FIRST CHIEF ON THE SCENE

BY JOSEPH PFEIFER

On the morning of Septem- ber 11, I responded to a call for an odor of gas in the street at West Bernard and Church streets, about 12 blocks from the incident. A plane flew overhead—that was very unusual for Manhattan—and passed to our west toward the World Trade Center, aimed straight for it. A large fireball erupted; a couple of seconds later we heard the explosion.

I assembled my four companies and radioed for a second-alarm assignment to the North Tower of the Trade Center. A minute later, on my way there, I called for a third alarm, informing Communications that this was a direct hit on the North Tower. I requested that second-alarm units come to the building and third-alarm units stage at West and Vesey streets, at the northwest corner of the World Trade Center complex.


The initial incident scene along West Street. The Marriott Hotel is on the left; the south footbridge is in the center. (Photo by FDNY Photo Unit.)
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On arrival, looking up its west side, I saw light smoke coming from the building and no fire. All the lobby windows were blown out. There were people injured in the lobby, severely burned. Later, I discovered that a freight elevator had fallen from high up in the crash and, when it landed, a fireball blew out into the lobby over these people. They were treated and transported by FDNY EMS personnel.

I assumed command and established the command post in the lobby. There, I spoke with the Port Authority fire safety director to find out the lowest floor from which we had reports of damage from the plane. He indicated the 78th and 80th floors. Then I requested the elevator control company—standard operating procedure for high-rise operations—to determine if any elevators were working. They did not report any in operation—that message was repeated over and over—although much later they found one elevator that could make it up to the 16th floor.

I sent units up the stairs with the specific order not to go any higher than the 70th floor. I wanted to regroup and plan things from there: This was at least eight floors below the crash and provided for a margin of safety for firefighters.

Other chiefs were arriving. We had another conversation with the fire safety director and told him to evacuate the South Tower.

We didn’t know the extent of fire early on. I sent some engine companies up with hose, pairing the companies so they would each take half the load. I anticipated that these handlines might be used to create rescue and evacuation paths for firefighters and civilians. As companies reported to the command post, we marked their operational status on the manual command board.

We had multiple calls of people trapped or needing assistance below the crash.

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Deputy Chief Peter Hayden arrived and assumed command. My role was to assist Chief Hayden. The decision was made to develop a strategy that focused on rescue and evacuation, not extinguishment.

Early on the firefighters were reaching numerous lower-floor objectives or assisting people along the way. There was a steady flow of people coming out of the stairs at the lobby and mezzanine levels. Civilians evacuating from the stairs that terminated at the mezzanine were leaving via the outside plaza or down the escalators and through the lobby doors.

Meanwhile, Port Authority personnel continued their elevator intercom checks to determine if civilians were trapped in elevators. These reports began to come in to the command post with such regularity that I told our officer to write the information down instead of feeding it to me verbally.

Early on, a number of chiefs tested the building’s repeater system. It failed the test and was deemed inoperable. So we had to rely on fire department command and tactical channels. Communications were sporadic. Some messages would get through; some would not. Messages would be heard in one location in the lobby and not another. So we moved around the lobby trying to communicate. We relayed messages we received from one point to another in the lobby. We did not use vertical runners from the command post to operations sectors.

People began to jump from upper floors. We used the public address system to try to communicate with them, to tell them not to jump, that we were trying to get to them.

At 9:03 a.m., the second plane hit the South Tower. We had a meeting of all the chiefs. Assistant Chief Donald Burns said he was going to take command of that building, and he took Battalion Chief Orio Palmer with him to coordinate operations.

About this same time, Chief Peter Ganci was setting up his command post out on West Street. Chief Ganci took overall command of the incident, and we had two simultaneous operations ongoing in each tower.

Shortly after the second plane crash, we received an unconfirmed report of a third plane. Assistant Chief Joseph Callan, who by this time had assumed command of the North Tower operation, called all firefighters down from the tower to the lobby. But shortly thereafter, it was determined that the threat was false, and operations resumed.

I’m not sure how high up we made it into the North Tower. I don’t remember anyone getting up as high as into the 60s—if they did, I did not receive a message from them. We received messages of firefighters helping people, firefighters with chest pains. Some messages got through, and some didn’t. It was a problem for us in this operation.

We had some conversations at the North Tower operations post about the potential for localized collapse. As far as I’m aware, there was no discussion whatsoever about the possibility of a total collapse. I had no thoughts whatsoever that these massive high-rise buildings would fall. It was beyond comprehension, and there was no precedent for it.

The construction of the building was not a consideration during operations. I think it goes back to the universal attitude that a high-rise building is not going to collapse. If it were part of the historical language, it would have been evaluated. At the same time, we didn’t have the ability to see above—you have to have reconnaissance from above at these types of incidents—which leads me to the suggestion that an aerial view must become an essential part of the high-rise firefighting effort. We’re in the process of adopting that now, wherein a fire department chief may respond in a helicopter on every second alarm to a high-rise fire in New York, as implemented by the citywide tour commander.

I met my brother Kevin, a lieutenant from Engine Company 33, as he reported in to lobby command. He came up to me and just looked; he didn’t say a word. I told him where the fire might be, told him not to go up higher than 70. We stood there for a couple of seconds; we looked at each other, concerned. Then he walked over to his company, grabbed his guys, and walked up the stairs. It was the last time I saw him.

Somewhere on either the 9th or 10th floor, Captain Dennis Pardio and members of Engine Company 7 were descending the C stairs. He met my brother going up. My brother told him the C stairs led out to the plaza level and that he should take the B stairs to the lobby instead. Engine 7 did so, and the members made it out of the building by 30 seconds before the tower collapsed. All of the members of Engine 7 made it out of the building because of that communication with my brother.

There are a lot of stories like that you don’t hear about, where firefighters helped civilians, firefighters helped firefighters, directed somebody, encouraged somebody, and those people were able to get out—but those firefighters didn’t make it out. Some of the stories we’re hearing now for the first time, stories of real heroism. What I call a hero is doing ordinary things in an extraordinary time. I think that’s what a hero really is. There are a lot of stories like that, and I couldn’t fit them all into a book.

Suddenly, the entire North Tower lobby went black. The South Tower collapsed, but we didn’t know it—we thought we were the guys in trouble, in the North Tower. We were pushed around the corner to the foot of the escalators. The whole area went black. We thought the elevators blew out or debris from above was falling into the lobby. I stood up and radioed over the tactical channel, “Attention all units, evacuate the building.” Eyewitnesses said some heard the transmission and others didn’t. But I know some people heard. I remember firefighters were coming out, people were evacuating.

After that, we found Father Mychal Judge. I removed his white collar, opened his shirt, and felt for a pulse. He was gone. After that, we had to find a way out. The lobby was totally untenable. We were in blackness. I found a pathway to 6 World Trade Center, then wound up walking across the pedestrian footbridge across West Street with three other firefighters. I radioed North Tower lobby command that I had found a way out, but I received no response. So we walked all the way back to the lobby—you don’t get a reply, you go back for them. But they weren’t there, so they had found another way out. I decided to go back out the way that I knew—across the footbridge.

Soon after, I met up with Chief Hayden on the corner of West and Vesey streets. I still didn’t know it was a collapse. I don’t know how long we were there, how long we were operating, and still I didn’t know that the South Tower had collapsed. All I saw was dust or smoke; from our angle, we couldn’t see the South Tower. Then somebody ran past us screaming, “The building is falling!” I heard a loud roar, so I ran, but you couldn’t run too far in bunker gear. I heard this loud sound, and the street went from grayish dust to total black. I heard the steel falling. I was waiting to be crushed. The building was a quarter-mile high, and we were way too close. Then there was complete silence, like the first snowfall. And we got up, and there was all sorts of debris in our eyes, all that dust choking us. I think I had run west on Vesey Street. A foot here or there made a difference, as we know now.

We had to regroup. The site was physically divided by the collapsed north footbridge. The different deputy chiefs came in and started taking command of different sectors. I just assisted. I heard Captain Jay Jonas’ Mayday message, and I said, “I know where the B staircase is.” Then I looked out over the debris, and I had no idea of where the B staircase was anymore. We worked from above and from below to find him, focusing on small areas at a time to find a point of access.

I remember at one point Chief Hayden’s climbing on top of a roof of a damaged fire truck in the debris and commanding operations. It was pure character, inspiring. There were many firefighters that day who showed pure character.

We had a lot of officers killed on 9-11, but in those early postcollapse hours, we were very conscious of establishing a high level of supervision and control on the site. I was confident that that was the case as I was operating.

Nothing can prepare you fully for a devastating incident of this magnitude. But what prepares any officer for complex incidents is the ability to focus his decision making when multiple things are happening at the same time. There’s always a gray area because you don’t have the benefit of hindsight as you do afterward, but you need to make command decisions—yes and no answers—based on the information you have. The ability to focus and gather as much information in a short period of time to make those decisions is an essential part of any officer’s job. You learn that as you go all the way up to the highest rank.

One of the highest priorities at large and complex incidents is a remote incident command post, away from the immediate incident. To send people in, you still need to have people in charge of forward command, operational command; but the incident command post across West Street didn’t turn out to be the best location, for obvious reasons. When you’re running a major operation, the command post needs to be blocks away. We need a command structure that operates more like the military, where the general is remote but is receiving the intelligence and visual information so he can look at the bigger picture. We need to be getting live video from the helicopters, electronic command status technology that allows us to track units, and technology to pinpoint the specific locations of firefighters in the buildings. And we need communications systems that work in high-rise buildings and provide interagency contact.

Terminology is important, too. When multiple agencies come in from outside, you need to use a national ICS language to communicate.

I think engineers and builders need to do more to improve high-rise construction to withstand fire for a quantifiable period of time. They have to tell the fire service and the public at what point a building would fail under certain conditions, such as if the sprinkler system fails—almost like rating the building for collapse. What you’d be left with is either safer buildings or a public that’s knowledgeable in how unsafe the building is under certain conditions.

I believe that the entire fire service is more prepared just by witnessing what took place on 9-11. FDNY is more prepared because we lived through it. We had to reinvent the way we handle things. At the same time, I think we must continue the process of preparation because the fire service will always be the first responders. We need to look at how to improve the command system for major incidents, at technology, at interagency cooperation. And we have to train and plan ahead for the unthinkable, because what happened at the World Trade Center was unthinkable. Learning to deal with the unthinkables and such large-scale operations is not going to be solved in a year. It’s a process. I’m committed to that process.

Joseph Pfeifer is a deputy chief, assigned to the First Division, and a 21-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. At the time of the World Trade Center incident, he was a battalion chief in FDNY’s First Battalion and the first chief to arrive at the scene. He served as planning chief for the postcollapse rescue and recovery effort.


We heard a loud, thunderous, rumble sound. That’s when people really were saying, “Run, run!” I must have had my back to the building or was talking to one of the chiefs because I never saw it. I just heard the sound and ran about 50 yards west up Vesey Street toward the river. I got about half a block at most and dove behind a car or between cars in the street …. Everything was coming at us. As it started to turn brown, we dove behind the car. The whole street went black and … I thought that was it. When the whole street goes black in the middle of the day, that’s not a good thing …. It was real difficult to breathe. You couldn’t see anything with the debris being under a lot of force.

After a while, it started to clear. Actually, I was with a civilian. I was lying over him because he had no helmet or anything. Then we got up, and we couldn’t see ….—Chief Joseph Pfeifer of Battalion 1

John Labriola was at a meeting on the 71st floor of the North Tower when the planes struck. He took these photos while in the building. (1) Firefighter with standpipe pack ascends stairwell. Civilians are forced to stop on stairs to allow the firefighter to pass. (2) The scene on Tobin Plaza before the collapse. Note the sculpture in the center of the plaza. (3) The mezzanine of the North Tower. Note the lobby command post below. (4) People move through security checkpoint as they leave the building. Note the woman with an open umbrella, who is shielding herself from the sprinkler discharge. (5) Evacuees come down the escalator, moving through the tower concourse to exit the complex remote from the towers. (6) Fire rages in the top of each of the Twin Towers. (Photo 6 by John Labriola-AP/Wide World Photos.)


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Out in the street after leaving 1 World Trade Center, Chief Pfeifer recalled that he did not know the first tower [South Tower] had totally failed. “I knew we had a big collapse, but I had no idea. What people saw on TV I didn’t see, and nobody told me that’s what had occurred, and I didn’t hear any radio communications of that, either.”—Chief Joseph Pfeifer, “Before the Towers Fell, Fire Department Fought Chaos,” Jim Sawyer, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2002

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