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 casualty differences were enormous. In a war event, usually you have one killed for every two or three or four wounded. Here, incredibly, it was almost the opposite. Look at our numbers - 343 dead and only a dozen serious injuries. If you were out of the collapse zone, you lived and were relatively unscathed. If you were in the collapse zone, there was no alternative.

Firehouse: If I could just go back, was there any mention of getting FEMA teams or did they already take care of that, or heavy equipment, the first time you saw some of these command chiefs?

Norman: There was heavy equipment already on the way. By the time I got to West and Vesey, it was already very clearly understood that there was nothing we were going to do until we got the big heavy construction equipment up in the way. I talked with Mike Pena early on while we were over at the Broadway side still when we first got into the scene and got a handle on the size of the devastation. One of the things that he took care of was making arrangements to get the New York City FEMA task force on the way. We got the FEMA task force organized from New York City, got the equipment coming. Mike actually handled most of those arrangements.

Firehouse: How much equipment is there and how big of a deal is it to get it to respond?

Norman: It's a big deal. It's basically three tractor-trailer loads worth of equipment. You got to get the tractors hooked up, they're not kept up where you jump in and drive away.

Firehouse: Three tractor-trailer loads of the stuff coming out of FEMA, so it's a big job at any time to get going?

Norman: Yes.

Firehouse: When did the equipment arrive?

Norman: It wound up there that evening. I guess it was the next day before I got up to see it. Tommy Richardson, John La Femmina, Freddy La Femmina, the whole staff of them pitched in on their own because we weren't activated as a federal task force. We just brought it there as a New York City resource. We didn't have the full FEMA staff with an operations chief in charge of that unit and all that because all our people were performing those functions in their own jobs.

Firehouse: At some point in time, did somebody recommend how many FEMA teams were coming?

Norman: Yeah, real early. We said we've got to get at least four FEMA task forces on the way. When we got another look at it, went over and spoke with Chief Fellini at the time at the west command post, I said you've got to get OEM and get at least half a dozen of them started here. We got at least that many buildings that need to be done.

Unfortunately, by the time the task forces arrived and deployed, there was no live victims to be recovered. The last five victims were recovered about 26 hours later, just after noon on the 12th, and most of task forces hadn't even deployed. Pennsylvania was in at that point already and Massachusetts, and I believe Ohio. They began working, but there were no more live victims for them to recover.

Firehouse: The 26 hours later, was that the woman who was found in the void?

Norman: Yeah.

Firehouse: At the top of the pile?

Norman: Yeah. The Ohio task force was staged over in one of the residential buildings in Battery Park City and in the process of doing a primary search of that building. They did find a person, not unconscious, but unable to move, injured pretty badly, in one of residential buildings and that's a block and a half away from the towers.

At that point, we put many of the incoming task forces as well as our resources, teams of firefighters, police officers and the FEMA people into the job of performing a good primary and then a secondary search of all of those buildings. And remember, we're talking a lot of big buildings, 50 stories, 300-by-300-foot buildings with no elevators and no power inside them.

We told them take their time, if it takes you eight hours to do that, go ahead. You've got to walk up. We want everything searched. I want the roof searched for bodies that might have fallen onto the roof. I want every setback searched. I want every staircase, every office, every elevator searched. And they did it. They did a great job. It was a very long, difficult, hot-weather task to do, but it was necessary.