WTC: This Is Their Story - Part I

Firehouse® continues to present the extraordinary stories of those FDNY firefighters who were at the scene of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.


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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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.