BY FRANK FELLINI
I responded with my aide by car to the World Trade Center (WTC) site. The North Tower had collapsed minutes before we arrived. When I reached the command post, which was originally on Chambers and West streets, two chiefs were there. One said, “Frank, they’re all dead. You’ve got it.” I was incident commander until Dan Nigro, chief of operations who was named chief of department after the death of Peter Ganci, and Chief Frank Cruthers arrived at the command post. Chief Nigro became incident commander; Chief Cruthers assisted him. I took my aide and some staff and went to West and Vesey streets and set up the operations post there. The post remained in operation for several weeks. Eventually, the command post was relocated to an empty fire station on Duane Street. Here, we held daily meetings for representatives of all agencies and responders at the start of each tour.
Initially, I had three major concerns:
- To rescue as many victims as possible, as safely as possible.
- The impending collapse of 7 WTC.
- Scaffolding on 90 West Street, an old-type fire-resistive building that had been completely surrounded by scaffolding. Scaffolding on the building’s north side was damaged by debris from the South Tower.
It was hazardous to work in the area surrounding 90 West Street and 7 WTC. Buildings 4, 5, and 6 WTC were burning; 4 WTC had partially collapsed. These building were made part of the collapse zone. The decision was made not to fight these fires. Operating forces were withdrawn from 5 and 6 WTC, across from 7 WTC, and from Church and West between Vesey and Barclay. Despite these hazards, our firefighters were kept from injury.
I had been on the lower floors of 7 WTC; two deputy chiefs, who monitored the status of the fire at 7 WTC, reported that there was fire on seven floors, all of which were at least second alarms, and that the water mains were out. Frankly, we knew we had lost a number of firefighters—we didn’t know exactly how many—and I wasn’t going to lose any more. The south side of 7 WTC had been struck by North Tower debris, which knocked out one corner of the building and parts of the facade.
The question I had for Chief Thomas Haring, Division 6, who was operating on the east side of the site, was, “Are there exposure problems? If not, get our guys out.”
One of the major shocks we experienced when we started to go to work was the ultimate realization that our forces would not be able to search for victims without the help of heavy equipment. In our previous experiences, pretty much with mortar-and-joist buildings, buckets came in handy. We expected at first that we would rescue people. But, I didn’t see a chunk of concrete until we got three stories belowgrade. There were no desks, no chairs, no computers, no phones, no filing cabinets—no office equipment of any kind. It must have been like a huge blender as it fell. Everything was destroyed. I was there two months. I never saw a 2 2 6 sheet of Q-decking. You’d see balls of small wire that looked like they had come from a computer or communications equipment, but nothing that you could identify.
It took us a couple of days before we realized this was going to be all heavy equipment and that we had to set up an appropriate system. The south walkway had partially collapsed, and the north walkway had totally collapsed, the heavy steel crushing the fire trucks that were under the walkway. You couldn’t get from one point to the other without having to take a two-hour walk around the site. It was imperative that we get through that bridge so we could “reconnect” the site so that trucks could get in one end and exit the other.
It took about five days to cut our way through that bridge. Once the site was connected and we opened up a roadway, we could get down to Cedar Street, the street south of Liberty. We had a continuous path around the site and were able to use small trucks and construction equipment to move around the site.
We then established four sectors—Church, Vesey, Liberty, and West. The chiefs rotated at these sites. At least 90 percent of department chiefs had served as sector chiefs or worked out of these sectors.
Once trucks were able to get in and out, we started to see some headway. We were able to get to spots where we thought we’d find concentrations of people. Sometimes we found some; sometimes we didn’t. We aimed for specific locations. I honestly thought that when we found the stairwells—there were three in each tower—we would find our guys. When you look at the film of the building coming down, it looks like it’s coming straight down; but if you look closely, you see up in the smoke large pieces of debris falling away from the building. We found parts of the North Tower in the South Tower. Stairways from the North Tower ended up in the South Tower. Steel girders in the Twin Towers had welded in them the floor/tower locations, so we knew that a specific piece of steel came from a specific floor of a specific tower. We thought that the stairs originally would flatten down on top of one another and that we would find large numbers of our people when we started moving the stairs. There were instances where we found 10 or 15 firefighters together; but, for the most part, that’s not what happened.
We touched an object we found only once. If we moved it, it went on a truck and left the site. That seemed to work. We put people in a position where they could watch the trucks being loaded. We spread the debris on the ground before it was put on the trucks so the dogs could check it. The debris was then taken to Staten Island, where it was searched a second time.
We certainly have to do a better job with communications in the future. When I first arrived on-site, communications were nonexistent. We used runners. Toward the end of the first day, our radios began to work (probably the debris in the air had had an effect on communications).
We must also do better at controlling access to the site. There was a time in the early hours of the operation when we didn’t know which of our people were on-site—which members of the night tour had responded—because it happened so close to the change of tours. Companies that would have responded with five or six responded with eight or nine. We had guys from headquarters, from the medical office, and those with light duty assignments. Also, the entire firefighter fraternity of the metropolitan area responded—volunteers and members of paid departments. We had no idea of who these people were. In the early stages of the operation, everybody wanted to do something. They reported into a staging area, and we’d hold them for use later on. They learned not to report to the staging area. They just marched into the site and did something they thought was helpful. It took days to get control. This is not to say that we did not appreciate the support and assistance; there were many positives as well.
Whatever equipment I requested, I received. If we knew in advance what we needed, we’d get it. We requested lighting and large equipment (especially grapplers). We had used all the acetylene for cutting tools in the metropolitan area in three days. It had to be brought in from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and it got there in a timely manner.
The degree of cooperation between the construction workers and the firefighters was striking. For the first three weeks, we all worked through lunch hour, stopping only to eat a cold hamburger someone placed in our hands.
FRANK FELLINI retired on April 30 as assistant chief of the Fire Department of New York, where he had served since 1968. He had held assignments in all boroughs except Staten Island. He served in the capacity of citywide tour commander at the World Trade Center.