Exclusive Excerpts from 'Report from Ground Zero'

  Also: Dennis Smith Pens 'Report from Ground Zero' Prologue September 11, 2001, 8:48 a.m. For decades to come people will ask of each other, where were you . . . ?


Pumpers will be connecting to hydrants; ladder trucks will be positioning their aerial platforms; roof men, can men, irons men, and engine men will all be helping, lifting, carrying people out of the buildings. Chiefs of every rank will respond. There will be battalion chiefs who wear golden oak leafs, division chiefs who wear golden eagles, division commanders who wear one gold star, deputy assistant chiefs who wear two gold stars, and assistant chiefs who wear three gold stars. Each will have a specific job, each will direct personnel to preassigned duties in evacuation, rescue, or firefighting. The chief in charge, probably Pete Ganci, the chief of department, a circle of five gold stars on his collar, will be setting up his command post in accordance with prefire plans at the fire control panels in the lobby of the first building hit. He will begin to divide the emergency into grid sectors, and assign areas of responsibility. His aide chiefs will be generating blueprints, computer images of specific floor plans and elevator banks, prefire evacuation plans, and personnel assignments on each alarm transmitted. There will be lists of each of the three engine companies and two ladder companies that will respond to each alarm as it is transmitted. How many alarms will there be? I ask myself. Five alarms is normally as big as it gets. But this is not "normally." A situation requiring more than five alarms used to be transmitted during my years on active duty as a "borough call." But now the department's Starfire computer system not only makes the first five alarm assignments, but also tracks and moves the nearest ninety engine companies and forty ladder companies to the fire-a force equivalent to twenty-two alarms. Whatever it is called, it will be like a borough call, I think, and companies will come from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

I wonder about the conditions. What is the heat like below the fire, going up to it? Heat rises, but there is also radiated heat to consider. How hot is it above? Will the men be able to do a search above the fire? What is the integrity of the stairwells? Can people get down from the floors above? What is the strength of the ceilings and floors?

There are thousands of people working in those buildings. Will the evacuation be orderly? Is there enough room to carry equipment like stretchers, hose, Stokes baskets, generators, ropes, and ladders up the stairwells while hordes are coming down? These are all questions that must be going through the mind of the chief of department, if he is there, or the chief in charge, in addition to assessments of firefighting tactics. Is the standpipe system in working order? Is there electricity? Are there fail-safe generators? Are any of the elevators operable to at least get the hose and heavy equipment up? How will the wind affect the burning? Do we go in from the north side of the building or the south? What is the possibility of an inverted burn, in which fire travels downward in high-rise buildings? At which floors do I place my command stations? How many chiefs do I have? Where will I put the staging areas?

The irony of "twin" towers does not escape me, for they present two major incidents to the fire department, one in each of the buildings. I know that rescue will be the paramount concern. Will this prove to be the most serious rescue operation in our history?

Helicopters are certain to be dispatched to pick people off the roofs, but I wonder about the thermal columns. Can a helicopter get close enough to drop a rope and a man? If the fire is too great, they can't place the people on the street at risk if the chopper falls.

I can see now on the television just how much fire is coming out of the buildings. Entire floors are involved. I've been in the World Trade Center many times, and I know precisely what is involved. There are many large areas with no interior columns, lots of open space for a fire to burn freely. This would be a five alarm call even if only one building were involved. Besides the helicopters, all the special equipment companies will respond-the hazmat team, the squad companies, the rescue companies, the mask service unit, the high-rise unit, the field communications units, the foam unit, and the fire boats. There will be no need of volunteers like me. This is a fire and rescue operation, and New York has twelve thousand firefighters. Within an hour, I am estimating, the operations will have been planned, the defenses put in place, and the rescues and evacuations will be under way. Thereafter, there might be a need for assistance both in caring for the injured and cleaning up.

I am attached to the television as if every friend I ever had is about to cross the screen. The helicopter shots are mesmerizing. In my mind's eye I try to visualize what is happening in the towers as I see the flames shooting from their sides. How many have been killed by the impact of the planes, and how many have been burned by the fires? How many will be living, and how many will be dead? How many will be trapped on the fire floor, above the fire, and below the fire in collapsed areas? And the firefighters? How many flights of stairs will they have to run up, and how many minutes will it take them to reach the fire floors? How many firefighters are at this very minute racing into the buildings to get to those who need help?

How many will be caught above the fires? It looks like there are ten stories above the fire in the north tower that haven't been hit directly by the plane, and maybe twenty-five stories above the fire in the south tower. Oh, my God, I cry to myself. How many people are on each floor? An acre each floor. Maybe two hundred or more? Thousands. And what will they do? Did the planes take out the fire stairs? The fire will go right up the wells, like a chimney. No one will be able to get to the roof. Maybe the only way they can be saved is by extinguishing the fire and bringing ladders in. That will take hours, maybe days. It is so hot above a fire. I have been there many times in the tenements of the Bronx, hot and dangerous. And if the stairs are out, the situation will be untenable. How many are trapped at this very moment, trying to come to grips with their own end?