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.

FDNY Photo
Al Fuentes

Captain Al Fuentes
Acting Battalion Chief, Marine Division, on 9/11
25 years

I started work at 7 A.M. The secretary came running in screaming a plane hit the World Trade Center. From the Brooklyn Navy Yard I could see both towers. I couldn't believe my eyes. I thought we should surround the Battery with fireboats, because that would be the best way to get the injured out via water. We could use the boats to move companies in to the area.

I took the super radio (able to contact the dispatcher). When I was a lieutenant in Rescue 2, I constantly drilled with the members that there is no time to rely on messages in an emergency, call the dispatcher.

I traveled on Marine 6 across the harbor. We pulled up to Vesey Street. I looked up and saw the second jet slam into the south tower. I knew we were under attack. Proceeding to the command post I reported to Chief of Department Ganci. Chief Ray Downey was there. He said, Al, stay here with me. Marine 1 and 6 were on scene with a spare boat, the Smoke. Marine 9 was standing ready at their berth. Companies were getting assignments. People were jumping from the south tower. Chief Downey said we better give Tower 2 more attention. It was hit lower and there are more people inside. I saw the four corners of the south tower and knew it was going to come down. It started to collapse. I ran into the garage doors of the World Financial Center located directly behind the command post. I made it in about 10 feet. I crouched down, put my head between my legs and said a Hail Mary.

Firehouse Collection
Firefighters are dwarfed by steel in front of the Winter Garden located within the World Financial Center and on the west side of West Street opposite the north tower.

The wind blew through. Debris was hitting me. It was pitch black. I tried to breathe through my coat. I found my way out through the interior. I emerged and couldn't believe my eyes. There was six feet of debris, gray dust all over. We better start searching West Street. Deputy Commissioner William Feehan walked by and asked if I was all right. I said I wanted to start searching. Two firefighters stopped and I told them to get tools. Chief Ganci walked by and gave me a look and shook his head. Chief Ray Downey said we just lost a lot of guys. Where are the fighter pilots? He thought there might be further attacks.

Six firefighters appeared across the street near the Marriott Hotel lobby. Debris was still falling from the north tower. Chief Downey said, I'm going over there, let me know when it is safe to come back out. Several of the firefighters came out, including Chief Brian O'Flaherty.

Then the north tower came down. I was trapped from the neck down for 90 minutes. Several firefighters dug me out and carried me. I was covered by a piece of silver facade. (Firefighter Jack Flatley heard the radio Fuentes was carrying and located him). I was removed via boat to New Jersey. They did a tracheotomy on me. I was in a drug-induced coma for a week. On a respirator, intubated. I had six broken ribs, collapsed lung, skull fracture and needed a couple hundred stitches on my scalp, broken wrist and fingers.

I was in the surgical ICU and then moved to a hospital in New York. I was placed in pulmonary ICU. I woke up one night at 4 A.M. I was having nightmares. I told my wife I need to talk with the fire department chaplain, Father Mychal Judge. She was quiet for awhile. Is Father Judge dead? I asked. Yes. Ganci? Yes, Downey? Yes. That's enough, don't tell me anymore.

I realized the second tower came down and got me. (Several weeks after the incident, Fuentes learned about the 343 firefighters who were killed. Fuentes is recovering from his injuries.) I see six doctors a week. I just want to be the same guy I was on Sept. 10. People have been so nice to me. I am humbled.

Chief of Department Daniel Nigro (was chief of operations on 9/11)
32 years

FDNY Photo
Daniel Nigro

Chief of Operations Sal Cassano (was citywide tour commander on 9/11)
32 years

Firehouse: Chief Nigro, you were having a meeting when the attack occurred?

Nigro: We were having an informal meeting in Pete's (Chief of Department Peter Ganci) office that morning. I had gone back to my office already at the time the plane hit the north tower.

Firehouse: Did you see it?

Nigro: I heard it. I heard a loud thud and I thought that it was somebody dropping something upstairs. The next thing I heard was Pete yelling, "Look out your window, a plane just hit the World Trade Center." I stood up and there was a very clear view of the north tower and I could see a large volume of black smoke coming out of the north side.

Firehouse: Then you both responded together?

FDNY Photo
Sal Cassano

Nigro: Pete and I responded together in his car, so we could talk about what we were going to be doing.

Firehouse: Could I ask you about your initial thoughts while responding? I know the initial companies transmitted second and third alarms, and then I guess Chief Ganci or yourself asked for a fifth alarm?

Nigro: Right. Pete transmitted a fifth, probably at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Firehouse: As you got closer, what could you see?

Nigro: We had a larger body of fire in a high-rise building than I had ever seen before. I know I told him that this would be the worst day of our lives. That's an understatement.

Firehouse: It would be the worst day of your lives?

Nigro: Certainly, that's the scenario of a lifetime, even in New York City. I was not thinking that this was a terrorist act. But a plane hitting the World Trade Center and on a business day is about as bad as I had thought it could get.

Firehouse: Did you see any specific amount of floors of fire as you were coming across the bridge? Could you estimate, or did you just see fire in various floors?

Nigro: It appeared to me like we had some amount of fire or smoke on 10 floors. That would have been just a ballpark guess.

Firehouse: When you arrived, where did you respond?

Nigro: On West Street. The division chief was beginning to set up a command post and the command board at the median. One of us or both of us said let's get to the west side of the street, it's a better spot for us to operate. And we decided on a location in front of 2 World Financial Center.

Firehouse: Had you been up farther? Had anybody else been up farther and then moved down south?

Nigro: I think we were a little closer to the median. Where they were setting up in the median was closer to Vesey Street. We moved it on the other side of that bridge, on the south side of the north bridge, and there were two garage ramps for the companies; they had the command post. We put them down in the garage so that if there was debris falling, it was a spot where you could be protected.

Firehouse: Was there a lot of debris coming down and were people jumping at that time?

Nigro: There was some amount of debris. When we first got there, I don't recall jumpers, but shortly after we got there, the jumpers started.

Firehouse: Were you at that position when the second plane hit?

Nigro: Yes. I don't know if we had moved yet or we were in the process of moving. We might have still been in the middle of West Street and heard the roar of another plane, which immediately made you look up. And all I saw was a blur, a crash. I didn't know what hit the building.

A civilian ran up to me - I think maybe an EMT, but not one of ours - and said that it was a military plane that just fired a missile into the building and it headed north, which for a moment I was considering because I really didn't see it. (Assistant Chief) Gerry Barbara was concerned that the plane we saw had hit the building. At that point, anybody who didn't know yet that it was a terrorist attack - almost everyone had the same feeling that I had, that these two planes hit the towers on purpose, and what else is going to happen?

Firehouse: Is that when the recall was requested?

Nigro: Yes. We saw the second plane hit. We called in a second fifth alarm.

Firehouse: The reason for the recall was because they didn't know what else was going to happen?

Nigro: Yes. I think we knew this was a terrorist attack. There were two fifth alarms, which we knew were only going to be a start. We thought, let's get everybody back to work and then we'll see where we're going to go from here. There's a combination of factors - if it were just the fires and even not the collapse and the two planes hitting the tower, my feeling is we would need a recall.

Firehouse: Were a lot of people coming into the command post at that time?

Nigro: There was one command post already in the lobby of the north tower. We had quite a number of firefighters behind us at the command post and we sent a group of them to the south tower to start the evacuation.

Firehouse: I believe Chief (Joe) Callan (citywide tour commander) went to the north tower and then Chief (Donald) Burns (citywide tour commander) went to the south tower.

Nigro: Chief Burns and Chief Barbara. Chief Burns originally went into the north tower, then he walked over to the south tower. Chief Barbara went to the south tower also. So we had Chief Callan and Chief (Peter) Hayden (Division 1) in the north, and we had Chief (Tom) Galvin from Division 3 in the hotel.

Firehouse: Were there any specific orders? Nigro: I know specifically for the south tower, it was let's get this place evacuated as fast as we can.

Firehouse: Were you getting any reports from companies operating in the towers or from the commanders in those sectors? Were you able to hear them? I'm just wondering if you heard any specific information from anyone operating on the upper floors?

Nigro: I didn't get any. I know we talked back and forth a little with whoever was in the lobby of the north tower, and they were communicating with people in the building, but we weren't getting it outside the building at any point.

Firehouse: You were on command channel to them?

Nigro: Yes. I think we were trying to use four channels at the time. We were trying to set up a system to have a separate command channel and a separate operations channel for each of the towers. And that word went out because the people that were responding in on the second fifth alarm were told by the dispatcher to switch to Channel 3, that they would be operating on Channel 3. Some of them said that's how they knew which building they were supposed to go to.

Firehouse: As the companies came in, were they coming to the command post or were they specifically going right to building 2? Was somebody at the command post directing them as they needed them?

Nigro: I think they were doing both. There was a staging area set up on West and Albany where the companies were reporting to. There was another one set up north of Vesey Street. Judging from what I can see now, it appeared that maybe some companies went to the staging area and the staging chief directed them based on their assignment to the tower. Certainly, a large number of companies came in. The earlier ones, because I had left early, were behind us, I think.

Firehouse: When you say you left, did you take a 360-degree walk around?

Nigro: Well, I got about 180 degrees. The plan was once we had everybody in place, I told Chief Ganci, let me walk around the building quickly and see how badly damaged they were because we couldn't see over from West Street. I did the north side and I got a little bit past Dey Street on Church when the south tower began to come down.

Firehouse: What did you see when you walked around that you hadn't seen before?

Nigro: Certainly, the extent of the damage that occurred to the south tower was much more clearly visible from north and east than it was from west. I did not get as serious a picture from that side.

Firehouse: You saw debris coming down. Did you also see jumpers coming down on that side?

Nigro: Lots and lots of jumpers.

Firehouse: Were there more coming down opposite the command post?

Nigro: No. Actually, a lot of them were coming from the command post side. You could see a lot of jumpers from the north tower. There must have been a lot from the south tower from what I've heard, although I did not see them. I heard that afterward. We saw just one after another. And they continued. Actually, I had to be very careful when I walked around to the other side of the building. You had to be careful.

Firehouse: Did you go all the way to Church or did you cut through the promenade?

Nigro: We went Vesey to Church, turned south, got to the Century 21 store, just past Dey Street.

Firehouse: So you could see the north side where it hit initially? You saw that big hole?

Nigro: Well, no, we saw that already on the north tower. I'm talking about the south tower. I could see that parts of the plane actually came through. I knew it hit the south tower from the south. I could see a hole in the north side of the building, so we realized at that point that part of the plane went straight through the building. Then there were a number of sections of the building missing on the east side, which was not apparent from West Street.

Firehouse: How about the fire condition from the east side?

Nigro: My recollection was that the fire condition wasn't as bad as it had looked in the north tower from the east side; it wasn't as active. The structural damage was visible.

Firehouse: Were you able to report that?

Nigro: No, we were on our way back.

Firehouse: Who was you with?

Nigro: Just my aide.

Firehouse: And when the tower came down, what happened? What did you hear, what did you see?

Nigro: I looked up and saw it coming down on us.

Firehouse: Did you hear any loud noise?

Nigro: I heard a noise that I immediately identified as a collapse. I looked up and saw a large section of that outside wall, that design that you're familiar with now, just coming off the building with the rest of the building. I didn't think we would get out of the way in time, but we tried anyway and we were successful.

Firehouse: Did you hear any urgents or Maydays before or after that?

Nigro: Afterwards. I don't recall any before. Afterwards, the radio was very peculiar. It was quiet. A few messages weren't being responded to. They tried a couple of times to reach the command post. The only one I clearly remember was Al Fuentes' message about being trapped and identifying himself. Other than that, it was giving me the opinion that, because I couldn't see anything at all from my side, that we had lost everyone on the other side of the building because I wasn't hearing anyone. I wasn't hearing many people.

Firehouse: Do you remember exactly where you were when that south tower came down?

Nigro: When it started to come down I was by Century 21.

Firehouse: Which way did you go then?

Nigro: Back. And a few feet behind me was Dey Street and then we went east on Dey Street to a Starbucks. We thought we could get into the building, but it was locked, so we just huddled into a corner right there.

Firehouse: And you had the wind and the dust and debris come by you?

Nigro: Yes. A lot of big pieces fell, crushed a car that was next to us, took out a couple of windows around us. And we were in a safe haven from that. We thought we would choke on the dust, we started breathing the dust, which I think everybody on the scene felt at one point or another there - they escaped being hit by the building, but now they were going to suffocate.

Firehouse: The report of a third plane, do you recall if that was before the collapse?

Nigro: I heard that report before the collapse. I don't recall from who. I heard someone say something about a plane crash at the Pentagon. There are 10 more planes or some numbers, another plane heading for us. There were a few stories that I heard, I guess, as I passed different people on the way. And I don't know who told me what, but I do recall the "third-plane-is-heading- for-us" story. And I think an F-15 came by at one point and a lot of people had thought that to be the third plane. That's what I heard from people since then.

Firehouse: In 1993 and '94, when I did the original story on the 1993 bombing of the Trade Center, I had asked the deputy at the time if he had any special knowledge of the building from being down there, just because it was in Division 1. Did anybody in the department or did anybody at the command post or responding have any special knowledge of the building? I'm sure some of the chiefs had been there for incidents, but I'm just wondering if anybody had any special knowledge.

Nigro: I think we had the senior chiefs there, like Sal (Cassano), Gerry Barbara and Donald Burns, and that Pete and I all had pretty good knowledge of the building, how many the elevators there were or where the command posts were. Certainly, all of us at one time or another worked there or responded there. We knew maybe not everything about it, but bits and pieces about it. I don't know if any of us was the world's foremost authority, but there was a pretty vast pool of knowledge of those buildings working that day. I recall Donald Burns even saying don't worry about the radio frequency because you won't hear one building to the next. If you were on frequency 1, you could operate in both buildings, and he was right about that. They did learn that at the 1993 incident.

Firehouse: Did you work your way toward the command post and try to keep calling them?

Nigro: After the collapse?

Firehouse: Yes, after the first collapse.

Nigro: After the first collapse, we couldn't see whether the buildings were damaged, we couldn't see anything from the narrow streets on that side of the building. My idea was that I was going to work my way south and go down Broadway to West Street and then back up north -or at least go south until I could actually see where we were going. And as we got maybe halfway down, we heard the same noise, it was another dust cloud that seemed even worse than the first,and that drove us into the lobby of a building down there somewhere for five or 10 minutes until the dust sat down a little bit more. We weren't breathing too well at the time.

We walked down to West Street and found a large Field Comm truck with a tractor trailer. And two Field Comm members were in there, two communications guys and (Chief Medical Officer) Dr. Kerry Kelly and (Deputy Chief Medical Officer) Dr. David Prezant were there with an officer from either Engine 10 or Ladder 10. They weren't working that day. They were doing something else, they were on some sort of detail.

But it ended up there were six of us and I asked the people in the Field Comm truck, OK, what's going on, what do you hear on the radio, where's the command post?

And they told me the command post was on Broadway and Park Row, at the foot of City Hall Park. (Deputy) Chief (Tom) Haring (Division 6) was in charge and that's where the command post was. I immediately felt, again, that everyone had been killed because Chief Haring wasn't even there when I left the command post, so who was in charge?

We walked up to there and there was a large number of members and Chief Haring, and there were fires all over on the side streets, and there were vehicles on fire. They said the other command post, the larger one, is on West and Chambers. Chief Cruthers (Assistant Chief Frank Cruthers, citywide tour commander) was there. I continued on to there and found the remnants of our command post at that point. And that's where we continued to run the operation the rest of the day, from that west-side position.

Firehouse: Did there come a point in time that they had found some of the people or somebody had told you what had happened at the command post?

Nigro: Yes. When we got up to Chambers Street, we realized that we could see some of the people. Joe Callan was there. They said Chief Cassano was hurt, that he had to go to the hospital. Chief Ganci was missing. I got the rundown of who made it and who didn't. Commissioner (Thomas) Von Essen survived. (First Deputy) Commissioner (William) Feehan was missing.

Firehouse: What was the game plan at that time? Did you take over?

Nigro: Yes, once I got there, I took over and Chief Cruthers and Chief Michael Butler were with me. Chief Frank Fellini was running the operation back down at Vesey. (Butler and Fellini are assistant chiefs and citywide tour commanders). Chief Haring was running the operation on the east side.

Firehouse: What kind of game plan did you come up with for that day and for the next 24 hours?

Nigro: There was a tremendous amount of fire burning in 7 World Trade Center. It was determined that it was structurally damaged, that a large amount of damage had been done to the structure by the collapse of the building and that even though there were some rescue operations or search operations in the area, the building was in such danger of collapse that we suspended all operations. Then we determined a collapse zone around 7 to move everybody back.

Firehouse: How big was the collapse zone?

Nigro: It was probably about two or three blocks in each direction. We were able to continue searching in one area because people had seen where Chief Ganci and Chief Feehan were and we continued to search that area and located them.

Firehouse: So 7 just got worse and worse?

Nigro: Got worse and worse and finally around -

Cassano: 5:30.

Nigro: - 5:30 the building collapsed.

Firehouse: The other buildings, the small buildings that were around -

Nigro: - had a lot of fire in a few of them.

Firehouse: Then you had water problems too?

Nigro: No water from the hydrants. I think all of our water for some number of hours was being provided by the fireboats. They supplied us with a number of lines. All the water for a while was from them.

Firehouse: The other buildings in the complex were burning and some of those were going pretty good. Now, there was one other building that was -

Nigro: 90 West St. had a tremendous fire going.

Firehouse: Was that the building with the scaffolding?

Nigro: It had scaffolding on it.

Firehouse: Was that being renovated or was it vacant?

Nigro: It was in the process of renovation. A couple of people died in that building.

Firehouse: A couple of people died?

Nigro: Yes.

Firehouse: So it took several hours to get the fires under control?

Nigro: Hours and hours and hours, simultaneous with doing a search, with doing an assessment of how many of the buildings were seriously structurally damaged and were in danger of collapse themselves. We were trying to get assessments of those. One of them was Bankers Trust.

Firehouse: That was the one on the south side of Liberty with the big gash?

Nigro: Yes.

Firehouse: How about mutual aid? Were you involved in any part of requiring mutual aid? Did that come from you or somebody else or through OEM (the Office of Emergency Management) from Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties?

Nigro: I actually don't recall. I remember hearing about it, that we had companies from Westchester staffing Bronx firehouses and Nassau and Suffolk companies in Brooklyn and Queens, but I don't remember how we came to that conclusion.

Firehouse: With the people on the scene when these fires were controlled, the threat to extend to other exposures maybe was lessened. Then there were people were waiting to come down in buses and division areas and things like that. What was the word, just hold everybody on duty until we can figure out a plan?

Nigro: Yes. I don't remember how many hours passed before we went to a 24-on/24-off schedule.

Cassano: Several days.

Firehouse: The request for FEMA teams, was that done early?

Nigro: It was done pretty soon after the collapse through OEM. How many? I'm sure it's the largest number of FEMA teams that have ever been used anywhere.

Firehouse: Right. Did you have any concerns with the apparatus being replaced and the tools and equipment that were lost? The support services, I guess, took care of putting spare rigs and reserve rigs in service and things like that?

Nigro: Yes.

Firehouse: I mean away from the scene, not that you had -

Nigro: I don't think we knew if we'd be able to field enough or field all of our rigs.

Cassano: Early on, Chef Nigro was still down at the scene, and when I came back from the hospital, we had a meeting, I'd probably say around 6 o'clock that night. We had a meeting with (Deputy) Commissioner (Thomas) Fitzpatrick, (Assistant) Commissioner (Thomas) McDonald, (Assistant) Commissioner (Stephen) Rush and we started working on tools and equipment and apparatus right at that point. We had put in calls for Seagrave and different manufacturers of apparatus and started to put them on alert that we would probably need some rush orders on apparatus and the same with tools. Not much later than 6 o'clock we were doing that.

Firehouse: Did somebody give you some type of an assessment where they thought that a lot of equipment was buried? You really didn't know what was there, but did somebody give you a pretty good idea on how much was missing, damaged or destroyed?

Cassano: We didn't know for a couple of days.

Nigro: That took a while.

Cassano: We knew we had lost a lot of equipment and that we had lost rigs, but it took us a couple of days to get a handle on which rigs we had missing.

Firehouse: I heard Ladder 4 was way down in the debris. Was that surprising?

Nigro: Yes, that was a little surprising. We found Ladder 4 and Engine 65 about 40 feet down.

Cassano: Which, when you tell people that, it's pretty graphic for them and they try to figure out how everything was driven down. You say, well, that's two pretty large trucks that were driven down to the B-4 level. It gives you some idea of the force. 4 Truck was pretty much just flattened. Engine 65 was in a lot worse shape.

Firehouse: Are you concerned with the potential of losing a lot of senior people, adding to more spots to fill in the future?

Nigro: I think it's a concern, but I'm not worried about it. It would be like worrying about the weather. We know we're going to lose people. We're going to have to adjust our training and I try to explain to people, look at the military and look at the ages of some of the people who are operating in emergencies and flying planes, and they're young, so it's possible. They go through the same thing. Luckily, we have always attracted very, very good people. They become the senior command in the firehouse sooner after every fire. It's inevitable.

Firehouse: Are there any plans or thoughts for the potential increase of hazardous materials or for dealing with weapons of mass destruction? For years, there was always talk of another hazmat company. Now you have the squads. Is there anything that you're looking for maybe to expand that?

Cassano: I can just say in general we are looking to expand the hazmat capability and the number of people trained.

Firehouse: Chief Cassano, maybe I can just ask you about where you were and then what happened when the building came down.

Cassano: I was in headquarters in the command center. I was listening to the department radio, doing some administrative duties with Chief Barbara and Chief Burns. And we heard on the radio, transmit a second alarm, a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I was assuming different things, a propane explosion, anything, but the radio was blaring. Donald and Gerry both got up and started to move and I continued to listen to the radio, tried to get some more information.

Things started to perk up, so I decided I'd better head on over there. So I came in looking for Pete and they were already gone. I looked out the window. I could see smoke, heavy black smoke. And I just remember commenting to one of the chiefs who works here, Chief (Mike) Canty, I said that's not an accident, on a beautiful day like today, a plane's not going to hit that building by accident.