When, thirty years ago, an editor from a major publishing house called to ask if I would be interested in writing a book about firefighting, I thought of myself as an honored young man of 29. I had written a letter about Irish poetry that had been published in the New York Times Book Review, and I was fortunate that an editor of The New Yorker had seen it and assigned a writer to interview me for the "Talk of the Town" section of the magazine.
The article was published under the heading of "Fireman Smith," and I was again most fortunate in that it was noticed by an editor at a publishing company, who then thought to ask me to write a book about the work that we performed in the world's busiest firehouse. That book, Report from Engine Co. 82, went on to become a bestseller, and was translated into thirteen languages.
Now, after having spent three months writing Report from Ground Zero, I again feel most honored, but not because I was asked to write this book. The honor has come in the experience of Ground Zero.
On September 11, 2001, several firefighters and I had commandeered a city bus after the South Tower had collapsed, and we made our way over to the fire department's staging area on West 67th Street. As we headed down the West Side highway, a lieutenant, Ray Wick, rose and stood in the middle of the bus. "Brothers," he said, "we'll see things today we shouldn't have to see, and there will be things we might think we should attend to, but listen up. Whatever we decide to do we'll do it together. We'll be together, and we'll all come back together, boys."
This was the first indication that I was among exceptional men.
We arrived at ground zero just minutes after the collapse of the north tower. Men and women were still walking in dazed circles, and being directed to safety by first responders. It was cloudy with the thick and choking smoke of collapse, and we could see perhaps a half block in front of us, on this, one of the clearest days of the year.
Walking down West Street was like walking on a peculiar beach where each step kicked up a small, floating cloud of gray powder. There were hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper scattered everywhere, as if each piece of correspondence was a leaf on the ground of a woods in a northeast November.
It was quiet, except for the voices of firefighters calling out for victims, for the survivors, for anyone. The managing chiefs of the fire department were huddled together in a spontaneous conference at a spontaneously organized command post. In such circumstances, the post was nothing more than the huddle itself, and these brave men immediately realized what was confronting them, and the great tragedy they were living through as each second passed.
There they are, Chief Nigro, Chief Callan, Chief Hayden, Chief Visconti, and the others, all coming to terms with the horrible fact that the Chief of Department and the First Deputy Commissioner of the fire department, Pete Ganci and Bill Feehan, have been killed, and recognizing that the management of the worst attack in our history is up to them.
At first, I had no intention of writing about what I was living through. My only reason for being present at the site of the World Trade Center was to add a hand, to search for survivors, to fight the fires, to pull hose and lift debris.
A few days later I wrote an article for the New York Times Op-ed Page. It mentioned the names of friends who were lost, and the desolation we all felt in the midst of devastation.
Every firefighter and police officer and Port Authority police officer sensed in those first days that there would be survivors, that a piece of steel would be lifted and a crowded elevator of still living victims would be discovered, that buried voices from among the first responders, 343 firefighters, 23 police officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers would be heard - 401 men and 2 women. But there was only silence, and an occasional body.