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 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.

I continued around to West and Vesey and reported into the command post. They were very concerned about fire extending into the telephone company building. They gave me a couple of companies and said get into the telephone company building and check on extension there. We had extension on the first and second floors, so we took some standpipe lines, put them in operation and knocked that down. From there, we looked out at 7 World Trade Center again. You could see smoke, but no visible fire, and some damage to the south face. You couldn't really see from where we were on the west face of the building, but at the edge of the south face you could see that it was very heavily damaged.

Firehouse: Could you see if there was a lot of debris in the street after the building came down?

Norman: Yes, that's why we couldn't walk down Vesey. But I never expected it to fall the way it did as quickly as it did, 7. But we took some defensive positions, actually tied the lines off and pulled the companies back into the building. I didn't feel too bad once we got back away from the perimeter just because that's a real, real heavy, old-style building.

We knocked down any fire and checked for extension in the phone company building. We tied the lines off and left them flowing out into the street onto the debris piles that were burning out in the street there between the phone company and 7. I came back outside and I forget who the IC (incident commander) was at that command post, but he says we're getting a lot of reports of firemen still trapped. They think they know the location of the original command post and why don't you get over there and see if you can get a hand, organize something over that way.

OK, where is it? And he says it's on the other side of that bridge right there. You had the north pedestrian bridge that was blocking the entire access. We had to go around, behind and through 3 World Financial Center and come back out onto West Street at Liberty. And again, an absolutely incredible amount of devastation. With the familiarity I had with the whole building, it was absolutely astounding. I really couldn't see how bad things were up to that point because of the smoke condition. I was still expecting to see large sections of buildings standing and everything. Once I got out onto West and Liberty and see that there's nothing left, the whole steel of that building is out covering the block, it's just incredible.

Now we're still worried about 7. We have guys trying to make their way up into the pile, and they're telling us that 7 is going to fall down - and that was one of the directions from the command post, to make sure we clear the collapse zone from 7 and this is a 600-foot-tall building, so we had to clear a 600-foot radius from that building.

Guys are looking at me when I'm telling them to move away, we're over by the north tower and we got to get out of here. They said what building you talking about? I said that building and they thought the phone company because through the smoke you couldn't see what I'm talking about. They said that building isn't going anywhere. I said no, not that building, the one next to it, the big one.

It was tough getting them to understand what we're talking about because until you had done either a couple of 360s around this whole site or if you got an aerial view somehow, you really couldn't appreciate the scope of the damage. You come in and you see one thing and say oh, this is a big problem. Like 90 West Street. 90 West Street was burning and guys would say we got this big problem over here. 90 West Street would have been a big problem, would have probably been a borough call by itself during normal times.

We had fire on South End Avenue in one of the apartment houses in Battery Park City. I'm looking at that and I'm saying that's a third alarm in normal times and there were two engine companies dedicated to it.

There was fire on the third and fourth floors. I guess it probably was debris got into the third floor and auto-exposed to the fourth with a good fire there. There was a fire up on the roof of 2 World Financial Center, again from debris landing on it. All of which would have been something to talk about normally.

But now we get out there and we could crawl through this mass of steel. There were window openings in the steel - what used to be the windows of the exterior walls. You'd look down every step and say that's an aerial ladder down there dropped down into the void. Guys are searching in all those areas. There's got to be people here, they've got to be here.

Where are the engine chauffeurs as we come across rigs? Some of the engines you could get in underneath and some of them were just flat right to the ground, pancaked to the ground, so that even if the engine chauffeur dove under the rig, there was no void space. The guys are saying that we've got to have a lot of people under here.

Then, when they found (Chief of Department) Pete Ganci's body and (First Deputy Commissioner) Bill Feehan's body, we said there's the command post, everybody else has to be right here too. But to lift that stuff - these were the massive, three-finger sections of steel. They weigh 25 tons. There was just nothing we were doing to lift them at that point. That's when we realized we really, really needed heavy equipment in there, but with the access being blocked, that became a real major problem.

I went back to the command post, reported what I saw and we tried to organize a plan. That's where I said you've got to get this north footbridge cleared out of the way. We've got to be able to get some big cranes in to start lifting that heavy steel.

They were bringing some cranes in. They had some mobile hydraulic cranes by nightfall and started working from the south end, but they were really very small capacity and they were 600 feet away from the north tower. That's when they gave me the job of getting that north footbridge out of the way. I worked on that all night the first night.

By 10 o'clock in the morning, we had started to get some heavy equipment in. We got the excavators in, the grapplers, and started to make some headway on it. We peeled off all the facing. This is a tremendous bridge, it's a 300-foot-long bridge. It was a steel box, almost a truss, like a space frame. We started to make some headway through that and by about 1 o'clock that afternoon, I was just shot though. I said I've got the plan organized, we're getting the equipment in to do it and this is where we've just got to keep going. I left and went up to Rescue 1's quarters that afternoon. By that point, a lot of the families were there - Dennis Mojica's fiancee, Maria. Just trying to deal with them was very hard. Mike Geidel was there with his father, Paulie. And naturally, Paul having been a lieutenant in Rescue 1, we're trying to reassure him that, yeah, there are a lot of areas that we haven't gotten to yet. We haven't given up hope. We're going to get him. It was tough trying to explain that.

Firehouse Collection
Numerous agencies operate at one of four command posts and supply stations in and around the firehouse of Engine 10/Ladder10 directly across the street from the remains of the south tower.

I went upstairs and laid down for about an hour and a half. I couldn't sleep. I picked up some dry clothes. I stole some clothes from Mike Pena, a new T-shirt and underwear, and went back down. Worked on the north bridge that second night. First, Fellini sent me with the guys from Harlem, 35 Engine and 14 Truck, went down to check the subway, check the 1 and 9 subway entrance into the concourse to see whether there was a way to come into the collapse area from underneath. And we did. We got as far as up as we could until we were stopped by solid rubble. We came up into the concourse level from underneath. Again, areas that I was very familiar with, I worked in so I knew my way around. Checked right up to the PATH (train ) escalators. We got right up to the PATH escalators, started to go down them, got down to the first level and there were some signs that the area had already been searched. So we went back up.

Firehouse: What did they use to mark those? Did they use paint or markers?

Norman: No, just in the dust. I forget the company. I think it was a Brooklyn company like 204 Engine. "Engine 204 was here." So I said let's go back to see if we find areas that nobody's gotten to yet. And we went down in the east side of the wall. On the east side of the concourse, it's only three sublevels. We got down into all of them, but there were some real protected areas, but anybody that was in them got out. Nobody trapped or anything in any of those areas. A lot of places where people survived or could have survived without being pinned.

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.

Unfortunately, for the some of the FEMA task forces, that's not really their primary mission. They're geared for the heavy rescue, the heavy movement of large pieces of steel or concrete. There were very little pieces of concrete to deal with here. And the steel, the voids under it either were empty because people lived and got out or they were so heavily compacted that not even the equipment the FEMA task forces brought with them was going to be satisfactory. We needed the heavy equipment, those 25-ton grapplers, 1,000-ton cranes.

Firehouse: Those cranes and grapplers, the ones that are in there right now, they can pick up 25 tons?

Norman: The biggest ones, yes. By now, we're getting into areas where we're finding firefighters or civilians and they're in relative voids and people are saying or they're wondering whether anybody could have survived in those voids.

In some cases it might have been possible that they weren't physically crushed in some of these areas, but given the high carbon monoxide levels from the fires, I didn't see them as survivable voids. It took us over three months to get to these areas using the heavy equipment at the most rapid pace possible and we're still looking for remains or victims.

Without the heavy equipment, we weren't making any headway. We were taking I figured about two inches a day off of those piles at the rate we were going with hand equipment. We would be there for a hundred years at that rate. Just had to go to the heavy equipment. One of the things we talked about with the voids was how would we - when we were getting into the 16-day, 17-day range, we were looking to make the decision to go back - to go to a recovery from a rescue operation, a tremendous number of considerations. Certainly, the families were a big one, but then we had to deal with the injury or fatality possibilities to rescuers, and we had to honestly evaluate what the people's chances of survival would be in that structure. At that point, it didn't look good at all. We hadn't uncovered any voids where we didn't find crushed people. We didn't have anybody lying there who looked like he could have survived if it weren't for the fact that he was just stuck there so long. We went beyond the outside window of survivability. We know we've had people trapped in earthquakes for 14, maybe 15 days survive. But that was without the carbon monoxide coming up from underneath them constantly. So we went to 18 days just to be certain that we could say that there would be no way that anybody could have survived because we talked about it.

We asked each other how we were going to handle our own consciences if we came across a pile of bodies and they had a diary, this is day one, we know you guys are coming to get us, day three, where are you, and, day five, we're out of air, we can't stand it anymore, we're dying here, come get us, help us.

Firehouse: Let me just stop you at one point. Were there any transmissions besides those from Jay Jonas and other people? Jay told me that he had heard three or four Maydays right after it collapsed or in and around that time, a couple of hours. But did you hear any other Maydays or did anybody hear?

Norman: The Maydays that I heard were from rescuers calling for assistance because they had trapped firefighters. Like I said, Captain La Femmina from Squad 270 was working, I believe he was working with 43 Truck on rescuing members from 6 Truck. There were some other members around the perimeter, Al Fuentes. I didn't hear Al's Mayday. There were several Maydays for trapped members given by the rescuers, not the members themselves. In some cases, they found firemen, but they were beyond saving.

Firehouse: The FEMA teams are coming in. You gave them tasks to go into the surrounding buildings.

Norman: Some of them we deployed onto the pile looking in the voids. As we got more resources in, then we put them to work. We didn't have enough work for them to accomplish in their normal missions.