WTC: This Is Their Story - Part II

Aug. 1, 2002
As the day went on, most of the activity was at the top of Tower 1. They started finding people, some removable, some not removable. And we had to do something about supplies and everything, because I was constantly sending people back and I finally came to the realization that when I kept asking for people, I said send me in two companies and I said tell them not to come in empty-handed. I told them, get a Stokes, fill it up with water and body bags. We had more body bags than we needed, but we thought we were going to find thousands of people there and we actually didn't. I asked the crews to bring water, batteries, flashlight, radios. Radio batteries were another big item. Everybody's radio wasn't charging. Just different things. Hey, Chief, what about this, what about that? I would tell them to bring this stuff. Guys would come right out to the command post and tell me they had a Stokes full of stuff, is that OK? I'd tell them to stack it up over there, put it up with the other stuff. The Stokes were packed here, the body bags were in there, they were stuffed there.

More and more people kept coming in, people from Jersey City, people from all over the place, and I just put them on the bucket brigades. I said, look, get over here, get on the other bucket brigade, as guys get relieved, as guys leave, you'll be moving up. I said, this is what we need done. That's what we kept doing.

After the first night, at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon on the second day, I realized that we were going to need the lights and generators. I was standing there and somebody knocked one over and I said oh, man, we're going to need these lights and generators. So I got a couple of truck companies that came in and I said, look, there are lights all over the place with generators. They're lying all over the place, the generators lying on their sides. I had a few guys with me, like Danny Messina and a couple of other guys. I was talking to the officer, I said, look, Pat, you've got to check out the lights and start up the generators to make sure they're working. And somebody said yeah, make sure you check the oil on some of them because in some of them there was an oil reservoir, so gas and oil had to be mixed. I sent a couple of companies out there to work on the lights. Some of them were broken, they wouldn't work, and some of the generators wouldn't start, so we had to start with that process all over again. We had to get the generators and get the lights and get them working. And that's basically how it was going that day.

Firehouse: Did they finally get your paint?

Visconti: Oh, yeah, we got paint. Somebody had said that they were asking for all this stuff, like socks and underwear. They said if we had asked for paint, we probably would have gotten a hundred thousand gallons. But that was the first day, when we were trying to mark everything. I did ask for paint. Somebody showed up, they had a case. I was expecting a can. They showed up with a case. So we're doing the arrows and even some guys wrote victim and now we had paint there.

Firehouse: Did you get a chance to walk around? I know people were sectored geographically because you couldn't go very far. Was there a point in time when you had a chance to get around and see the whole picture?

Visconti: I tried to go south. I walked south right through the debris field and I got to Liberty Street. I saw a lot of people coming in that way.

Boats were coming in and out, which I didn't realize, and they had a triage area set up. As a matter of fact, that's where the temporary morgue was. They had a temporary morgue down there and they had one up on West and Vesey, right outside the entrance to the World Financial Center. (Battalion Chief) Billy Blaich was down there and I heard other people on the radio. They still had the problem with the fire in the building on the corner. They put that out, then there was another fire. And I looked around, thinking that if I try to get around this whole place, I'll never get back.

I think it was Thursday or Friday, when we had a full-fledged commitment to Tower 1, that at one point I had gotten nervous about it. I asked for a structural engineer to come in. The guy had surveyed it and said, look, the sides are not that stable, but if you're on top, it should be stable, I think those guys are good up there, but he wasn't going up there to find out. Anyway, it was reassuring to me because guys were working under my control.

Different people had been up there. We tied guys onto guys. I didn't even know how many people we had up there. There was nobody giving head counts, I've got 12 guys with me, anything like that. So (Battalion Chief) Joe Nardone, I remember this distinctly, he called me on the radio. It was getting dark or it was already dark, I'm not sure. He said, look, I need an assistant chief up here to make a determination of the stability. I said, Joe, am I good enough? Yeah. So I went up there. It took me 25 minutes to get up there, I had to get all the way to the edge where the trench was. I had to go down on ladders and hold on to these ropes. There were people all along there, not that they were passing me hand to hand, but there were people there to help - not only me, anybody who was going up there or coming down and who needed help. You got to these ladders and you climbed up a ladder. Then there's a ladder horizontal, then there's a ladder up at an angle.

I got to the top. I was a little bit winded and I looked at Joe Nardone and I said to him, there had better be an escalator on the other side. He said, no, there's no escalator, so he took me around to this location where this huge beam was. He said, we think it moves a little bit and we sent people in there to check these voids and I'm concerned about it. I asked how deep we have been and he told me. I said how many times? He said, maybe a couple of times. I said, all right, Joe, we're not moving that piece of steel. I said, we don't want somebody in there and then have them get sealed in, so we'll just stay away from there.

I asked where everybody was working, so he took me around the perimeter of Tower 1. We looked around and down into this hollow and they had lights up there, and there must have been half a dozen guys, with guys backed up behind them in a straight line, and they were working on getting people out of there.

They had just found what they thought were five or six people. They were all firefighters. They were on the stairs, but there were big pieces of concrete. We had to break the concrete in some cases and they were using rebar cutters. I was just so impressed with the care and dignity that they used.

I'm right up there and there's a big tall guy from Rescue 4. I just saw him the other day, one of the senior guys. He was like the straw boss up there. He was really running a few things. I was concerned about how many other people were up there. As I got up there, I walked around and I took a look. As they removed guys, an FDNY chaplain would say a prayer. So now we're there and they're working and they got a guy. Hey, we got somebody. A guy was on his back. And I remember his face was unidentifiable. They were trying to get his coat open and somebody said, roll him over, look at his back. I don't know why they thought it was a chief, maybe it was the shirt. Roll him over. So they worked on getting him out. They worked on getting another guy out.

All of a sudden, the short time I was up there turned out to be about seven hours or more that I was up at the top. I even forget who I left in charge down at the bottom, but I know I left somebody in charge and I stood up there with them.

Now, I was getting concerned about relief. These guys were up there all day. If I'm up there six or seven hours, they were all up there. I tried to relieve some guys, but they were hesitant. I grabbed Richie on the side. I said, come with me.We got to a place where we could talk. I said, look, Richie, I really feel that these guys need relief. We have 50 guys stacked up. I want some of these people out of here. I didn't want to take anybody out of here who has somebody here, but the rest of the guys have got to go, so I'm going to need your help with this.

I saw there was a guy who wasn't saying anything. I said, hey, bud, come on, take a blow. No, he said, I'm staying, I've got guys up here. I said, we've all got guys here, go take a blow. No, no, he said, I'm staying, I'm staying. I said, look, I'm telling you I want you relieved, do you understand? I said, do you understand I want you to take the blow now? I said, everybody else is taking a blow, we're going to get new people in here, I want you to take a blow. I think that was the harshest thing I had to say.

As I said earlier, there was an unbelievable amount of care and respect. They got these guys out, got a Stokes, the chaplain said something and down they went.

At some point, at 2 or 3 o'clock on Saturday morning, Joe Nardone was there. I said, Joe, I've got to take a blow, I've got to go. I said, are you going to stay up here? I'll send some chiefs. He said, yeah, I can use a blow. I said OK, I'll send somebody up here.

When I got back to the bottom, I reported to the command post and said, I've got to take a blow. I think it was about 3 o'clock or thereabouts and Danny Messina was with me, as usual. I had a couple of guys who wanted to go back to the 14th, so we went back. I took a shower and I was going to go home, but I realized there was no way I could drive. I was just shot. So I lied down and I slept for a couple of hours, then I went home for the first time.

To tell you the truth, I felt a little out of place because I was actually doing stuff, but that first week I just didn't feel like I had an option of going or staying, so I had stayed.

I got home sometime in the afternoon and then it was my intention to go back in the morning after spending some time at home. My son from Albany came home and my daughter who lives in the city was home, and I realized, I think for the first time, how awful this was for them. I remember something that happened on the first night, Tuesday night. It was one of the times I walked out. I tried to find out if there was land line someplace because I had lost my cell phone. Rescue found it about two weeks later.

I walked up to the school. A bunch of cops were there. There was a stage and there was a phone at each end, and on one phone you could call out. I called home, I think it was about 9 o'clock at night. I realized a little bit then how awful this was when I called up and I got my son Christopher on the phone and he said, I never thought I'd be this happy to hear your voice. We got a little laugh out of that. We get along fine, it was just that I never had felt that from him.

Battalion Chief Tom Vallebuona Battalion 21
29 years

Firehouse: You are assigned to Staten Island. Where were you when the planes hit?

Vallebuona: We had just had a run. It was a beautiful day and one of the guys came walking down the stairs and said, Chief, I just a got a phone call from my wife on her cell phone, she said there was an explosion in the World Trade Center. So we took a ride down to Marine 9, which is right by the Navy pier, where you can see right across the bay.

Firehouse: Is it close to the firehouse?

Vallebuona: It's 10 blocks away, in the Stapleton Park. A guy was just coming off the boat, Marine 9, and he had binoculars. I had my binoculars and we were looking at the building. It took me a while to realize this. I was looking and it looked like a little outline of a wing or something going into the building. We were looking at the south end of the building, and I just saw a little bit of smoke coming out. I don't know if I saw fire at that time.

I remember telling him, oh, we can put this one out. I thought he said that a small plane had gone into it. The plane had hit the north side and we were looking at the south side. I called up the dispatcher and I told him I wanted to go to the fire and I was complaining because I told him I was working the day of the last one (the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center), that he had stopped me at the 32 Battalion and that I wanted to go this time. As soon as I got to Brooklyn last time, they trapped me in Brooklyn. After I hang up the cell phone, a plane came over our heads. I watched it sort of lumber around on a turn. It was almost over our heads.

Firehouse: Did it come that far south?

Vallebuona: I don't know if it was quite over our heads or coming over Staten Island. So the plane seemed to come, but it was in front of us, really close. You couldn't get the perspective of the size of the plane because I saw two engines. It seemed to make a turn and it was coming over our heads, and it seemed to go slow and I'm saying to the aide, Steve, what's going on, what's that plane doing because it still hasn't registered. We were there for a couple of minutes.

And all of a sudden, it was like it just took off across the bay. I couldn't believe how fast it went. At first, I thought it was just somebody trying to take a look at Manhattan. And it just went right across right into the building. It looked like it got sucked into the building. You couldn't even see it disintegrate. It just went so fast and it looked like it just disappeared in the building and I heard it seconds later. I got that sick feeling in my stomach and, sure enough, the computer in the car went off.

I was looking at the cell phone, thinking, hmm, you want to go, but you don't want to go. I'm doing this too long - you want to be there, you're not going to back down, but boy, you're saying, hmm. And, sure enough, then we got to relocate to the 32 Battalion in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Firehouse: Did you think about the last incident?

Vallebuona: If I told you I was kind of glad we were going to the 32, in a way, it wasn't that I didn't want to go, but this is so bad I can't believe it. You knew people were dying by the hundreds. I didn't anticipate a collapse at that time so quickly, but it was a different story when you saw the second tower get hit.

Amazingly, by the time I got to the bridge, it was already closed. They had us waiting over there. It was amazing how little on the way there you're looking at the tower. I think when you look at the picture of Ladder 118, those guys really knew what they were going to. People would never realize how much a firefighter, especially if you got some time in now, especially a chief in a way, how much other things you're thinking about.

You don't necessarily have a chance to look. You're trying to figure out what's going on and you're talking on the radio. I remember Rescue 5 asking to go. I remember giving an urgent to the Staten Island dispatcher when the plane hit. I don't know what good this would do to tell the Manhattan dispatcher another plane just went into the another tower.

Firehouse: You told them that?

Vallebuona: Yes.

Firehouse: What did you say?

Vallebuona: 21 Battalion to Staten Island urgent, another plane just went into the other tower of the World Trade Center. I don't know what else I said. I remember calling up Teddy Goldfarb of Division 8, telling him you better start calling guys in, they better do a recall or something right away. I don't know why I would say that. Rescue 5 wanted to go. They didn't want them to go. I remember telling dispatch you better let them go, they're going to need all the rescues they could use.

We ended up in the 32. When I got to the 32 - I got there pretty quick - and as soon as we get there, the 32's car was PMP'd (preventative maintenance program). They were out of service and we got a call from the Brooklyn dispatcher to bring them over to the command post at Vesey and Broadway. We had the guys put a bunch of cylinders in the rig, whatever they had. We took the chief. None of us felt too good about this, I tell you that.

Firehouse: Just one chief?

Vallebuona: The chief and his aide in the 32. The 32 is right there at the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Outside the tunnel they were forming another box, transmit a second and third from there too for a staging area. So we're going through the tunnel and what a feeling going through that tunnel. There was a truck in front of us. I told the driver, Tony, don't go too close to the truck, figuring it was going to blow up.

We get out of the tunnel. The Brooklyn dispatcher begged us to come back if we could. You can't just charge into this thing. You got to figure out what's going on. And I figured there would be plenty of people there too. So I said I'll go and I'll ask. I had the aide stop as soon as we got out of the tunnel on West Street, you know halfway up, just before Liberty. And I saw a couple of guys setting up on the other side of the foot bridge that's still here, which turned out to be (Assistant Chief and Citywide Tour Commander) Gerry Barbara's aide, a couple of aides. I thought they were chiefs at the time. I said all right. I got the other guy out. I said wait here, I'll go up and find out if they want us, if they want me, if they want you here. This literally saved our lives because if I had kept on going … I don't know why I stopped. I'll never know why.

Firehouse: Where did you stop? By the foot bridge?

Vallebuona: Just before it, about half a block away. In front of 90 West St., but opposite that on the median. And so I walked up and I started to say something to him, they're going to need everybody, we'll just start from here. So I went back. The chief started putting his gear on. I went to grab my gear and stuff and I heard boom, a loud boom, I thought. I looked up, it was a beautiful sunny day, and I heard that crescendo sound.

But something scared me. It sounded like - it must have been all the aluminum on the side, like just shhh, shhh, shhh. I looked up and it looked like a fountain, like a firework. It was the south tower collapsing. I looked up. I said, oh, my God. I tell you I thought I was back in the firehouse asleep. I said this can't be real. The hotel was in front of the tower. The tower was really halfway up Liberty Street, so I guess I was really a block away. I was on the other side, next to 90 West Street, which I think is an old office building, and I realize I'm not far enough away.

I couldn't believe it. The stuff, it looked so pretty up in the air catching the sunlight, I guess the aluminum and stuff. I didn't realize it was coming over our heads. I turned around to run. Stevie, who's the aide, and me, we both started to run. I don't think we made it 10 steps before the cloud was there instantly, we saw it coming at us. I was looking around this horrendous-looking cloud, this brownish, reddish or whatever cloud, I couldn't figure it out. I had no idea what it was.

This is going to light up, I figured, we're buying it. And I was hunking down. You couldn't breathe, the old put-your-head-in-the-coat trick. Steve and I were holding hands and we just held up for a while because a breeze came by or something. I'm glad we got down because I don't know if we would have gotten knocked over or whatever. We could hear stuff around us, landing.

After we collected ourselves a little bit, we started to work our way south down West Street. We got to the next street, went west and still couldn't see beans. I found a store in the building that would be in Battery Park City. The store was open. I had a light. We started bringing people that are working around to the store. The sound was like a snowstorm, muffled. Everything was muffled- you know how the snow sort of quiets things up? I'm calling out to people. The guy had the store open, bringing people in, trying to figure out what's going on. You couldn't figure out what this cloud was. When I was lying up there, I thought it was going to be like Pompeii, we were going to be buried in dust.

When it cleared, we went back to the rig and I saw that Frank Cruthers had just come in. I saw him with a map or building plans or something he was setting up on his car. I saw another guy running up the street, then some other guys running up the street. I said, wait, don't rush, hold it up, let's figure out what's going on. I wanted to get my gear. I don't know why, but I guess everybody must have figured out that the other one's going to come down too. To me it wasn't a guess anymore. I figured if one came down, the other one's going to come down.

I didn't want to breathe that again because it just was so lousy. I didn't feel like I could go through that cloud again. So I put on my fire gear, grabbed my mask and gave Stevie his. He always still says he can't believe I said this. I said Stevie, take this, it's going to get worse before it gets better. It was getting pretty clear. I went over to talk to Frank Cruthers, to see what he wanted to do, to start getting guys. Guys were going up the street a little faster than I would like to, but they were doing what they thought was right and I admire their courage.

The next thing you know, boom, same thing all over again. The cloud, I think, probably was worse because it must have been picked up the dust from the first one, but the other one was so bad. It was just bad. You're running again. It's amazing the few people that are there and they're running and you don't see anybody. I lost Stevie this time. The same scenario just about. I put my mask on. Of course, I forgot that the mask was all full of dust from the first one, so as soon as I got a hit of that, it totally destroyed my eyes. We then worked our way south again a little bit. Things cleared up.

Firehouse: Where were you when the second tower came down?

Vallebuona: Same place, right back to square one, right at the car, just about a hundred feet below the foot bridge.

I can't remember if I saw fires the first time. The second time, I saw fires. The rigs were starting to burn. Cars were starting to burn. I'm surprised, I saw a few pictures, I can't remember. The smoke was starting to bank down pretty good in certain streets around there, even on West Street. It was like really turning into a pretty good fire condition all around us. 90 West St. had at least three floors burning. We had a cellar job there. The roof was starting to burn.

I dropped off my mask. I just didn't feel I could carry it anymore because it really just was too dusty. I don't remember if I left my coat on or not. I walked up the street, but I didn't have any boots. My boots were so full of dust I couldn't put them on. I walked up under the foot bridge and I saw (Deputy Chief) Charlie Blaich standing on a pile of the building. I looked around. I couldn't see too many people. Charlie was directing something.

It was pretty clear then. I looked in. I was so shocked and I just said, Charlie, I'm going to go down the street, get some water and we'll start knocking down the fires. I was not at that time up to climbing up to the top of the pile with what we'd been through and stuff. I just don't think I could have done it. It was just total despair. The force that I felt. I'd been through the worst collapse in my time in the job. It was maybe the worst time I've ever had as a firefighter. I never had such a feeling that everybody was dead in my whole entire life. I felt there was nobody alive. I just couldn't get rid of that feeling.

I just said, the best thing I can do is just put out some fires and confine the fire, try and keep it. Believe it or not, the objective I had in mind was to keep the fire from going south from that area that was starting to burn in the other building. Some people felt that it would have burnt itself out. I don't know. So we went back. There were guys there still. Guys were coming on in, but not a lot of people on the scene yet. And I really don't know what's going on. I know there was some surface rescues.

We took a look around in that area and we looked for surface people, couldn't find anybody around there. Never forget seeing a line, I remember the line going up and then after the second collapse the line just going before where the foot bridge had collapsed and just a big pile of rubble on top of it. Where we hunkered down on the other side of us on the other side of West Street was this gigantic piece of the World Trade Center. When we hunkered down the second time, we could hear it, sounds all around us. I don't know why we didn't hear boom, anything hitting like that, but it was all like soft stuff and I swear I felt it was people.

It was a day of frustration from that. It was like being at a battle. I tried to remember I was a chief and that you have to take charge or whatever and do something constructive - and I wanted to go home. The chief I brought over broke his shoulder, got hit by something after the second one and he broke his collar bone. I looked at him and I was jealous.

I'm pretty proud of what we did as a group. We did accomplish our objective. My objective in the beginning was that I didn't want anybody else to get killed and I wanted to confine the fire. That's why I've gone back, just because I would never believe it if I didn't go back.

We had lines stretched. We had some pumpers hooked up. The mains were shot. What else could go wrong? But things started going right then. They tried. We knocked down the first floor, which was almost an exterior operation of 90. 90 West St. also had next to it a scaffold covering the whole building and with everything we've been through with scaffolds, I mean that scaffold would have covered the whole block. We were very concerned about the scaffolding, so we tried to knock down the fire. We knocked down the fire on the first floor and I was saying, where do these fires come from, why are the rigs burning?

I forget what truck was burning and a squad was burning. There were a couple of rigs burning. There were a lot of cars burning. It was really banking down the street pretty good.

We put out the fire. I knew the place was wide open, so maybe we could put it out with handlines.

I also looked at it. There was nobody else there besides me at the time and a lot of guys I knew, but not that many. I said, let's see, if I showed up at this fire and this was the only thing going on in Manhattan, I would say third alarm, get ready for the fourth and the fifth. And I'd only say third. I wouldn't even say second. I'd say third because I've been battalion chief a long time. I know I can say there's a third because I know there's going to be a fifth alarm.

We tried. They had enough water. We were knocking down the first floor. We found a cellar door and we could feel the heat coming out of the cellar. I could feel the air being sucked in at the front door, so I said, that's it, and we shut the lines. And we had at least three more floors burning above us throughout the building and the roof was starting to go.

I remember we had a pumper go down the street, still no water going further south. I said this to a couple of guys, go down - you wouldn't think this was going to happen, but you realize with this thing the fireboats are going to be there somewhere. I told them go down to the river and see if you can find a fireboat.

The next thing I know, guys were coming up the street. It seemed like so quick I couldn't believe it. They were coming up the street with 31/2-inch lines and firemen from New Jersey were with them. It was unbelievable. So I said, you know what we're going to do, we're going to supply the standpipe in the hotel. It's salt water, but that's the way life is with this thing, Anything goes with this thing.

I said get a deck gun, take it to the roof and hook up to the manifold. We'll start knocking that thing down and we'll put other lines throughout the building. We'll do it like they used to do.

And they must have found the engineer in the building to get the pumps going too. We got some pretty good streams going out of there. We had 15 Truck, I think. It was a tower ladder. I didn't want him to go up the street. I was the biggest coward in the world that day. I was waiting. I thought every other building was going to collapse in Manhattan, I really did. I couldn't get rid of that feeling like everything is going to collapse. 7 World Trade Center - I couldn't even watch that. I said that's enough. I refused to watch that. I took R-and-R. I said you guys can watch that one. But they got streams and they contained the fire. I mean, the objective was nobody else got killed, the fire did not jump the street.

Firehouse: Would it have jumped the street?

Vallebuona: I don't know. How long you can let that type of building burn, how much content was in it? I don't know, but it was contained. It's just so hard to believe that a battalion chief would be thinking like that, let's keep the rest of Manhattan from burning.

Deputy Chief Bobby Mosier come in. There were a lot of people showing up. Even before Bobby came in, guys were coming from the ferry. A lot of firemen were coming in from the ferry and most of them I knew. Guys were coming who were from certain units, like SOC (Special Operations Command), units that I knew. I knew all the guys from Rescue 5.

I tried to make guys form into teams, an officer with five firemen, which they were doing pretty well. The guys were very cooperative and they really worked hard, unbelievable.

What went on at that pile that day, I don't know. We'd have people running down the street and then they wouldn't be running down the street. I tried to keep people away and eventually move the tower ladder up. The engineers were initially worried about the scaffold.

Firehouse: Were crews able to get the pump going at 90 West St.?

Vallebuona: The Marriott, the hotel. It was unbelievable that you could pump water from the Hudson and get a good stream going off the top of that building. I mean, that was pretty impressive. It was a newer building, so the pipes - I saw an aerial picture of the 90 West. From the street you couldn't tell, but it was C shaped. It had a courtyard in there. The other building was going next door too so we really didn't have much of an effect on that.

Guys were up by 10 and 10, climbing into that pile. That wasn't my day to do that, it just wasn't. I'm not ashamed of that. Obviously, I could have done more, but you run twice. This has been a couple of collapses for me. My only concern was to keep anybody else from getting killed. It took me forever to get over that. Amazingly, even just the stuff they did, when you really needed something, people would come through somehow. Then they're relaying the water to some pumpers. I mean guys are really doing stuff you didn't think we would to be able to do anymore.

I could relax, other people were showing up. And all of a sudden, a guy says, Chief, we're running out of diesel fuel. What else can go wrong? I mean, you know that's it.


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