FDNY At Ground Zero

The chief of the FDNY Special Operations Command describes reconnaissance and planning.John Norman was a firefighter in busy Engine 290, Ladder 103, Rescue 3, Hazardous Materials Company 1, lieutenant of Rescue 2, captain of Rescue 1 and battalion chief...


The chief of the FDNY Special Operations Command describes reconnaissance and planning. John Norman was a firefighter in busy Engine 290, Ladder 103, Rescue 3, Hazardous Materials Company 1, lieutenant of Rescue 2, captain of Rescue 1 and battalion chief in Harlem's 16th Battalion. A member of the...


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The chief of the FDNY Special Operations Command describes reconnaissance and planning.John Norman was a firefighter in busy Engine 290, Ladder 103, Rescue 3, Hazardous Materials Company 1, lieutenant of Rescue 2, captain of Rescue 1 and battalion chief in Harlem's 16th Battalion. A member of the FDNY portion of the FEMA USAR team, he was selected to be the chief in charge of the Special Operations Command after September 11.

Battalion Chief John Norman
Special Operations Command
22 years

Firehouse: Please describe how you became involved.

Norman: I was home in bed and the battalion called and said, I know you're on vacation, but there's a total recall because of what happened to the Trade Center. I'm still sound asleep. I said, what happened to the Trade Center? He says you don't know? He says turn on the TV and he hung up. He had a million calls to make. I turned on the TV just in time to catch Tower 1 falling, so I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs.

I had all my FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) gear packed, ready for a FEMA deployment, and I had a second set of bunker gear in my trunk. I just jumped in the car and I headed right to the city, heading for the Trade Center, but I stopped in Brooklyn, stopped at 175 Truck and 332 Engine's quarters, to see whether they had any word on the recall, what mustering sites there were or anything.

They had commandeered a bus and loaded it up with all the spare Scott bottles they had in quarters, because they're a depot, and as many hand tools as they could find. About 25 of us went from there, drove to the 15th Division mustering site at 283's quarters. I checked in with the deputy chief there, Seamus McNella I believe was working. They had a bus that was leaving for the Trade Center right at that point, so I hopped on it and we drove to the Manhattan Bridge. (Deputy Chief) Dave Corcoran was in charge of maintaining control of the units, finding out what units he had available, so we switched over from the bus. There was a convoy of apparatus about to go over to Manhattan. (Lieutenant of Rescue 1) Mike Pena and I hooked up there with Ray Graywin, Al Schwartz from 4 Truck and we all piled onto the back, I think it was 264 Engine's rig, and headed over the bridge and came in on the Broadway side of City Hall Park.

Deputy Chief Tommy Haring had a command post set up at Broadway and I think it was Dey Street, so we got a radio off of one of the trucks that had arrived and we sent the team. We could hear Freddy La Femmina calling for assistance. He had trapped firefighters in, I believe it was the north tower. We sent Mike and put a SOC (Special Operations Command) team together. Squad 288's rig was right there. I went over and took everything we could get that might be of value in the technical operation off of 288's rig and headed over.

I had my digital camera with me. I took some pictures as I was going in and going down Dey. All I could see was 5 World Trade Center on fire. That was a building that I had worked in. I had done a lot of the sprinkler work there when it was going up and I'm looking at this building. You know, it's not supposed to be like this.

There were some companies stretching lines on Vesey Street, so I went over there to see if they needed a hand. They were saying no, no, the guys around on the West Street side really need the help. I started to go down Vesey toward West, but there was a lot of debris blocking the way and they were telling me no, you don't want to go down there - they're worried about that building collapsing. I looked at 7 World Trade Center. There was smoke showing, but not a lot and I'm saying that isn't going to fall. So I went up Church Street two more blocks and went across to West and went right down behind 7 and got a good look at three sides. Again, there were a lot of fires on the ground, some crushed mail trucks, some burned-up engines. It was a scene out of a war zone.

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