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In the worst terrorist attack to strike U.S. soil, hijackers crashed three planes into landmark buildings on Sept. 11, 2001. Two of the jets crashed minutes apart in lower Manhattan. Over 5,000 people were missing and presumed dead at New York's twin 110-story World Trade Center. Following the collapse of both 1,350-foot-high towers, 350 members of all ranks from the FDNY were unaccounted for. Numerous police officers from the New York Police Department and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were also missing. At the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, 187 people were presumed dead. A fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania when doomed passengers reportedly thwarted an attempt by terrorists to attack yet another landmark.
I was in my car enroute to Firehouse® Magazine when I heard a reporter in a traffic helicopter say he could see a tremendous cloud of smoke rising from the area of the World Trade Center. I switched my FDNY pager to the Manhattan frequency. Seconds after the first hijacked jet crashed into 2 World Trade Center, I heard Engine 10 - located across the street - request a second alarm and then a third alarm. I listened as Chief of Department Peter Ganci, on his way to the scene with Chief of Operations Daniel Nigro, requested the assignment to be upgraded to five alarms. Within minutes, the second jet crashed into the other 110-story building. On the radio, Battalion Chief Ray Downey of Rescue Services suggested a separate five-alarm assignment to the second high-rise, and Chief Ganci agreed. A third five-alarm assignment was requested.
I continued listening as numerous companies began to stage around the city. A second-alarm assignment and then a third alarm were being directed to the scene. An unheard-of order was given - recall every off-duty firefighter and officer in the department and have them report to their firehouses. Many reports of people trapped on the upper floors of both towers were being received by fire alarm dispatchers and relayed to the fire scene. Numerous fire companies radioed that they were arriving and making their way upstairs in both 110-story buildings. Suddenly, the second building to be attacked collapsed because of the structural damage and the intense fire being fed by the thousands of pounds of jet fuel. A pancake collapse caused tons of steel and concrete to crash to the ground. Firefighters scrambled to safety, others not so lucky were caught in the devastation. A few minutes later, the other tower fell. Dozens of fire apparatus, ambulances, chiefs' vehicles, special units and police cars were destroyed, crushed or on fire. The cloud of smoke and dust obscured most of lower Manhattan.
Chief Ganci and First Deputy Commissioner William Feehan were killed, and many, many friends and acquaintances are missing. I had known Chief Ganci since 1978. Commissioner Feehan wrote about a seven-alarm high-rise fire in Firehouse® and spoke at Firehouse Expo about a plane crash at LaGuardia Airport. Chief Downey, who is still missing as I write this, spoke at numerous Firehouse Expo seminars and was instrumental in having FDNY Chief of Department Tony Fusco present a review of the first World Trade Center incident in Baltimore. Chief Downey also helped with the special Expo presentation we featured with Chief Gary Marrs following the Oklahoma City bombing.
On page 40 we present a preliminary report on what transpired on Sept. 11. We will work to bring you an extensive report about the incidents in a future issue.
"The signal 5-5-5-5 has been transmitted. It is with regret that announcement is made of the death of …" This is how the FDNY notifies its members of a line-of-duty death. One line-of-duty death is enough to shake any fire department. This is the worst tragedy to strike the FDNY in its 136-year history. After Sept. 11, 2001, the entire FDNY, the American fire service, the entire country and most of the world has been hurt. In a special ceremony on Sept. 16, New York Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen promoted 168 officers to fill the void left in the department's leadership so the FDNY can continue to serve and protect the citizens of New York. One official called it similar to battlefield promotions. Little did anyone know that the words written on the Fireman's Monument on the West Side of Manhattan so many years before would mean so much: