BY PETER W. BLAICH
Iresponded to the World Trade Center with Engine 9 and Ladder 6. Engine 9 includes Satellite One, a pumper that carries large-diameter hose, a manifold, a deluge monitor, and foam equipment. It is usually dispatched on second alarms. Satellite One, supplied by a fireboat and augmented by an engine company, would be one of the few sources of water after the WTC collapse.
We reported to the command post in the North Tower with 21/2-inch hose, extra air tanks for our masks, and lifesaving rope, because of the report of jumpers. As we got closer to the burning tower, I heard the thuds of the jumpers’ bodies hitting the ground. In the lobby, a burned-out elevator contained the remains of still burning corpses; a firefighter extinguished them with a fire extinguisher. There was an overpowering smell of kerosene, and we knew the elevators were compromised with jet fuel. We would have to use the stairs.
At the command post, Chief Joseph Pfeifer was directing companies to the B stairway, the designated attack stairway. All other stairways were reserved for civilians to exit. He told Engine 9 and Ladder 6 to remain together, a decision that would prove crucial.
When we reached the seventh floor, we heard an explosion. The South Tower had been hit. As we proceeded upward, people streamed past us, and we directed them toward other stairways to facilitate a quicker exit. Some people, fully clothed and calm, encouraged us as we brushed shoulders in passing in the stairway. Others were naked and crying, with charred hair and skin peeling from their bodies. We stopped and collected clothes from other civilians and sent two Port Authority police officers to help them down.
At about the 28th floor, we heard and felt a tremendous blast. It was similar to standing on the edge of a subway platform as a train arrives—the rush of air, the roar of the train arriving, and platform vibrating. But we weren’t in the subway—we in the stairway of a major high-rise building. If we had had time to listen closely, we might have realized that no transmissions were coming from the South Tower.
Captain Jay Jonas, Ladder 6’s commander, realized something was seriously wrong. He ordered a halt to the advance up the tower. Looking out the windows of the tower, the Ladder 6 members observed an unusually heavy “smoke” condition. It was actually the dust and smoke from the South Tower’s collapse. Jonas called over the radio, “Collapse is imminent! Collapse is imminent!”
Realizing that the South Tower had collapsed and that the North Tower, where we were, had been burning significantly longer, Jonas ordered Engine 9 and Ladder 6 out of the North Tower. We turned and started down, stopping at each floor, yelling for civilians and firefighters to evacuate. On about the third floor, there was a bottleneck of civilians. One elderly woman, Josephine Harris, was unable to walk anymore. Chief Richard Picciotto ordered Engine 9 to evacuate all the remaining ambulatory people in the B stairway and the lobby and Ladder 6 to remain and remove the woman down the stairs.
When our Engine 9 members arrived at the lobby, we found it was littered with slabs of concrete from the South Tower’s collapse and that exiting from the lobby was impossible. A lieutenant from another engine company said to us, “I’m missing all my guys. Can you help me?” Some of our crew continued evacuating the civilians, and two of us helped to find the missing members. We started a search of the lobby for the missing company as the smoke condition in the lobby grew and larger chunks of the building fell around us. The smoke was from fires in the debris from the South Tower’s collapse. We decided to leave the lobby and regroup on West Street with the other members of Engine 9 and then return. This decision saved our lives.
We descended to a subbasement one level below that had a loading dock and access to Vesey Street. As we exited, I was knocked to the ground by debris. The North Tower was collapsing. Another member dragged me under a truck by the loading dock as the freight train of concrete, steel, smoke, and dust slammed past. After it had passed, someone dug us out from the rubble and helped us to our feet. Nearby, two other people lay deathly still, lifeless under dust and debris.
It took Engine 9 about 30 to 40 minutes to regroup. Miraculously, all company members survived the collapse. After regrouping, we started north on West Street, but nothing was the same—it was total destruction. An emergency medical technician treated me for dust in my eyes, lacerations to my face, and burns to my neck. She asked me if I knew where Ladder 5 (her husband’s company) was working. I didn’t know what to tell her. I saw that company on the lower floors as we descended, but I didn’t know if they made it out. I would later discover that Ladder 5 was lost during the rescue mission.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Ladder 6 to Command. We’re trapped in the North Tower.” There was no time to rest. Members of Engine 9 went back to what was left of the North Tower. The lobby was a jumble of steel girders, concrete boulders, and pockets of fire. Outside the North Tower lobby, I saw my father, Battalion Chief Bill Blaich, for the first time that day. He responded with my uncle, Charlie Blaich, a deputy chief; they had both just missed the collapse. My father hugged me. “Do you know where Ladder 6 is?” he asked. “Yes, they were above us in the B stairway,” I replied.
Battalion Chief Blaich initiated an advance into the remains of the North Tower. My body was beaten up, and my lungs burned with every full breath; my mind told me not to go back inside. Then I saw the look in my father’s eyes and in the eyes of all the members of our company. There was no question we would go.
“We’ll need water!” Battalion Chief Blaich said. Personnel were divided: A handful would stretch hose from a nearby building standpipe to advance it into the ruins of the North Tower, and the rest would try to get water from somewhere. There was water all around us—you could see boats off the West Side Highway—but not one hydrant was working as a result of the collapse. As part of the advance team, we managed to work with the residual water that remained in an adjacent building’s standpipe system. We stretched six lengths of 21/2-inch hose into the North Tower, as the remaining Engine 9 and Ladder 6 members stretched nine lengths of five-inch large-diameter attack hose approximately four city blocks to the fireboat Harvey to supply Engine 9 (severely damaged in the collapse but able to pump water) and Satellite One’s monitor and manifold.
Reaching the B stairway proved to be an arduous journey obstructed by hot steel girders and burning trucks parked at the Vesey Street loading dock. When we got there, the B stairway was completely obscured. Ladder 6, for all intents and purposes, was entombed. I kneeled in exhaustion and prayed for one miracle. It came minutes later over the department radio: “Jay Jonas to command post. We found a way out.” All members of Ladder 6 made it out of the debris. At that moment, a steel girder smashed to the ground 15 feet away from our advanced hoseline, and Battalion Chief Blaich ordered us out of the wreckage.
We knew the only hope of rescuing the remaining civilians and firefighters was to knock down the remaining fire in the debris pile by Vesey Street. We made a stand with handlines from Satellite One’s manifold and monitor deluge gun. The unit would operate up until the collapse of 7 WTC (the last building to collapse), which destroyed it. The collapse sent members running down West Street again. We continued operating throughout the night.
“For thousands of horrified office workers who fled the terrorist attacks, the most remarkable sight during their descent was the wave of determined firefighters advancing toward the burning sky.”—“A Nation Challenged: Honoring the Rescuers,” Dean E. Murphy, The New York Times, Sept. 23, 2001
“One fireman stopped to take a breath, and we looked each other in the eye. He was going to a place where I was damn well trying to get out of. I looked at him thinking, ‘What are you doing this for?’ He looked at me like he knew very well. ‘This is my job.'”—Louis G. Lesce, who was on his way down from the 86th floor of the North Tower, the first tower hit. “A Nation Challenged: Honoring the Rescuers,” Dean E. Murphy, The New York Times, Sept. 23, 2001
“They were perspiring profusely, exhausted. And they had to go all the way to the 90s—straight into hell. This was not lost on the crowd. We all broke out into applause at one point. It was a wonderful moment.'”—David Frank, a salesman who escaped from the 78th floor of 1 World Trade Center. “A Nation Challenged: Honoring the Rescuers,” Dean E. Murphy, The New York Times, Sept. 23, 2001
But as the unforeseeable unfolded, interviews with dozens of survivors indicate much that was remarkable took place: A blind man made it 78 floors down to safety, even crossing through ankle-deep water at the end; one AON employee who was on the 101st floor of the South Tower ignored the announcement and made it to the street before the building became the first to fall; order was so strictly enforced on stairwells that anyone who tried to cut the line was reprimanded; Morgan Stanley, with 3,500 workers at the center, including many on several floors of the South Tower, lost just a handful of people; and people even made it out of the North Tower after its twin had collapsed.—“The Evacuation That Kept a Horrible Toll From Climbing Higher.” Dean E. Murphy and Clifford J. Levy, The New York Times, Sept. 21, 2001
PETER W. BLAICH is a firefighter with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) assigned to Ladder 123 in Brooklyn. Previously, he served as a police officer with the New York Police Department and a firefighter at the U.S. Army Garrison in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He is a community emergency response team instructor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an American Heart Association instructor trainer, and an emergency medical technician. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from the State University of New York and certificates in firefighting and hazardous materials operations from the U.S. Department of Defense.