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.

Battalion Chief Mark Ferran Battalion 12, Manhattan
20 years

I was watching TV at home. I saw Tower 1 burning. I called the 12th Battalion and was talking to the aide. In the background, Chiefs Fred Sheffold and Joe Marchbanks yelled out to stay home. I said I wish I were working. I'm never going to say that again.

I reported to work. Several companies were starting to stage at Engine 35. I grabbed a radio and responded with Engine 35 down the West Side Highway. We arrived at Chambers Street. The first building had already collapsed. I told the lieutenant from Engine 35 to remain at staging. I met Chief Mike Keenan from the 49 Battalion. I started down to the command post to see how I could help.

As I passed Murray Street, the north tower started to sink. The antenna went straight down. I ran toward the Hudson River. The dust cloud passed right by. I could eventually see the lights on the rigs flickering on West Street. I reported to Deputy Chief (Pat) McNally, Division 14. He said switch to the command channel. (Battalion) Chief Rich Picciato heard me on the radio, he said he's trapped in the B stairs in the north tower on the fifth floor. He said he was with Ladder 6, they're all right, but you have to come and get us. Don't leave this channel.

I found Ladder 43 and asked them if they were available to do something. They answered yes, so I radioed Picciato that Ladder 43 was on the way. I also told Division 14 that Ladder 43 is looking for him. We were just north of the north pedestrian bridge. The bridge was partially collapsed blocking the street.

We climbed a ladder up to the veranda of building 6, the Customs House. A firefighter was lying dead in a stokes basket. The firefighters were in shock. We were looking for Tower 1. Someone said if we enter this building, through a window, you have to cross over a total collapse. It was like a mountain in front of you. Rich, I radioed, we are in a building on the corner. Picciato had a bullhorn with a siren. I said blow your siren. Did you hear that? No. We thought about going through the parking garage. We couldn't see down the street.

There was a 10-story gash in the side of building 7. The southwest corner was taken out when Tower 1 came down. We went back out to West and Vesey streets and into the Verizon building. We exited the rear to Barclay Street and walked around the rear of building 7. We walked to West Broadway and then to buildings 5 and 6. We met a firefighter from Ladder 18 who said he knew the way. We went down an escalator. Into the concourse level 50 feet in we had to make a right turn and then were able to see all the way to the next escalator.

Firehouse Collection
Firefighters operate among debris. It didn't take them long to realize that heavy construction equipment of grapplers and cranes were needed to lift the heavy steel.

At this location there was a total pancake collapse. I-beams and pieces of steel were through the ceiling of the concourse. We backed out and split up into two groups. We climbed up and across the debris field about 25 feet apart from each other. As we passed 40-foot-long I-beams lying sideways, the smoke and dust increased as the fires below intensified. I called Picciato to blow the siren again. I thought I could faintly hear it in the distance. I said we're coming. Afterwards, he told me it was a big comfort knowing we were on the way.

We met a firefighter from Rescue 2 with a civilian looking for a way out of the plaza area. We had two firefighters lead them out. We finally made it to the east wall of Tower 1. I told Picciato that we were up to the wall, yell out. We heard the yelling. Picciato said yell out, I hear you. One minute later, they were united. Picciato told me there were guys below them. There is a chief trapped downstairs, you're going to need extrication tools and more help.

The firefighters from Ladder 43 entered the stairway and worked on removing those still trapped. I wound up standing alone outside the wall. There were five floors of fire in one of the nearby buildings. I wasn't sure we were going to get back they way we came. It was getting bad. Debris was falling down all over. It was luck that Picciato heard me on the radio. Ladder 43 did the best they could to save people's lives. They were fortunate to get an assignment to get the people out.

FDNY Photo
Battalion Chief, John J. Salka Jr.

Battalion Chief John J. Salka Jr. Battalion 18
22 years

Firehouse: You responded from home?

Salka: Yes, I went to the battalion. And then from the battalion, we went to the division. Everybody was forming up there, breaking into teams, each with an officer and five firemen. We loaded a bus up and got going. We left an officer in charge of the firehouse to get the rest of the guys. We jumped in the spare chief's car. We had (Battalion) Chief (Richard J.) Blatus, myself, Deputy Chief Mike Rappe, two 18th Battalion aides, Steve Calcutti and Jack Shavon, and a driver. We went down the East Side, from the Harlem River to the FDR Drive, then took the FDR down. It was desolate, just emergency vehicles going south, pedestrians running north.

We got off at the Brooklyn Bridge exit, right near City Hall, and that's when we encountered all the dust and the paper and the debris filling the streets. We stopped right outside City Hall, at City Hall Park. We got out of the car there. We sent the division van back and we tried to stay together, then we started walking. We ended up getting some paper masks from an ambulance right there and put them on. We all had radios.

We ended up running into (Deputy) Chief (Tom) Haring, who had some kind of command post starting to be set up there. My brother-in-law was working in 10 Truck that morning, so I was trying to get down that way to see what was going on. I said to Blatus let's try and get down there. I don't recall exactly where we walked, but we walked south, I think down Broadway. Then we made a right and walked past 10 Truck and west on Liberty. We were encountering debris all over the place. It was unbelievable.

Firehouse: What was going on in the other small buildings? Were they on fire?

Salka: There was fire, heavy fire. I remember walking past 10 Truck - 10 and 10 (the shared quarters of Engine Company 10 and Ladder Company 10). It was all just blown out. The doors were blown out. The windows were blown out. You couldn't even really tell it was a firehouse.

We kept walking south. We were trying to just get over that whole terrain. There was a command post. That's really where we were trying to get to. I remember walking down the West Side and 7 World Trade Center was still really going pretty good. Everybody was worrying about it falling over. Even though we were probably way out of range of it, everybody was keeping an eye on that building. We ended up walking under the pedestrian bridge. Rescue 1 was under there, and a couple of other rigs. The bridge was down, collapsed on these rigs. And people were yelling don't go under there, it's unstable. We made our way through there between the rigs. We came out the other side and we encountered (Deputy) Chief (Nick) Visconti, who was on the radio. We heard him.

Firehouse Collection
Engine 206 from Brooklyn and firefighters operate on Church Street in front of a high-rise hotel.

Now, I've got to backtrack because when we were on Liberty Street, I think it was right about when we got to 10 and 10, I heard somebody say Ladder 6 on the radio. I said Ladder 6, that's Jay's company, I wonder if he's working. So I heard his voice. I thought I heard his voice. I got on the radio. I said 18 Battalion to Ladder 6, is that you, Jay? He said yeah, is that you John? I said yeah, so we started talking. And, of course, he was talking to a lot of people, but I got in there and said where are you? I'm in the north tower, we're in the B Stairway, which didn't exist anymore, not in the configuration that we'd recognize it.

We called him a couple of times and said where's your rig, is your rig parked out on what street, were there any other rigs near your rig because we kept making our way closer and closer. Then I could actually see some rigs. There were a load of rigs there that were just either partially crushed or partially buried near that overpass. We asked Jay did you walk straight in from your rig because we couldn't see his rig at all, but he didn't recall that.

He was really, really calm. I remember saying how's the smoke condition, how's the atmosphere in there, is it breathable? He said it's a lot of dust, it's a little tough to breathe, but we're doing all right. And there was no heat. I asked him about fire, is there any fire near there? He said he didn't think so. They could smell something burning, they knew there was a fire nearby, but it wasn't bothering them yet. So many things were happening at once. Anytime you saw anything that looked like it was like a rig or a helmet or something, guys would be digging in that area, so it was just like a million little operations going on there.

Firehouse: You said when they saw a pile or a rig, they were digging around it?

Salka: Yes. Guys were looking through rigs and looking through really everything. Debris was all over the place. We were trying to find our way to Jonas, to 6 Truck, because we were talking to him. Other guys would be talking to him, asking either similar or the same questions, but we were still trying to make our way over there. I remember at one point seeing (Deputy) Chief (Peter) Hayden and saying you guys hear 6 Truck, you know 6 Truck is trapped? And he said yeah, we're trying to get somebody over there. There was a lot of stuff going on. He was trying to do 10 things at once.

At one point, he told me to take a bunch of guys. There were some Rescue 1 guys there, Rescue 3, Cliffie Stabner, a couple of other guys from Rescue 1, obviously off-duty guys that were down there with their gear. I grabbed a handful of guys. He said take a handful of guys and see if you can get in there and find Jonas, which was like finding a needle in a haystack. We were trying to talk to him. We were trying to search around for him. It was a lot of fire still burning too. There was a lot of smoke and heat.

We went around to Vesey and we went into a garage level on the north side of that building. There was a rolldown door. It was down, but it had been cut. There was a triangle opening. We walked through that. By now, there were a pile of guys with us, maybe 15 or 20 guys. Now, that's right across the street from 7 World Trade Center, which was still burning very well, still intact, still standing, 40-something stories.

We went in there. Everybody was concerned about being near that, but we went in there anyway because we were still trying to get to Jonas and we thought that would be maybe a way to get down towards where he was into the rubble.

Firehouse: So you went into building 6?

Salka: Which was the Customs House. We got in there and it was pretty good downstairs, a lot of dust and debris and stuff, but it was all intact. We were thinking there was a connection in there where we would be able to get into a stairway or maybe that he even was in there. He was telling us he was in the north tower, but we were thinking maybe we can get to him from there. So we did get in there. There was smoke in there. You could see where part of the north tower had ripped right through 6 World Trade Center, which was a much smaller building. We could see where we were was a loading dock and the loading dock ended and then there was just a debris hole. It almost looked like the first one in 1993, when there was an internal collapse inside the building. You could look down.

There was a lot of fire in there burning, a couple of stairways. Joey DiBernardo from Rescue 3 was there. He was going to try and go up one of the stairways and see if he could get to Jonas. We were talking to him on the radio again and Cliffie Stabner was there. A couple of other chiefs came in. We had a line stretched in there just in case we needed it. We had a bunch of people there, then they pulled us out. We ended up pulling everybody out of there and accounting for everybody going out that door single file and back toward West Street.

I grabbed the riding list off every rig I went past. I jumped up into the cab. I must have had 10 or 12 of them. I handed those over to Chief Fellini or one of the guys that was with him, one of the other chiefs or an aide. I was still trying to get to Jay. Every once in a while I had to remind either Hayden or (Citywide Tour Commander Frank) Fellini or whoever it was I was talking to, we still got 6 Truck, is 6 Truck out yet? No, they're not out yet, we haven't got to them yet. You'd almost get sidetracked from trying to get to them because so many other things were happening and you were encountering so many other things. All of a sudden, you'd encounter hurt guys or guys saying here's something else happening over here. Somebody said there's a guy under this rig. It just never ended. There was so many things being reported to you.

Somewhere along the way, (Battalion Chief Rich) Picciato came out, but that was later on. He shows up. We're standing at Vesey and West. They had just towed Rescue 3's collapse rig out of the way because they wanted to get that out of the way and Picciato comes out all dishevelled, just his white shirt on and his bunker pants, no helmet, no coat, saying there's guys in here and this is the way to get to them. At that point, I did not know that he had been in with Jay Jonas. He is one of the first guys that made it out of there. So we got another group of guys together. Fellini told me to take these five or eight guys, go with him, see what he's talking about. We made our way down there. As we walked along, we picked up more guys.

We weaved our way and I said somebody tie off a search rope. I told somebody to bring a search rope. Somebody else said I've got a life-saving rope. I said good, we'll use that, tie her off to one of these beams here because we were going into this rubble, plus it was heavy, heavy smoke so we don't get lost in there if this fire extends. We started stretching that in there and we just picked five or six guys to start walking through up these beams.

The footing was terrible. We had to make our way over all that debris and start working our way into what was a really big pile. I only know that because as the day wore on and we got more organized, I ended up working up there and that had to be 15 stories in the air after when we were working on the top of that B Stairway the next day. But, of course, this is the first day and we didn't know that at the time. It just looked like a gigantic pile of rubble. And we ended up getting into there. Somebody said on the radio, we got them out now and they're at the command post and they removed them from the scene. So all that work, as crucial as we thought it was going to be, we never actually got to them. But they did get them out. That consumed a lot of the time. A lot of the first couple of hours was being sidetracked all the time by all of these other guys coming up to you with other information or other situations.

Firehouse: What kind of things would that have been, the sidetrack?

Salka: The fact that they found a rig. Chief, should we look in it, should we climb in there and get under it, could there be guys in there. I wasn't going to tell anybody no to anything at that point. We had to check everything out. You just see one little piece sticking up. I told guys absolutely, if there's a rig there and there could be guys on that, why not dig there instead of somewhere else.

Firehouse: What do you remember seeing of building 7?

Salka: A lot of smoke popping out of the whole thing. And then almost like a typical job, if you can imagine, it was getting heavier and heavier and heavier. Then you could see fire here and there. It was just working its way up. Eventually, there was smoke coming out of every floor and somebody said there it goes. I remember hearing a rumble. I was on Vesey Street with a lot of other guys and that thing just started to go. It almost fell straight down. But it was down pretty quick and then that actually solved that whole problem. That opened that whole area up to people being able to go back in and work because it was down. I was even telling Chief Fellini and a couple of other people we better start getting some tools down here, maybe somebody ought to call Partner and tell them send us 200 saws and maybe someone ought to call Motorola to send us 500 batteries.

Your eyes were just like there was sand in them and there wasn't much you could do about it. We had those paper masks - you couldn't talk with them on because they would be sticking into your mouth, so guys ended up taking those off. I remember my eyes being irritated, but everybody was in the same situation.

Firehouse: Did you ever find out about your brother-in-law?

Salka: Yes. Right along the way there now, anytime I saw a guy from 10 Truck or 10 Engine, I would ask was Mike Cansel around anywhere, did anybody see him? A couple of guys said no, I haven't seen him since the beginning. Finally one guy said oh yeah, I saw him, he's over there. I said he's alive, he got out? He said yeah, I definitely saw him a little while ago. I said you definitely saw him? He said yes. But I never actually saw him that day.

Firehouse: Did you take a certain section or sector?

Salka: I never left West Street the whole night.

Firehouse: How high was the debris on the street?

Salka: I thought it was over the rigs. It was just debris as far as you could see. It was like a mat, just laid out. A lot of the walls were just flat. You were just walking on those ribs that normally you'd see going up on the side of the building, those were what we were walking on.

Firehouse: You went through the World Financial Center?

Salka: Right, we went through the American Express building off Vesey Street and they all were connected through the Winter Garden, which was crushed from the front with debris. They were setting up a temporary morgue in one of those buildings. I can't remember which one it was, one of those off Vesey street. They found (Ladder 24 Captain) Danny Brethel and a couple of other guys that I knew.

Now we were working on that West Street side. They were trying to get lights in there. We were calling for them early too. I said it's going to get dark here, we'd better get some lights here, so they started calling for lights. SOC (Special Operations Command) sent some of those light trailers. That whole night we were just digging under these big gigantic pieces that were just lying flat out on the street. They pulled a couple of guys out here. That's where the command post was. They got those guys real early. We didn't actually find a lot of guys.

Firehouse: Early on, did you hear any other Maydays or urgents besides those from Jay Jonas?

Salka: I don't remember hearing any Maydays except for Jonas. The radio was pretty busy.

The 18th Battalion was relocated to the 4th Battalion. We relieved Dennis Moynahan down there. And now we were the acting 4th Battalion and we started taking runs in down there. There was smoke all over the place. There were reports of smoke - Rivington Street we were on a couple of times and all the battalions were out, either out of service or just not replaced, not relocated. There were a couple of relocated battalions from Brooklyn, but for the most part we had almost all the way down the Battery because we went on runs all the way down. As a matter of fact, one of our runs ended bringing us into the World Trade Center site at which time I ended up getting put to work. We were there for the rest of the night.

Firehouse: How did it come about that you got a run for that building?

Salka: We got a call going down Broadway, heading south, a report of a possible collapsed building being evacuated. I got there and I looked up and yeah, it sure enough didn't look too right to me either. The building just looked a little cockeyed. I thought I saw smoke or dust or something coming off one of the uppers floors and people were running down the block, down Broadway.

So we get on the radio, tell everybody to stay away from that building. And some engineers came along and some cops came along and we tried to keep everybody away from it. We're trying to keep this street clear, but of course now the other side of the same building is the operation where the collapses are. Now they're concerned about it, so they stop work over there too. Hayden actually ended up coming over there and they had the Liberty Plaza engineers show up and then some other structural engineers showed up who were operating at the World Trade Center. They came around and this had been maybe the second time that this building had been reported possibly collapsing. These guys said they had just made a sweep of that building, analyzed the whole thing, and it was safe and fine. After that was cleared, they called me to a gas leak at Vesey and Church and gave me a truck to operate there. That was really how I ended up getting tied up there the rest of the night.

Then they said we need a chief over on West Street. I said I'm operating with a truck, I got a truck standing by waiting for Con Ed to come and shut this gas off, if you need me, I'll come over there. They said yeah, come over here and they put me to work. We ended up working pretty much that whole night there too as the 4th Battalion.

The second night we were up on the pile, right across from 10 and 10. We went to 10 and 10 command. That's what it was that night, 10 and 10 command. There were two or three chiefs there and this was just nothing but a gigantic pile of rubble in front of us, right up to the edge of the firehouse practically.

We worked there all night long and that was the night where they had all those chains of guys handing stuff down one piece at a time, bucket brigades and stuff like that. I remember finding two Jersey City fire coats out in the middle of the pile. They had taken their coats off, those mustard-color Nomex coats. And man, every guy in the world was there, SWAT teams and cops from Groton, Connecticut, and I mean there was a million people there. There were firemen and cops from all over the place all in these lines digging. I remember asking for saws and asking for torches and they were just trying to tunnel down and dig into the pile in a hundred different spots.

They had to lift dogs into these holes. The dogs were not happy about being there and the cops were always trying to do their best with them, but these dogs were not suited for that work.

Firehouse: Were there any particular sights or remembrances that will stick with you?

Salka: The hole that was on that side in the ground on Liberty Street, I guess just south of the south tower. There was a hole in the ground like the Grand Canyon. Whether that was a wall that kicked up the dirt or something, it was cavernous. It was so deep it was unbelievable. I was trying to figure out how that happened, whether something dug in and kicked all the dirt out. I couldn't figure that out. I remember that was amazing to me, the size of the hole in the ground there between Liberty Street and the south tower, a gigantic hole. You could put five Goodyear blimps in there, that's how big this hole in the ground was.

Just the terrain was amazing. All of sudden, these mountains of steel and then these big gigantic holes right next to them and guys just looked like little ants on these piles. You could just go up and go over the crest of a hill and all of a sudden, more appears to you, it looked like miles. Actually, it's only 17 acres, but when you're going in on one edge of it looking at it, it was just piles and piles of stuff. In the background you could see buildings still burning. Here it is at nighttime, 140 Liberty Street was still burning. That was that old-fashioned-looking office building that already had scaffolding all around it. And that was burning. A couple of floors were burning. Here it is the second night, there was still fire going on in that thing. 130 Liberty I think was the one that had the big gash in it. That was amazing. That was one of the things in my memory. It must have been 40 stories or 50 stories tall and 30 stories up, there was a gash that started as a point and came down. It was obviously a big piece of debris came down and ripped right into that building and some of it was still hanging out of it. That was almost out of a King Kong movie, it was so gigantic.

Later on that night, some urban search and rescue team showed up. They were from the Midwest. They had real search dogs. On that same pile where they were carrying those police dogs in and putting them down and then having to carry them out, they went in with these dogs, unleashed them and said search. And those dogs covered a 100-by-100-foot square in two minutes. Those dogs were running around, jumping up and down, jumping - going into holes and coming back out. I mean 50 times more efficient, 50 times more appropriate for that kind of work than the dogs that they were trying to use earlier. Once I saw that, I said wow, those are the dogs that are really trained to do collapse rescue and void searches. These dogs were really, really sharp dogs.

Firehouse: How did they identify victims?

Salka: Guys would be going down into a hole saying somebody was in there. And eventually, they started doing it with paint. They started putting little X's or unit numbers or writing the word "Searched" on certain areas. You'd write "Searched" with an arrow pointed down and you'd see that they meant this big void that you're looking into so nobody would have to go back down in there again.

Firehouse Collection
A tool van from the Special Operations Command (SOC) provided extra sawzall batteries, saw blades and a wide variety of equipment for use 24 hours a day at the scene.

We started working up on that tower that second night, up on the north tower, that high spot where you had to climb down. There was another one of those gullies along there, so it must have been something with the collapse that dug up the dirt because there was another one of those ravines, whatever you want to call it, along let's say the curb line between the north tower and West Street and they had ladders set up. You'd go down the ladders and there was rope strung so you could hold onto the rope and climb on the ladder all the way down to the bottom of this pile, which ended up maybe a floor or two below grade. Then you'd come back up the other side, pull yourself back up, walk up the ladder, several ladders strung and hooked, all just attached together.

Then you'd would work your way up all the way up onto the pile onto the north tower, which was a big irregular pile, but you'd work your way up and then around. They had ladders strung and across all these little voids. Eventually, they put plywood on them. There was rope tied from beam to beam to piece of debris so you could sort of hold onto the rope as a handrail and walk on the ladders until we get to the top of that pile of the north tower, and that's where there was like the top of a stairway. That's where they were all working.

The first night I went up there, I relieved the commander of the 9th Battalion, Joe Nardone. A couple of rescue officers, a couple of rescue firemen, Rescue 1, Rescue 4, and they were digging and they had firemen there.

But now back to the top of that tower that second day, when we were at the top of that large pile, there was always a SOC operation, although there were other guys up there helping occasionally too. West Central Command we were talking to, what we were doing, what we were finding, what we needed, more tools, more bottles, more of this, more of that. Another company was sending Rescue 4 down, sending Rescue 3 up, and they would all come up there. They were digging by hand with these little garden spades, halligans and things like that. You could barely use shovels there. They were digging, digging, digging, and they would uncover a turnout coat and they would start digging around that. Eventually, that stuff got moved and the whole pile went down too, but most of the time you were digging in a hole. There was smoke coming up from everywhere so they were sticking lines in holes to keep the smoke from coming up right where we were working.