POSTCOLLAPSE: LIBERTY STREET SECTOR OPERATIONS

BY CHARLES R. BLAICH

My brother, a battalion chief and commander of the 1st Battalion, and I boarded the 9:30 a.m. boat from Staten Island with some FDNY volunteers and a large motorized New York Police Department group. As we sailed toward Manhattan, at about Governors Island, the towers came down. The boat stopped; the captain could not see the terminal. Finally, after urging the ferry captain to put in, we docked. Debris was coming down. Hundreds of people were trying to get onto the ferry. They all stopped and applauded us.

We were going to try to advance by the subway, but an MTA supervisor couldn’t confirm if the tunnels were intact.

ESTABLISHING A COMMAND POST

My brother took some firefighters and went up Broadway, hoping to get to his fire station on Duane Street for his firefighting gear. I took the rest, about 20, and we made our way west to try to stay out of the dust cloud. We got tools from a contractor in Battery Park and went north. I knocked on the door of the FDNY Mobile Command Post vehicle (an old bookmobile), which had relocated from the Battery Tunnel and was parked at Battery Park and West Street. I asked for a portable radio from the two dispatchers working and the identity of the next higher headquarters (HQ). They told me that there was no higher HQ; I was it as far as chief officers went.

We proceeded farther west behind the World Financial Center (WFC) and turned east onto Liberty Street right at the pedestrian bridge over Liberty Street that connected 1 and 2 WFC buildings.

The scene was surreal. It was very quiet. The sky was brilliant blue. There were even birds chirping! In front of us was absolute destruction. The Marriott Hotel stood with a few floors left in front of the remains of the South Tower.


90 West Street, a 24-story building, had fire on many floors. (Photo by FDNY Photo Unit.)

I established a command post on the back of a panel truck with my aide. We paired the younger firefighters with the older guys—many of them retired.

Peter Hayden, the 1st Division Commander, along with Captain Kevin Culley, detailed to the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), surfaced from the debris about this time. Both were in the collapse and had slits for eyes. We shifted the command post to the back of a pumper on Liberty Street and continued to organize the “rescue” efforts.

I remember being really mad that the military had let this happen. I had just retired from 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps (active and reserve). The silence and absence of military air only made me madder. Now I got to play Marine again, without the air cover I got in Vietnam.

Our firefighters found Captain Al Fuentes, from the Marine Division, critically injured in the rubble and removed him to the Hudson River for transport to New Jersey. North/south travel on this side of the WTC complex was impossible. An emergency medical services (EMS) lieutenant advised me that the debris piles blocked any attempts to transport victims by ambulance. Boat evacuation across to New Jersey was the only possibility.

We had to get the men to move through the piles quickly to grab anyone alive. There was no one. It was difficult to get them to move on, leaving those who were obviously dead with I-beams through them. I remember seeing three firefighters hoist the American flag on a makeshift pole. Grandstanding, I thought at first. Then, I reconsidered. Their efforts sort of got us moving into high gear.

FIRES BUT NO WATER

Fires were burning in the piles on the West Street side. On the Church Street side, buildings were on fire. No one had any water. The hydrants were dead. We got the retired fireboat Harvey to pump into hoselines we laid down Liberty Street to the Hudson River. (This boat was sold to civilians many years ago.) The Harvey had little fuel, so my first logistical exercise was to ask Captain Culley to get some. Fortunately, a passing fuel barge was waved down and replenished the Harvey. Water finally was started into Tower Ladder 15, which had survived the collapse.

ESTABLISHING SECTORS

I focused on my sector. To try to control anything larger was impossible with our limited communications. As other chiefs came up on the portable radios, we divided the site. I had the Liberty Street Sector—northward until a debris pile on West Street prevented movement or observation—south down West Street to the Battery. Fortunately, I assigned 90 West Street to Deputy Chief Robert Mosier, from Division 8. It was a 24-story building with fire on many floors. There was no water or equipment. He had only 40 firefighters!

Deputy Chief Nicholas Visconti took from the West Street pile north to Vesey Street. On the other side (eastern side of the WTC site), Deputy Chief Thomas Haring took command from Broadway and Liberty streets. I never could see over the pile across Liberty Street in that direction.

At first, we deputy chiefs acted pretty much on our own, establishing sectors, organizing searches, trying to get the police to establish security. I consulted with Port Authority engineers about water seepage from the Hudson River through the slurry wall. Much later in the day, there actually was an incident commander operating. Assistant Chief Frank Fellini was the first staff chief with whom I actually spoke on the portable radio. I made a few attempts to talk to Manhattan Dispatch over Ladder 15’s radio but had no luck until later in the day.

I heard from my brother over the HT that he was leading a rescue attempt into the North Tower. I heard from Ladder 6 members that they were trapped in the B stairs of the North Tower. I wished them well but told them rescue was not going to happen for quite awhile. Someone called on the HT to tell me, “Your son, Peter, was found alive.” That was my brother’s son. I cried for joy for him and wept for all the fathers who would never see their sons again.

I requested heavy rescue units from Manhattan. Newark’s and several other New Jersey heavy rescues were directed to me as well. We were trying to uncover all the buried ambulances on West Street and the apparatus buried on Liberty and Cedar streets.

On the West Street side, we needed water to provide cover as we advanced on the piles of rubble. Certain areas needed to be cooled (some for many months) before we could search.

To ensure safety, members operated in teams, with hoselines as water became available. Face masks were issued as they became available.

All this was happening as we organized more and more volunteers—firefighters, police, contractors, and so on. Even my 80-year-old father, with an artificial knee, showed up looking for my brother and me and his old company, Ladder 20, which was buried.

We deputy chiefs established these original four sectors as we arrived and assumed command of whatever area we could control. They remained the incident’s four sectors throughout the five months I was there. The sector names “Vesey Street,” “Liberty Street,” “Church Street,” and “West Street” defined a landscape that lacked identifiable landmarks. The sector names remained the same even when removal contractors subsequently were hired to operate at the site.

I remained on duty until midnight, when I was relieved by Deputy Chief Thomas Galvin. I made it back to the ferry with some other firefighters and then to Staten Island. I followed this same routine for four days.

CHARLES R. BLAICH, a 29-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, is deputy chief, Commander Division 15, Brooklyn. He was the logistics chief for the World Trade Center incident command post. He is a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he has served for 30 years. He served in Vietnam and was on active duty for Desert Storm. He has a B.S. degree in chemistry from St. John’s University and an M.S. degree in protection management from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


“TALL FIREFIGHTERS WITH THE NUMBERS 118 ON THEIR HELMETS”

Elevator mechanic Bobby Graff worked frantically to save the lives of others at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel on September 11, and he remembers who saved his: “Tall firefighters with the numbers 118 on their helmets.”

Graff and 920 guests and scores of employees made it out of the hotel. Many were ushered to safety by men working aboard Ladder 118, which had raced to the scene from Brooklyn Heights.

“But, the firefighters from the Ladder 119/Engine 205 ‘Fire Under the Bridge’ house weren’t as fortunate.”

“I knew those were the guys that were saving everyone—I thought they had made it out,” Graff said. “Their families should be proud of them. They knew what was going on, and they went down with their ship. They weren’t going to leave until everyone got out. They must have saved a couple of hundred people that day. I know they saved my life.”

The scene at the hotel at 3 World Trade Center after the planes hit was chaos. A swimming pool on the 22nd floor cracked, flooding elevator shafts and trapping fleeing guests between floors.

Graff was in the lobby trying to pry open the doors of an elevator when one of Ladder 118’s firefighters—”a stocky guy with a mustache”—knelt next to him with a giant crowbar called a halligan tool.

“Together, they opened the door. As people ran out, they were met by a row of firefighters who ushered them away from the more dangerous West Street exit, where steel girders, debris, and bodies were raining down, and through the hotel’s restaurant, Tall Ships, to the Liberty Street exit.

“They made a human wall to make sure no one went out the wrong way. I remember they were all standing together, the guys with 118 on their helmets. The lieutenant (Regan) got a call on the radio and started yelling, ‘Stay away from the windows—this place may come down!’

“Minutes later, the 843-room hotel was battered by the collapse of the South Tower, and then obliterated under the mass of the North Tower.”

Graff was covered by dirt and scalding debris but managed to crawl to the street, where he was treated by emergency medical technicians.

The six men of Ladder 118 didn’t make it out.

“From what this guy is saying,” said Firefighter John Sorrentino of Engine 205, “it sounds like the Marriott was the Titanic, and the guys were the band that played on.”—Company No. 118 Saved Hundreds,” Michele McPhee, New York Daily News, Jan. 9, 2002

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