WTC: This Is Their Story - Part I

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 Eisner.

Deputy Chief Nick Visconti Division 14
34 years

Firehouse: Please describe your experiences on Sept. 11.

Visconti: I was in my car. I was listening to the traffic reports because I was going to Queens. I was doing primary work for the UFOA (Uniformed Fire Officers Association) and I heard the first radio report, there's a lot of smoke around the World Trade Center. They said it's awful black and it's getting worse. Now the news media must have started getting calls and they broke back in with a story that a plane just hit the World Trade Center. Because the weather was clear, I thought it must have been some nitwit buzzing the tower, and that he lost control of the aircraft and crashed into the tower.

I was listening to all these things and everybody's estimating what's going on and it's tough to listen to that. They had a guy who said he's a pilot and he's an expert, and he saw the plane hit and it was a small two- engine plane. I said somebody ran into the trade center by accident? They're interviewing another woman who said, I saw the plane and no, it was a very big plane and oh, my God the plane hit the tower. So they said, yeah, we know that. She says no, no, no, another plane hit the tower. They asked if she was sure. She said, I'm telling you, another plane hit the second tower.

I was saying to myself, oh, my God, I can't believe this. I kept listening to the reports. When I got to the Whitestone Bridge, I could see that both towers were burning, burning fiercely. Cars were slowing down and stopping. When I got onto the other side of the Whitestone Bridge, I actually pulled over where the Whitestone Expressway meets the Grand Central Parkway. A bunch of cars were stopped. I looked at these towers and I thought to myself this is the biggest fire in the fire department's history, I've got to go there.

I got back in the car and drove to the 14th Division, which was not five minutes away. I ran upstairs. Everybody was watching the television. They were asking me, Chief, Chief, do you know what's going on? Yeah. I said, I'm getting my gear, I want a vehicle and if any of you guys want to come down with me, get your stuff. A couple of the off-duty aides said yeah, we'll go down with you.

I started getting dressed and the office manager said there's a phone call, they're looking for any off-duty deputy chiefs. I picked up the phone. I was told, Nick, we need you, we have a recall in, we need a staging area set up at Shea Stadium (in Queens). I said, I want to go down to the fire, but I was told, we need the staging area, we've got guys coming in, we need somebody to get control of them.

We got into the van and went over to Shea Stadium. All we had were pads and pencils and papers. We didn't have any tables. We didn't have anything. Thank God the weather was good because we were able to set up right in the parking lot, right outside the police department office. The P.D. has a constant presence at Shea Stadium. They gave us access to a phone - we had been using cell phones.

People started showing up, firefighters with bunker gear, firefighters with tools, firefighters with masks. They must have stopped at their firehouses. They just kept filling the parking lot and pretty soon we were going to lose control. So we set up some pads on a table and we told the guys to write their names on a pad just to record that they were there, and we started taking a list of names.

At that point, we were still getting phone calls. Now, I've got these guys here, what do you want me to do with them? They told me that they have buses on the way, and when they arrive, load up the buses and we'll get instructions.

As they're coming in, I decide that I can't just start throwing people into a bus until it's full. We told the company officers to each take five guys, make sure you know them, write their names down on a piece of paper, and we started designating the teams as 1401, 1402, because it was the 14th Division. And we're waiting for the buses, waiting for the buses. It seemed like forever.

Five buses showed up and I started assigning people to get on the buses. I really wanted to go down to the fire. I turned to the battalion chiefs, all the guys from the 14th Division. I said listen, you've got it. I said I'm going to jump in one of the buses, I'm going to go down with these guys because they've got to have somebody with them.

I went to get my gear just as the buses were starting to pull out. Now I'm thinking, oh, my God, I'm going to miss the buses, then lo and behold, a cop pulls up in his own private car, with the red light on the dashboard, and he says, Chief, do you want to go down with me? I jumped in his car. One of my aides jumped in the back seat and he took off, trying to catch up to the buses.

We got separated from the buses because of the traffic they're pushing off the highways. The highways were clear. We eventually made our way down to the ramp. I was told to get the five buses, we'll give you instructions. The instructions they gave me were to proceed over the Triboro Bridge, across 125th Street to the West Side Highway. That way is clear, take your buses down. So that's what we did.

We got to West Street and Canal and there were a lot of vehicles there, all kinds of vehicles all over the place. A police officer drove us as close as he could get. We jumped out and started walking down. As I'm walking down, there were other guys walking down. There were apparatus and police cars and all kinds of vehicles.

We were threading our way through and I got to the bridge, that bridge near Stuyvesant High School, and (Battalion Chief) Joe Nardone was there. Joe Nardone had the staging area. I walked up to Joe and I said, look, I've got five busloads of guys. He said, Nick, we're holding everybody here, but they want the chiefs down at the command post. So I handed him a piece of paper. I said here's the companies or the teams we set up. I gave him a list of all the companies. I said if you want a team or you want teams, just call out 1401, they know who they are, I told them to keep their guys together, I'm going to go down.

So I walked down. And I asked him Joe, what's going on, do you know what's going on. He said, I don't know, I don't think it's good, I know it's not good. (Assistant Chiefs) Frank Cruthers (citywide tour commander) and Mike Butler were there too. I asked Frank what he wanted to do. I also asked him, Frank, and I don't remember my exact words, but basically I wanted to know if anybody had gotten killed. And he said, it's bad. We don't know where (Chief of Department) Pete (Ganci) is. We don't know where (Special Operations Command Chief) Ray Downey is. We don't know where anybody is. He said (Assistant Chief) Frank Fellini's got the operations post at West and Vesey, I want you to go down there and report in to him.

I walked down to West and Vesey and Frank was there. I vaguely remember something being on the ground, maybe a command post. And a lot of people were around the command post and a lot of firefighters were right on Vesey and West all standing there.

I got to Fellini and I said, Frank, what's going on? He said, we think Pete is dead, we think he got killed. All I could say is oh, my God and I start to think of names and I might have even mentioned a couple of names, but I don't remember the answers I got, but I was thinking about (Deputy Chief) Al Turi and the other people that I expected to be there. I knew (Deputy Chief) Pat McNally (of Division 14) had responded down there. I didn't see Pat right away. I was thinking that if the 3rd Division was there, possibly (Deputy Chief) Tommy Galvin was down there.

He said to me, 6 Truck is trapped. They transmitted a Mayday, find out where they are, you take care of that. At that point, I realized I hadn't taken a radio. There was a company officer there. I asked him for his radio, and he gave it to me.

I got on the radio and for lack of better terminology I said, Operations to Ladder 6, Operations to Ladder 6 and (Captain) Jay (Jonas) replied. And I don't think it was with the very first transmission that I recognized his voice and I said what's your location, we need to know your location. And he was very clear, very calm. He said, Tower 1, Stairwell B.

Now there were other chief officers around there and we didn't have any teams set up or anything, but I turned around and I said, look, we've got to try and find out how to get to them. So I sent a couple of guys over to the pedestrian walkway to take a look. As this is going on, I was talking to him. I said. OK, tell me, explain to me where you are, we need to know where you are. He said, I'm in Tower 1, Stairwell B.

Now, there were radio transmissions going on all the time, people talking to people. And I think about it now and I think about how nuts that was, but I said everybody stand by unless urgent, like there could be nothing else urgent going on. Everybody stand by unless urgent.

I got him. I said, OK, Jay, now explain to me how to get to your location, you've got to tell me how to get there. He said, you go into the main entrance of Tower 1. I swear, it was like everybody looked at each other - what is it, what is it, ask him where? I said, hold on, hold on, OK, Jay, all right, after you go through the main entrance, what do you do? He said, you go through the glass doors, very matter-of-factly, you go through the glass doors. What then? Go to Stairway B. Explain to me how to get there. And I didn't hear him getting short or anything like that, but I could hear a little frustration in his voice. At some point during this conversation, somebody said where is Tower 1? I thought to myself, if anything tells him that this is more serious than he thinks, this is going to tell him, but he didn't even realize at the time. I said, OK, Jay, we're going to get to you, hold on, just let me get people moving. I turned around and I picked out five officers. I said to them, pick out five guys, get their names, record them here at the command post and then I'm going to give you jobs, and I did.

I told one group to go down a side entrance on Vesey Street down into the basement, the lower level of Building 6. Then I gave other people instructions to get up on the mezzanine of building 6.

Then I sent some people over to examine the west pedestrian walkway to see if they could get through. Then I'm not sure if anybody went up to the Financial Center, but I'm pretty sure I said, keep going west until you can get around this thing.

I got these people moving. I just couldn't let Jay think that we forgot about him.

I got on the radio and I said, look, I need to know what your status is. Are you pinned, are you pinned under the debris? No, we're not pinned, we're in the stairwell. I said OK. Do you have any smoke there? No, no smoke. Do you have any fire? No fire. I said, all right, is anybody injured, are any of your people injured? He said, no, my people seem to be fine, but there's a chief below us, we can't get to him and he's gravely injured. I could hear in his voice the 'I-can't-do-anything-for-him.' I could hear the frustration.

So now I was in contact with Jay. I found out what kind of shape he was in and I kept getting reports back from people that we're not there yet, we're working our way, there's a collapsed area in 6. I'm standing not too far from Frank Fellini. He says, Nick, I'm really worried about this building. We were all worried because there was a lot of fire in it and we were concerned about the building collapsing. We weren't sure that it was stable enough that it wasn't going to collapse.

Firehouse: Which building was that?

Visconti: Building 6. So I had put a battalion chief with each of the groups that went into 6. I kept trying to talk to him, walking over there, walking down a little bit into the ramp they went down, the door they went down into and how are you doing? You know we're trying, we can't find it.

I don't know how long this was going on, but I remember standing there looking over at building 7 and realizing that a big chunk of the lower floors had been taken out on the Vesey Street side. I looked up at the building and I saw smoke in it, but I really didn't see any fire at that time.

I kept walking back and forth. I walked over to where Rescue 1's rig was underneath the bridge and over to that area. There were people trying to make access. They were trying to search. What I didn't mention when I was walking down West Street, all the paper and debris in the street. I said what the hell is this from, but there was a tremendous amount of papers. When you walked you were kicking papers and checks and there was dust, real thick dust all over the place, and everybody was covered. Anybody that was there when the collapses occurred was covered in this dust, so I must have looked relatively clean.

I didn't realize that there were people on the other side, on the Church Street side, who had people trying to get to Jay, that there were so many other people involved in this. I might have talked to a couple of people to tell them we were trying to get to Ladder 6. I know that during my transmissions to Jay I stopped calling him, Ladder 6, Jay, Jay, look, I'm sorry but I got to repeat this because there was a lot of traffic. I asked him how he was doing. He said, we just made contact with 43 Truck, 43 Truck is here, we're going to try to get out, we'll let you know.

Now I gave him a few minutes, then I got back to him. I said, what's your status? He said we're getting out, we're going to walk out of here, they're helping us. I told Frank Fellini, I think they're getting him out of there. He says, OK, make sure and then let me know. So I got back to Jay. I said, Jay, I've got to ask you again, are you definitely going to get out of there, is everybody going to be able to get out of there? Yeah, we're going to be able to get out. I said OK.

Frank Fellini said, get those people out of 6. So now with the radio we were walking over to the different locations, starting to get the people out, but we were very concerned about it collapsing. I climbed up to the mezzanine. I wanted to see what it was like. I climbed in the window. I got in as far as the guys who were there. They were outside on a sort of terrace that was around it. I kept telling them come on guys, we're out of here. No, no, we've got to get to these guys. I said they're taken care of, come on, get your guys out, get your guys out, we're concerned about this building.

That took a few minutes and then we climbed down the ladder and I got back to Frank Fellini. As I'm standing there, it must have been 20 minutes, a half hour maybe, I'm not sure, Richie Picciotto shows up. I saw him coming like from West Street, from the World Financial Center. I was looking at the buildings. He came from my right and he grabbed me. He was covered with all this stuff and he said, Nick, Nick, you've got to help Jay, you've got to help Jay, he's trapped in the stairwell. I said to him, Richie, I know, I just talked to him, he's OK, they're getting him out. No, no, no, he needs help, he needs help, you've got to help him, you've got to help him.

I said, hold on, Richie, and I grabbed onto him. I got on the radio and I said Jay, I've got to ask you again, are you out of the stairwell? Yeah, I'm out. Are you out? He said, we're walking out, we're helping a woman out. He said, we're walking out of this place. I said. OK, do you need any other help? No, I think we're good. I said all right. A couple of minutes later, I said to Frank, 6 is taken care of, what do you want me to do? He said to me, get a group together, go on the other side of this walkway and find Pete (Ganci). Find Pete.

So I turned around and I did it again. I picked out officers. I said get five guys, report to the command post and then come with me. As I was walking around there, waiting for these guys to get squared away, I walked around on the side of an apparatus and I heard either there's my buddy or there's my sweetheart or something like that. It was Al Turi and he was sitting on this rig, I think, or he was sitting on something. I remember him sitting down and I was shocked to see him because I thought that he hadn't made it.

I couldn't believe it. He was sitting there and we started hugging and crying and stuff, and he asked me, what are you doing? I said, Frank Fellini just told me to go find Pete. And Al said, you've got to find him, you've got to find him. He grabbed me by the shoulders and I said, OK, we'll get him, we're going to go. I had no idea what was going on over there. I had no clue, so we got the guys and I walked back to Fellini. I said, I've got these guys, but I'm figuring it had to be by the command post, if there was a command post. I said, was there a command post outside? He said yeah. He said, we've got a guy here who might know where it is. He was a fireman and I don't even know who he was. I said to him, do you know where the command post was? He said yeah. I said, how do we get to it? Then somebody said we can go through the Winter Garden.

We started walking. It was me and, I don't know, 30 guys, 40 guys maybe. We walked with this fireman up Vesey to the side entrance. We walked through the plaza of the Winter Garden and there were two escalators there. For some reason, we went up the escalators. We looked in the hallways. We didn't think we could get out to West Street, so we went up to the escalators and we walked around.

Lo and behold, there was a staircase down to where all these windows were broken out. We walked through over the windowsill and we were there. We were right in front of where World Trade Center 1 was, where this big pile of rubble was. The pedestrian walkway was on our left and I couldn't believe the amount of steel lying there. I was dumbfounded at how much there was and how it was like nothing I had ever seen, piles of it sticking out, little depressions, big, unbelievable.

I said. OK, where was the command post? And he looked around. He goes, I don't know. He was a little confused and I could understand because I don't think he had seen what this looked like since he escaped. And he turned around and he said, oh, it was over here, I think it was over here. I didn't know the story at this point, but there were two garage doors there. And he said, yeah, we were here, then when the first collapse occurred, we ran down there, then everybody came out.

So I asked him, if Tower 2 collapsed and they came out, did you see where Ganci went? He said, no, I don't know where they went. I was standing there, saying that they didn't go that way, they had to go down toward 2. Guys were just starting to poke around and look and this went on for a few minutes, and I said, wait a minute, hold on, hold on, we've got to do something here, let's get in a line and we'll start walking. It was very slow and we actually started from where the command post was south. We had this line of guys that started walking. Almost immediately, we found where we could see 34 Engine and a couple of guys went over there. The first guy down said, hey, I've got a couple of guys down here, I've got a couple of guys. To be very honest with you, when he first said that, I was praying that they were alive. I said are they alive, are they alive? And everybody went running over and everybody collapsed on that area, and he said, no, no, no, no, they're not. A couple of minutes passed by, then I said, look, can we get them out? They answered, it's going to take time. I said, OK, see what you can do.

I turned to everybody else. I said we're looking for live people, guys, we're looking for live people, we can't stop here. We'll get a couple of guys for this, but spread out, we're looking for live people. So guys started looking around. We started moving and to me it felt like maybe 20 minutes or so, somebody said, I've got somebody, he's got shoes on. So we went. Everybody again collapsed on the area. We saw these shoes and work-duty pants, I think. Well, they were blue pants. And somebody said, I think it's Chief Ganci. I thought to myself, oh, no. They were picking the stuff off of him and sure enough, it was Chief of Department Ganci.

Did you ever see that picture? It's all of us, Al Turi, me, Richie Blatus, guys from 124 with our helmets off and you can't see him, but Pete is there on the Stokes. We had a moment of silence before we took him out. I said everybody take off your helmet and had a moment of silence. We didn't say a prayer or anything like that. Everybody was blessing themselves though and Al walked him out.

So now I told the guys, come on guys, come on, we're going to find people here, we've got people trapped, we're got to find live people, get moving, spread out. And bang, 15 feet away, 25 feet away tops, we found (First Deputy) Commissioner (William) Feehan. I got on the radio. I said, we found Commissioner Feehan. And we did the same thing, had a moment of silence, put him in the Stokes and we took him out.

At that point, again we told the guys to spread out. We started getting hits all over the place, I think there's somebody here, I think there's somebody there. And we realized that we're not getting these people out. The steel was just incredible and the sheet metal was all over the place. And it wasn't just flat. We had to walk around this mound of stuff to get to where some of these places were. The thing started to really spread out. More guys were coming in and at some point they were asking me, do you need more people, do you need more people? Yeah, keep sending people. And we just had groups of people out there searching and guys were looking for voids.

I saw pictures later on that gave me the impression that all the steel was just pointed that way. As a matter of fact, the last I saw the picture I said, yeah, every time I walk to where Tower 1 was or Tower 2, there's a piece of steel a couple of pieces of steel like that made like a platform. Guys were standing on that, it's very visible. You had to walk from beam to beam to beam as opposed to if you were going from the Winter Garden toward Tower 2, you could walk on one or two or three beams.

Everybody was searching those voids and we realized that we had to do something. We had to mark the locations. Some guys had rags, I guess, with paint. It was early and it took a while to get that stuff, but we started painting these orange arrows on the beams, pointing down where we found somebody and couldn't get to them. We were going along and guys were coming in from all over the place. I remember a lot of people down on the right- hand side toward Liberty Street, a lot of people were coming in from there. This went on for I don't know how long.

Now, World Trade Center 7 was burning and I was thinking to myself, how come they're not trying to put this fire out? I didn't realize how much they had because my view was obstructed. All I could see was the upper floor. At some point, Frank Fellini said, now we've got hundreds of guys out there, hundreds and hundreds, and that's on the West Street side alone. He said to me, Nick, you've got to get those people out of there. I thought to myself, out of where? Frank, what do you want, Chief? He answered, 7 World Trade Center, imminent collapse, we've got to get those people out of there.

I was looking at the mass of people out there. There was no unit identification. I felt that I was losing control over this thing to begin with and now he was telling me to get them out of there. I was thinking, how the hell am I going to do this? There were a couple of chiefs out there who I knew and I called them individually. I said to them, listen, start backing those people out, we need them back up to the command post. While this was going on, I saw individual company officers. I was whistling, Captain, bring your guys this way.

I was getting some resistance. The common thing was, hey, we've still got people here, we don't want to leave. I explained to them that we were worried about 7, that it was going to come down and we didn't want to get anybody trapped in the collapse. One comment was, oh, that building is never coming down, that didn't get hit by a plane, why isn't somebody in there putting the fire out? A lot of comments, a bit of resistance, understandable resistance.

Now, it got to the point where I had some people moving, but there was still a tremendous number of people who were not moving. Here's what I decided to do - there was a company there and I grabbed the officer. I said, I need you and your guys. There was a guy, Danny Messina from the 14th Division, with me the whole day and I sent him out as a runner. I said OK, go out, see that group over there, grab them, get somebody's whose in charge, get one of the bosses, tell them we're backing out of here. I sent him to these different places and I don't know how long it took, 40 minutes, half an hour, an hour, I don't know, but we started to get them out.

As I was getting them out, they were asking, where do you want us to go? Then somebody tipped me off, tell them to go to the North Cove Marina, that's where the water was, tell them that go out that way. I said there's a North Cove Marina and I think they had already started setting up water and triage and stuff, so we sent them out that way and it took a while. There were individual stragglers and everybody was walking this way and then some guy would walk in, we'd have to get to him.

I got a chief. I said, stand here, if you see anybody out there, get them back. I had to get the guys away from the north pedestrian walkway. There were a lot of people out there.

I walked out and I got to Vesey and West, where I reported to Frank. He said, we're moving the command post over this way, that building's coming down. At this point, the fire was going virtually on every floor, heavy fire and smoke that really wasn't bothering us when we were searching because it was being pushed southeast and we were a little bit west of that. I remember standing just where West and Vesey start to rise toward the entrance we were using in the World Financial Center. There were a couple of guys standing with me and a couple of guys right at the intersection, and we were trying to back them up - and here goes 7. It started to come down and now people were starting to run.

I said, that building is not coming this way, you could see where it was going, but I was concerned about debris. I got over near a vehicle, I don't know what kind of vehicle. I sheltered in there a little bit and this dust cloud of debris came up and next thing you know, silence. Guys were all right. Nobody was running, hurt or anything like that. I heard later on that somebody got trapped in the debris of 7, but I don't know.

Firehouse: I was going to ask you about that.

Visconti: I heard this from more than a couple of people that the guy got trapped. Now I don't know that it was on the Vesey street side or if it was on the Church Street side, but I heard that repeatedly. I walk back to Frank Fellini. I said, Frank, I said this is an excellent opportunity for us to get this organized, to regroup. He said OK, tell those people on the North Cove Marina that we're relieving them, we want them to take a blow. I'm pretty sure he assigned somebody back there or he told me to send somebody back there, so I sent somebody back there. I told them just tell them to relax, to take a blow.

Firehouse: Five o'clock is when Tower 7 came down.

Visconti: Five or 5:30. I was saying it's good to know who's here, but there's no imminent collapse, there's nothing hanging over us. It's more stable. I said OK, pick out six or seven guys and walk over this way, we'll pick up some, we'll get over there.

And I did the same thing when we got back there, got them lined up. We started searching there and I think I used 105 or another apparatus that I saw. I started in that place, spread out. I gave up hopes of forming a straight line because of the terrain. I said, just start walking and let's start searching and see if we can find anybody. And again, we found people in apparatus, people under apparatus. They were all dead. And that's how the rest of the day went until it started getting dark and then we had to get lights.

During the middle of the day, it was evident that we needed water, so we kept sending people out to get some water. Guys were coming back with cases of water. I don't even know where they got the water, but cases and cases of water, bottled water, and they were handing them out. As a matter of fact, I remember that Danny Messina was standing next to me with a couple of bottles of water in one pocket, a bottle of water in his hand and he was handing me one and following me all over the place.

I realized that we needed a lot of stuff. We were finding people. We were in the process of getting them out, so I would tell guys. This went on for a couple of days. There would be a company there, I would say, look, we need Stokes baskets, we need water, we need this, go and get something and after you get it here, you leave it here.

We started a storage area for equipment right at the bottom of the stairs before you walked through those windows. We had Stokes there. As a matter of fact, they put them at the top of the stairs, Stokes, water, this, that and the other thing. During the day, I went in and out a couple of times and I came back one time and the company officer said we found a couple of guys. I said, do you know who they are? They weren't sure, but said there were two guys there and one of them was a captain. I said where they were. They said, we didn't have manpower to carry them out so when you walked into that window, there was a corridor to the left, we went through this corridor and there was a room to the right. I don't know if it was a table or desk, but they had the two Stokes stretchers up there.

When we took Commissioner Feehan out, I walked out with him and I brought his helmet to the command post because his helmet was really in good shape. I went back. I walked out. I had walked in and out to the command post several times. I got back there and Frank was saying why don't you guys take a blow, you guys take a rest. Pat McNally's eyes were all swollen. I think I ran into Tommy Galvin, but I had heard he was alive and then Patty said that he wanted to go back to quarters.

So I said all right. I said yeah, I'm going to take a blow. I was soaking wet. At some point, I had walked underneath the AT&T Building, there was some kind of water main break, trying to check something out. I had gotten wet and then just climbing around and the legs were killing me, so we decided to go back. We went back. We showered up, went to bed. Nine o'clock in the morning, three hours, four hours later, we took the car and went back down.