We continue to present the extraordinary stories of those FDNY firefighters who were on the scene and operating in different areas before, during and after the collapse of the World Trade Center's 110-story twin towers following the terrorist attack on 9/11. The interviews were conducted by Harvey...
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Then the second tower came down, and we got another shotgun of smoke through the tunnel. More smoke was coming over and hitting us on the Brooklyn side. Chief Coyne said to 102 Truck, Phil Sirvino was the lieutenant in the truck there, he told them to walk through the northbound tube, which is the right tube, to Manhattan and see if he can find out what was going on. So he took his group of guys and I watched them because I was standing right at the tolls. I saw them disappear into the smoke. Then Chief Coyne said to everybody on the trucks, we're all heading out. He didn't even wait for orders from Brooklyn. He just said we're going to take the Brooklyn Bridge over to Manhattan, come down from the north end of Lower Manhattan.
So 281 Engine was the first one in the line of engines. Everybody else was lined up behind them. I knew Patty Ward was the lieutenant on 281 and I told him, look Patty, I'm going to join you guys, they're a four-man engine. As we were pulling out, Chief Coyne came over to me and said Ciro, get off the truck, I need you to stay here. You're staying here, you're acting battalion chief as of right now, you're the acting 32 Battalion chief because the 32 had already gone to Lower Manhattan on the initial second or third alarm. He said I need you to coordinate whatever other units come into this area. He said you're going to have a couple of units left with you over here, we're all taking off over the Brooklyn Bridge. So he ordered me to stay there. He gave me a radio. From that point, I said my first priority was to find out what happened to 102 Truck. I went to the tunnel with my radio and I started trying to call into the tunnel, but nobody was answering.
Now I had reports over the radio that we had a possible lean-to collapse of the towers, that part of it had fallen on the entrance of tunnels, that there was a collapse at the entrance of the tunnel. I could hear it over the Brooklyn radio. I heard bomb threats, that there were unconfirmed reports of bomb detonations in the tunnel, that there were bombs undetonated that were still in the tunnels. So I was wondering what happened to those guys from 102. I couldn't contact them. I even walked about a quarter of a mile into the tunnel. I still couldn't contact anybody.
Now I was thinking the worst had happened to those guys. I went back to my aide at the car and there was a bunch of guys there. I didn't have the heart to order another company into the tunnel. I couldn't deal with the fact that if I had ordered a company into the tunnel and they got killed because something blew up.
I just said look, I've got to walk the tunnel. I said I need some volunteers, does anybody want to volunteer to walk the tunnel? I said I can't tell you what we're going to run into, I don't know what we're going to find, but we've got to find 102. Three guys from 101 Truck, Albert Nocella, Jerry Hall and Eric Knudsen, volunteered right away. They had no idea that their guys were dead already.
We masked up and I told them to grab whatever tools they could get, irons, hooks, whatever and we walked down the southbound tube, which is the left tube. We were about a half-mile in and the smoke was still going over our heads. I saw a few cops coming out of the tunnel and I had unconfirmed reports from them that the tunnel might be open. I said can you confirm that? Nobody could confirm it positively, so I said all right and we just kept walking. A SWAT-type van came in with three cops inside. I stopped the van. I said look, we got to join you guys, I'm going to commandeer this van now. The driver had no problem with it.
I had everybody roll up the windows in the van. I said I want everybody's masks on and I want their facepieces in the standby position. The cops had their masks too, even though they didn't have gear with them. As we went about another half-mile, we started to hit heavy smoke and it eventually banked down to the floor. The driver couldn't see where he was going. I said, put the high beams on and you could barely see the double yellow line in the middle. I said get in the center and just follow the line. We were going about five miles an hour and just following the middle line to the street of the tunnel.
I turned around and told the guys that if we start running out of air in the truck, put your masks on, but try to hold out as long as you can. I said if we run into a wall of rubble, we would try to back up, but if we couldn't back out or turn around, we were all going to get out and form a chain gang up on the catwalk and everybody was just going to follow each other and get out of the tunnel in that way. I can't tell you what I was feeling at that point. Just blinding smoke, we couldn't see and I was leading three of my guys and three cops. We ran into another cop who was walking through the smoke. We took him on the rig with us.