FDNY Chiefs Speak Of WTC Experiences

Two programs at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore presented excellent narratives of dramatic events during and following the terrorist's attack of the World Trade Center in New York City.

FDNY Battalion Chief Rich Picciotto described the harrowing hours he and a small group spent trapped after the collapse of the World Trade Center North Tower. He faced a moment when he said, "Please God make it quick."

FDNY Battalion Chief John Norman, who took over the Special Operations Division after the loss of Ray Downey at the World Trade Center, and Lt. Fred Endrikat, Rescue 1, Philadelphia FD who was the task force leader for the FEMA USAR teams sent to New York, spoke of the rescue and recovery efforts following the terrorist’s attack. "We were not going to leave these people. There was no way in hell we were not going in," Norman said.

Last Man Down

Chief Picciotto was asked to repeat his program as hundreds filled the room to overflowing the previous day. He has written his story in the book "Last Man Down",

Picciotto’s unimaginable day began when he took a company of firefighters from Ladder 110 in Brooklyn up into the North Tower to help in rescue operations. He had worked the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and felt he had a good handle on how to work this incident.

It was around the 35th floor when a new reality set in. As he spoke, Picciotto shook the podium he was speaking from. He described the a noise above getting louder, "like a train coming into a station." Everyone was frozen in their tracks. No one said anything as they stared up to the ceiling. He said it felt like the noise went right through them as the South Tower collapsed. Picciotto realized it was bad when all radio communication disappeared. From where he was he ordered an immediate evacuation.

The evacuation was going well, he said until they found a room with perhaps 25 handicapped people with another 25 people helping them. They had stopped to rest. Picciotto sent the helpers on down and had the firefighters take care of moving out the handicapped.

Now with a group other firemen, a Port Authority Police Officer and an elderly woman named Josephine, they worked their way down the stairway. On the sixth floor they heard the noise from above again only multiplied by 100, Picciotto said. He knew what it meant. That is when he said his little prayer.

It took eight seconds for the building to come down. "A lot time to think but not a lot of time to do anything," Picciotto said. The wind hit and stuff fell on him and the noise was intense. Then there was silence and blackness. He thought he was dead.

It took a few minutes, Picciotto said, to realize he was alive and relatively uninjured. He also became aware that he was not alone. The 14 people were saved from the collapse by the structure of the stairwell. With a light pointer, Picciotto marked the spot in a photo of a mound of crushed steel and concrete. "We were right about here."

It took hours to make contact with rescuers. As the dust cleared they could see a ray of light above and worked their way toward it. It took hours for rescuers to get to them.

Picciotto said he wrote the book because so many people wanted to know about his experience and it was a way to help him release his emotions.

"God had a reason to keep me alive. I wish I knew what it was. Tragedy sometimes brings out the best. I don’t think the brotherhood in the fire department could get any stronger," Picciotto said.

Rescue and Recovery Efforts at the World Trade Center

FDNY Battalion Chief John Norman was at home sleeping in starting a two-week vacation when he got the phone call alerting him to the WTC attack. The loss of Downey moved him into command of the Special Operations Division. Hindsight has presented several questions about how FDNY handled the incident and Norman was frank about problems.

First is the knowledge now that sending firefighters into the buildings to fight the fires was fruitless. But in fact the rescue operation was the saving grace for thousands of people Norman said. And there was no way that FDNY was not going to go in and rescue these people.

"We knew we were going to get up, get everybody out and then get out ourselves. We were not going to put out the fire," Norman said.

One of the toughest things to do was shift from rescue to recovery. "Why stay in the rescue mode for so long? We felt we owed it to our people. We knew people could survive up to 14 days. If anyone could do it, our firefighters could. We have them every benefit of the doubt," Norman said.

Like Picciotto’s case they thought there might be other survivors in voids in the destruction but after two weeks they had checked everywhere. They switched to recovery.

They designated 2,000 firefighters as the primary task force to work recovery duty at the site. The more then 9,000 other firefighters went back to normal city firefighting duties.

Norman was quick to thank all those that helped FDNY and the city. But he was also quick to explain that the volunteers that flooded into the city to aid and search for their firefighter brothers created a big problem for FDNY. He said their easy access to the site and the lack of communications with them often put them in precarious situations, sometimes dangerous.

He used an example of clearing a dangerous site of FDNY firefighters and soon seeing volunteers looking for a place to dig, working that site without authorization.

He said that it caused a morale problem too. FDNY firefighters on normal duty would see a television interview with a firefighter from out of town working at the site and wonder why they were not allowed to search for their brothers too.

Norman described a monumental effort that involved food and laundry and adapted work clothing and an endless list of unusual needs. Around every corner was a new problem to deal with. But in the end, Norman said, the recovery effort produced only three firefighter injuries that required hospitalization.

"In the beginning I didn’t know how we were ever going make it. But we got a lot of help from our friends," Norman said.

Loading