the badges. They hadn't pre-planned any of that or they had pre-planned it, but they hadn't pre-arranged any of it. So now to get badges, everybody had to personally report to the pier. The operation at the pier wasn't set up. Everybody and his brother went through the same line. Rescuers spent hours and hours and hours waiting on line to get their IDs so they could get down into the site. When they get there, they'd see other people walk right past them with no ID at all who weren't even part of the rescue teams. If you brought a box of sandwiches in, you walked in through the gate on your own.

Several times, we changed it because people were giving out ID badges to anybody who showed up. Now we had badges that basically became useless. Yes, you had a badge, but you didn't belong getting a badge or maybe your commitment has expired, the things that you could do were no longer needed. We don't need you coming into the site and gawking anymore. We ended up changing our system of badges several times.

Some of the FEMA teams, FEMA teams in uniform on buses with an escort, were stopped at some checkpoints. Other guys, if you just drove two blocks over to the next checkpoint, nobody was there to even guard the gate, so security was an ongoing issue. The threat of secondary issues going on at the site was a severe issue for us. We had no certainty that there wasn't going to be a secondary attack on all the rescuers working there. It was a challenge.

Firehouse: The recall was stopped. People went home and you went 24 hours on/24 hours off?

Norman: The first few days it was continuous duty and guys would take breaks whenever they could. I probably worked about 30 hours straight the first day and went back, took about three hours off, came back and did another 24, 25 hours-plus. By the Friday when they made me the search manager, all our SOC units were committed there. Their personnel were committed and their apparatus in many cases being destroyed, we didn't have a place for them to go anyway. We started getting the spare rigs back in service and we started getting the units rotated out. Of course, with the losses that we had suffered in the SOC units - we lost 94 people out of Special Operations.

We had a lot of concern about how are we going to man the units. We had units where two platoons were wiped out, so the question was where are we going to get the people from to man these units. Tommy Richardson and the staff worked out a schedule where we looked at it. We lost almost 30% of our personnel, but that left us with enough to do a three-platoon system. We lost one-quarter of our personnel. We could put the other three-quarters back in as three shifts instead of four and keep us operational.

By the second Sunday, the 23rd, we were still doing 24 on and 24 off. By the 23rd, we were looking to go into the three-group chart that we're in now. We'll be returning back to our 25-group chart. It took us a long time to rebuild. We had four classes of people through the hazmat tech and rescue technician school.

Firehouse: Now, you're filling the officer ranks?

Norman: Yes. We've had plenty of officers come in. We've had a lot of people promoted out of the system who have come back to help us after the attack. Some of the people again had to be trained. We're still rebuilding. It's going to take a long time to get us back where we were before. I used to tell guys it takes two years to turn an experienced firefighter into a rescue firefighter, so this isn't going to happen overnight.

But the training that they're getting is certainly going to be helpful. They're very highly motivated people. The guys who are coming in here, they want to do the right thing.

Firehouse: You had meetings several times a day at the Duane Street command post. Can you tell me who attended those meetings and what was discussed?

Norman: The 5 o'clock meeting in the evening was the planning meeting. What we did there was reviewed the operations that had occurred up to that point and then planned the actions for the next day's tour. Overnight, the incident management staff wrote up the planning process meetings of the planning notes and developed the action plan for the coming tour.

Seven o'clock the next morning, we'd brief everybody on the actions for the day. After the 7 o'clock meeting, usually by 8:30, we had a safety meeting. The 5 o'clock meeting, the planning meeting, involved just a few key organizations, the fire department, DDC (Department of Design and Construction), the Port Authority, police department, National Guard. The health department I don't think was involved at that point. Certainly the FEMA incident support team was involved. And that was a problem because FEMA representative Fred Endrikat was also supposed to be at another meeting, a FEMA IST (Incident Support Team) meeting, basically the same times each day just because the planning process works at the end of each shift and at the beginning of each shift so that was a little bit of a problem. We needed more help. The next morning, the 7 o'clock meeting was for everybody. Every agency that was involved had a representative there.

Firehouse: How many people would you say would be at that meeting?

Norman: Fifty. Usually one from each organization except for the key players. The Port Authority had several reps. Port Authority police had one or two reps. NYPD had two or three reps. The fire department obviously had a large staff. The 8:30 or 9 o'clock safety meeting was representatives from the contractors and involved directly DDC, the Port Authority, the fire department, discussing specific safety issues. Then there were the myriad meetings throughout the day for specific events or purposes.

Firehouse: When you needed equipment or supplies, was it delivered to the scene?

Norman: OEM was the clearinghouse for requesting resources. Some of the resources that we had in-house we handled ourselves. The Technical Services Division under Robin Mundy Sutton did a terrific job of delivering stocks of expendables and tools and anything that they had in-house and some of the stuff that we had purchased contracts with vendors they were able to bring in. A lot of vendors pulled the old softshoe on us, gave us the fast one - they brought in truckloads of tools and equipment and said here, this is for you guys, this is a donation.

Firehouse: Then they turned around?

Norman: And two and three months later we were getting bills from them. That upset me greatly. Like I say, most of the purchasing was done through OEM. We also had great resource later on into the incident after a couple of weeks into the incident, the federal government brought in these interagency incident management teams, basically wildland firefighting logistics teams. The first one was from the southwest region, New Mexico and Arizona, and they were terrific. These are people who have a lot of experience running these campaign-type operations which we never do. If we have a fire that goes beyond one shift, something's wrong, so we don't do this. We didn't require relief. We provided our own relief. We didn't require a large quantity of tools or equipment. This was very different for us. The incident management team took over our logistics operation, handling it, setting it up for us, maintaining inventory controls and tracking. They were an excellent resource.

As a matter of fact, I took a picture from the command post. We had Cruthers and (Deputy Chief Peter) Hayden and (Deputy Chief) Charlie Blaich. Blaich is huddled up with the guy from the U.S. Park Service and another guy from the IMT (Incident Management Team) from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I had to take the picture. I'm going to use it in the chief's command course because if you had told anybody on September 10th that you would have people from the U.S. Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service helping us run an incident this heavily involved in our command structure, everybody would have said you're out of your mind, it could never happen. And here they were and they did a great job.

Firehouse: As things sort of got back to normal, did they have 100 guys at the scene every day?

Norman: Originally, we had about 225 people at the site each day.

Firehouse: Was that a day tour or 24-hour tour?

Norman: Twenty-four, around each shift.

Firehouse: So a day and a night shift?

Norman: Day and a night shift. Initially actually, it was working on eight-hour rotations, I believe. Then it went to a 12-hour tour.

Firehouse: Is that when they were reporting to Shea Stadium (in Queens)?

Norman: Yes.

Firehouse: OK, we're at 225 a day each shift, eight-hour rotation into 12 hours. The guys reported to Shea Stadium. They were on buses. They were outfitted and then they went down there. Later, it was reduced?

Norman: To about 100. The commitment has been that it this continues as long as we need them. Certainly, as the work site was shrinking, we didn't need that many people. Buildings 4 and 5 were cleared. They were searched. They were down to the ground level. There was nothing to be done in those sites. Six was almost to that stage and all the accessible areas were searched.

The commitment has been that we're going to try to get every last body. When the thing is down to the ground level, that's when our last commitment will end. But we may only have an engine for the last month or thereabouts. When we're not digging through heavy steel, when there's no need for any specialized equipment, we're not going to have it there.

Firehouse: I heard they found Ladder 4?

Norman: I saw some TV footage of it down in the fourth subbasement covered by the pedestrian bridge between Banker's Trust and the concourse, on the south side, right at the south edge of the slurry wall.

Firehouse: That would be right by the Engine 10 and Ladder 10 quarters?

Norman: Very close to 10 and 10, just actually west of 10 and 10, about 100 yards. We're digging throughout the entire area. I mean because of the extensive engineering that has to go into it. The thing has to be excavated relatively evenly so that the foundation walls don't cave in. As the debris is removed all the way down, there's tremendous hydraulic pressure behind that wall pushing in. As a matter of fact, one of the fellows told me that as they drilled a hole in to sink one of the tie rods and they pulled the drill bit out, water came squirting out and everybody looked at it kind of nervously and it's routine, we're going to stick a rod in there and anchor it into the bedrock and that will hold the wall in place, but there is that tremendous pressure. You can't just excavate in one particular area until you get to the bottom. We have to go down and tie the wall back in stages as it goes.

There's an awful lot of investigation still to be done. I mean the department has started it. They've started interviewing everybody who was on the scene prior to the collapse trying to gain insights, trying to record for investigation as well as for historic documentation purposes. I mean the investigation isn't aimed at Monday-morning quarterbacking. From what I can see, it's aimed at gaining lessons learned and preventing it from happening again if, God forbid, anything similar ever happened. I was told yesterday by Chief (of Operations Sal) Cassano that there will be a fact-finding commission established. He has six people under Chief Meyers who will be doing an analysis of what happened.

Firehouse: What about the FEMA teams? Will a lot of things be looked at in that part of the operations?

Norman: Yes. Right after each deployment, each of the teams is asked to submit a list of comments or items for discussion about what happened. They're given to the FEMA staff who then collates them. And in list form they're discussed first by the Incident Support Team. And then there's a task force leaders meeting, again, for those people to sit down and discuss them.

Firehouse: Were there any tools that you saw that worked particularly well?

Norman: We had a Holmatro hand-powered combination jaws and shear which we used for cutting rebar, cutting the tubular steel, cutting cable. That seemed to work well because of the places that we had to go with it. It was light enough and portable and it had enough power to do a lot of good. I went through battery-powered sawzalls - I probably saw 50 or 100 of them abandoned up on top of the north tower when we evacuated people off of there and fire ended up coming up and burning them up. We burned up 100 sawzalls, but they were invaluable.

One of the things that we talked about with Tech Services is creating mobile tool cache similar to what we have in place down at the Trade Center now. We have a van that is stocked with batteries, batteries on charge, disposables, the blades, extra sawzalls. At a scaffold collapse and again at the plane crash in Rockaway, that van proved its worth where we could quickly get a stock delivered to the scene. That's something that we're definitely working on.