Shortly after the second plane hit, I could see the towers burning from the Whitestone Bridge, more than 10 miles away. I arrived at Division 14 headquarters in the borough of Queens to get my gear. While there, we received a call from the Fire Operations Center asking for a deputy chief. I was informed of the staffing recall and was asked to set up a staging area for recalled personnel at Shea Stadium, also in the borough of Queens. We did so.

We had little to start with. In short order, hundreds of FDNY firefighters showed up with their gear and tools.

We asked everyone to sign in—name, rank, and unit. There was no unit integrity. Several battalion chiefs arrived as well. I directed the officers to set up teams of one officer and five firefighters. Each team was given a numerical designation. Some members brought masks; others did not.

While we were there, the South Tower collapsed. I called Fire Operations to confirm the collapse. We mustered up in teams. The minimum requirement to be on a firefighting team was to wear bunker gear.

Shortly after, we boarded five buses according to team numerical order (Team 1401, 1402, 1403, and so on), six teams per bus. Then I called Fire Operations and offered my services at the site. They accepted my offer, and I got on the first bus. We had a police escort. The highways were empty. I arrived with approximately 200 firefighters one block from Chambers Street, just three or four blocks from the World Trade Center (WTC). By this time, both towers had collapsed.

(1) Firefighters were brought to the site from staging areas on city buses. (Photo by FDNY Photo Unit.)

I walked up to a semblance of a staging area just north of Chambers Street. There, I met Battalion Chief Joe Nardone, battalion commander of Downtown Manhattan, and Assistant Chief Frank Cruthers.

Chief Cruthers said, “Nick, we lost a lot of people, a lot of people. I don’t know how to estimate how many we lost.” He told me to leave the firefighters I brought at the staging area; I gave Chief Nardone my list, noting that each officer had a riding list and that the teams were patched together from different companies. Chief Cruthers directed me to report to Assistant Chief Frank Fellini at West and Vesey streets, who was in charge of operations at the site.

I reported to Chief Fellini, who was standing in the middle of the street with a command board and rubble all around him. He said, “We have a lot of Maydays. Ladder 6 is transmitting Maydays; take care of them.” By this time, some battalion chiefs and other officers were with me. I obtained a radio from one of the lieutenants; I heard, “Ladder 6 to Operations.” It was Captain Jay Jonas. I asked him for his location. He replied, “Tower One” (the North Tower).

(2) Fires buried under debris adjacent to the Verizon building were difficult to extinguish.

Looking over the top of the north pedestrian walkway, I couldn’t tell where the North Tower was anymore. I lost my “officialness” and said over the radio, “Jay, tell me where you are.” He got a little short with me because he didn’t know what had happened. He directed me to go through the glass doors into the stairwell.

There was a lot of radio traffic. It took a while to get through to him.

I turned and saw a sea of faces. I called the company officers over and told them to pick people they knew and form teams. I put a battalion chief in charge of every five teams. We now had at least several groups of five teams, each with a battalion chief, trying to find out where the North Tower was and, more specifically, the location of the stairwell where Jay Jonas and members of Ladder 6 were.

I got back on the radio with Jonas and asked: “Are you pinned?” He said, “We’re in the stairwell, but we’re not pinned.” He said there was no fire and no smoke in the stairs and that there was a lot of dust but they could breathe. I asked if there were any injuries. Jonas said nobody was seriously injured. Then he paused and said there was a battalion chief below him who was gravely injured. He also said that Battalion 11 was with him, and it turned out to be Battalion Chief Richard Picciotta, who survived. Jonas told me they needed water. I told him to hold on, that we were looking for them.

We were concerned about 6 WTC, the Customs House. It had a lot of fire, and we thought there was a possibility of its collapsing. I sent the guys in there to see if they could reach Ladder 6 through the mezzanine of that building and then down through the pile. I ordered them not to pass any fire. I reminded them that even though we were looking for Ladder 6, we didn’t even know if we could reach them this way.

(3) Firefighting in a high-rise building is always difficult, but the addition of hundreds of tons of debris surrounding the base of the buildings made extinguishing efforts nearly impossible. (Photos by Steve Spak.)

While they were in there, the battalion chiefs radioed that they thought the structural integrity was okay but there was limited access through the mezzanine. We decided to use an alternate route through the World Financial Center and the Winter Garden.

Jonas had radioed that he didn’t want to try to break out of where he was, but he decided to do so. He said, “We’re getting out!” I acknowledged receipt of his message, and he told me they had a civilian with them.

A little while later, Jonas radioed, “I see a guy from 43 Truck!” He was looking through a crack in the debris, and there was sunlight. He saw an officer from 43 Truck walking through the pile.

The officer now realized where Jonas was. I ordered all firefighters out of 6 WTC. The chiefs were not happy about leaving, but they wouldn’t find anyone alive in that building. It was destroyed. I got them to back out. All of sudden, Picciotta was there. He said, “Nick! You have to get Jay! Jay is still in there!” I told him I was talking to Jonas on the radio and confirmed that he didn’t need any more help. They were getting the civilian out, too.

I reported back to Chief Fellini for orders. He wanted me to go to the other side to find Chief Pete Ganci and Commissioner Bill Feehan. He gave me an approximate location of where the command post had been. I assembled a few more teams. We were standing on the west side of West Street, directly in front of where the North Tower used to be. A firefighter said he knew where the command post had been, and he directed me to the garage doors that led into the World Financial Center. The whole area was covered with steel; I realized apparatus were underneath it.

I sent two dozen firefighters to that location. I set up my command post under a lamppost that was sticking up from the debris, not too far from the original command post. A firefighter told me, “I think Ganci and Feehan went the other way,” pointing south down West Street. There was no geographical focal point, so I directed the firefighters to string out, and we started walking together, trying to spread out over the area. Shortly thereafter, we found an apparatus with a couple of dead firefighters inside and one dead firefighter underneath. I left a couple of firefighters from our group to cover their bodies, but I reminded everyone that we were looking for live bodies here—to just spread out and keep moving and looking.

Then, at a location about 20 yards from my command post, a firefighter said, “Hey, I’ve found somebody with shoes.” They were patent leather uniform shoes, and it was a fire department uniform, and it was Chief Ganci. Compared with the first firefighters we found, he was lightly covered with debris. When I confirmed it was Chief Ganci, I radioed Chief Fellini to let him know. Deputy Chief Al Turi came to handle the detail for Chief Ganci.

We gathered around Chief Ganci’s body and removed our helmets for a moment of prayer. Then Chief Turi and the firefighters walked the body out on a stokes basket. A temporary morgue had been set up on Vesey Street.

We continued to work. Then, about 25 feet from Chief Ganci’s position, we found Bill Feehan. It took 30 minutes to remove his body. We prayed and then got back to work.

I kept reminding the firefighters to keep moving, to spread out, that we were going to find live people here. And we were confident that we would.

I walked out with Commissioner Feehan’s helmet and handed it to Chief Fellini; I gave him a status report. I reported that conditions toward the relative south side of West Street were much different from those on the north side. On the north side, there were places where you could see the ground. On the south side, you couldn’t see the ground—all you could see were steel and façade and rubble.

When I returned to my group, we were finding bodies—a lot of bodies—but we were having a hard time removing them. It got to the point that if we couldn’t get them out, we marked the places to indicate there were bodies. We eventually got fluorescent spray paint and tied lines to mark them. We brought the bodies we found to Vesey Street, where the morgue and the ambulances were set up.

There were no bodies at the surface level. All the bodies were in steel, with smoldering fires. Rigs were burning under the debris. We needed water, we needed hoselines.

I assigned a few officers and their firefighters to establish a water supply. After a time, we got lines in place from a fireboat drafting out of the Hudson River.

I had no major problems with radio communications. My problem was we needed more radios; I had hundreds of firefighters working my sector with no unit designations, and I didn’t have the resources to keep track of every team. For every chief, I had 40 or 50 personnel, and I had eight battalion chiefs with me.

But a system evolved. You had no choice. I didn’t want groups of people standing around—I really felt as if we were going to find live victims.

Chief Fellini was evaluating 7 WTC, as it turned out, about one hour before it collapsed. He directed me to evacuate everybody from my search sector—it was in the collapse zone for Building 7. I started by calling all the battalion chiefs on the radio and directing them to back their companies toward my forward sector command post. I made a general announcement on the radio, I used runners, and I used hand signals to communicate with them. I saw officers, but I didn’t know if they had radios. I used runners to get their attention so that I could signal them out of the pile. My intention, of course, was to get them out of the collapse zone, but I realized that we had been working hard for a number of hours and we needed to think about relief for them. So as they arrived back at the command post, I started pushing them toward the North Cove Marina, just north of our position on the Hudson River. They gave me some resistance, but I needed to get them out.

I left two battalion chiefs up near our command post to make sure no one else tried to get back into the debris field/collapse zone. Every time I thought we had everybody out of our sector, I saw another member pop up again because of the irregular terrain, with peaks and valleys. And we got them out.

Finally, based on company checks, we were sure that everyone from our sector was out.

Twenty minutes after evacuating everyone from our sector, 7 WTC collapsed.

By early evening, relief was becoming an issue. I ordered all firefighters in the North Cove Marina to stay there. I knew they wouldn’t be happy about it, but it was time to get fresh people in there to search.

Logistical issues—stokes baskets, drinking water, body bags, saws, blades, tape, paint, generators, and so on—started to come up. As time went on, things got more complicated—we needed more equipment, more water. Every time I asked for equipment, our people got it—they were amazing. Now when we called the command post for more personnel, we had them bring in equipment instead of their having to go back for it. I detailed firefighters to set up a staging area near the command post.

We had many firefighters operating at the North Tower. We were finding a lot of firefighters in the stairwells. Many of the bodies were intact, horribly crushed but intact. But there were many we couldn’t identify. Some we could identify but could not remove because of their location in the debris. I sent written notes to Chief Fellini documenting who we had, approximately where they were, and that we were unable to get them out.

The first day I dealt mostly with FDNY personnel. By the second day, numerous volunteers arrived at the site. I asked for buckets; we set up bucket brigades. In the early stages, we couldn’t have done half of what we did without the bucket brigades. We were getting deep into some voids about 10 to 12 feet, and we needed to clear that debris. I’d identify a spot I thought was relatively clear for dumping the debris, and that’s what they did. We started finding a lot of body parts, and we used body bags to take them out to the temporary morgue. We set up two lines to pass the stokes basket when we found whole bodies. When it was a member of FDNY, FDNY personnel took the body out. The volunteers were good about observing that.

I spent several hours on the pile that night of the second or third day. There were a lot of finds. This was before a structural engineer began working with us. I started to get very uneasy about the stability of the pile because some people thought it was shifting. The firefighters were using mauls, jackhammers, and air-powered tools, and I was getting concerned. I wanted to start reducing the number of people on the pile. We had about 150 people on the bucket brigade. I saw two retired chiefs I knew and Reverend Wabst. Every time they found someone, there was a blessing and a prayer. I think that at the time we were on top of the North Tower, I couldn’t have been more proud of our people—the care they took to make sure they wouldn’t do more damage to the bodies. It was all so amazing to me, so carefully and respectfully done. They knew how much time they were taking and that this was a very dangerous place. There was fire up there (they had a handline), and we weren’t sure about the stability. I felt I couldn’t leave because we were finding bodies. We were working on two or three bodies at a time. We had tremendous amounts of resources there—electrically powered reciprocating saws, circular saws, people just waiting to go to work. The next morning I got the engineer in there to reevaluate the pile; he told us to stay off the sides. The sides were unstable. We had to make sure we operated off the top.

Lights were a big issue for us. I had to detail firefighters to maintain the lights. Originally, some were not in safe places and were broken. We needed gas and oil to keep them running through the night, we had to replace defective units—we had to keep them up and running. Everywhere you turned there were big logistical issues.

To get heavy equipment in, we had to dismantle the north walkway. We worked directly with crane and other heavy equipment operators as they moved and cut the steel. Eventually, we made a roadway from north to south.

On the first Saturday, we found a group of firefighters from a squad company buried under the debris. I remember we found one member we couldn’t identify from the front. We were able to turn him over and identify him by his turnout coat. We had found his helmet a couple of days before in perfect condition.

A battalion chief called me on Saturday night and said he needed a decision made about a void. They had made a few discoveries in this one in particular, but he wasn’t sure they should go in there to get them out. I went up to the top of the North Tower pile to evaluate the situation. It was a large void with a protruding beam; some of the debris seemed to be moving. But there was no evidence of life in the void. I said, “If there’s no evidence of life, we’re not going in there.”

The fires in the voids burned with great intensity. We found a skull at one point, but it crumbled as soon as we touched it.

Throughout your career in the fire department, you realize you can’t do it all. So you delegate. You have to identify the right people and get them to do the job. But if I tell you to stand there and I don’t give you a job, eventually I’m going to lose you. So I tried to give people an area of responsibility. Most of the time it was searching voids—that was our only option, really, in terms of operational strategy. It’s no different from being at a large-scale fire: You have to sector it out, give them responsibilities, give them a job, and then give them help.

The hardest thing besides logistics was getting people to take a break. Guys were digging with intensity; at certain points, I reminded the battalion chiefs to assess the condition of their people. But I asked the chiefs to have the members take a break, not order them out. It worked to a degree. I had to remind people that we were going to be here for a long time, that there would be plenty of work for them to do, and so it was okay to take breaks. Still, in the early stages, guys were working longer than they should have. It’s a hard thing to resolve under such circumstances.

Another hard thing was restraining people from following an emotional and disorderly response. Some firefighters were not reporting in but were just walking to wherever they wanted to go to work; they were not following command procedures. We had to stay on top of this. We had to show guys that we had a plan, that as chaotic as it may have seemed, we had certain units operating in certain locations for very good reasons. Most firefighters, when they understood that, were respectful of it.

With teams of people from dissimilar groups, it would have been too complex to give everybody an ID in those early stages. Later on, guys would come in with 10 or 12 guys; if one of them saw members from his own company, he was going to work with them. It wasn’t a mob; we had a decent amount of control. The span of control was huge—I had seven or eight battalion chiefs under me, but the geographic location was tight. The firefighters took extraordinary actions in those first days. I think there were many successes. Considering the size and nature of the operation, there were few serious injuries.

Nick Visconti is a 34-year veteran and deputy chief of the Fire Department of New York. For the past year he has served as the chiefs representative of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. He was a commander of Division 3 and Division 14 for nine years. Visconti was co-coordinator of FDNY’s battalion chiefs command course and director of the department’s training for its CFRD program.

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