BY DANIEL NIGRO
We heard and felt the plane hit the Trade Center from our headquarters in Brooklyn. There was a huge column of smoke. Chief of Department Peter Ganci and I drove to the site together to start formulating plans. As we responded over the Manhattan Bridge, we could see the tremendous smoke. I said to Chief Ganci, “This is going to be the worst day of our lives.”
Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer had transmitted a third alarm, and Chief Ganci upgraded that to a fifth-alarm response before we even arrived on scene.
We arrived on West Street, stopping at the field communications unit parked in the middle of the street. There was so much debris raining down, and there were the jumpers. So we moved the command post to the west side of the street. We were at this position when the second plane hit. Chief Ganci transmitted a second fifth-alarm assignment immediately. We were certain at this time that this was a terrorist attack. We knew they were large commercial planes and that this was no accident.
(1) Personnel establish a water supply to fight fire in 5 WTC (Church Street side). (Photo by Willie Cirone.)
Assistant Chief Joseph Callan was assigned to command North Tower operations. Deputy Chief Peter Hayden was assigned as his assistant.
Assistant Chiefs Donald Burns and Jerry Barbara were designated as operations commanders for the South Tower.
Those commands were set up in the lobbies of both towers.
Numerous companies had begun to stage near the command post. Deputy Chief Ray Downey took most of the units we had there—about six or eight companies—to the South Tower. Other companies and individual firefighters, who formed companies, staged in front of the South Tower. That was a secure spot because there were no jumpers in the South Tower. These firefighters reported directly to operations command for assignment.
(2) Firefighters attack fire in 6 WTC, as seen looking down Vesey from West Street. Large amounts of smoke issue from 7 WTC (upper left of photo). (Photo by Willie Cirone.)
Seeing the people jumping from the North Tower was terrible. If the day would have ended right there, it still would have been our worst day ever.
In the midst of all this, we set up command. Chief Ganci was in command. There were sufficient chiefs in both towers to manage both five-alarm assignments. Chief Ganci had called a third fifth-alarm assignment before the initial collapse for additional personnel to be held in staging should they be needed.
We were getting numerous calls from people below the impact floors who were trapped and in need of help. Calls were coming in rapidly from Dispatch. Occupants were trapped in elevators in both buildings. The strategy was primarily to evacuate, remove, and rescue. But some units were attempting to move up with handlines in anticipation of rescuing victims trapped by fire.
I don’t think any of us on the scene had any intention of putting out 10 floors of fire. In my high-rise experience, we’ve had success putting out partially involved floors, not 10 floors. But you take your tools. There might have been a need to use hoselines if the standpipe had survived and if the building had survived.
Our view of the towers was somewhat limited. They were both quite high, and we were fairly close to them from our position on West Street. Our view was limited mostly to the west walls of both towers. I suggested to Chief Ganci that I walk around the buildings—actually, walk around the 16-acre site—to assess the damage we couldn’t see. He agreed. I went across Vesey Street and was halfway down Church Street toward Liberty. The damage on the north and east sides of the buildings was much greater than what we could see from the command post.
THE COLLAPSE OF THE TOWERS
I reached Dey and Liberty streets when I heard that unmistakable sound. I did not hear any sound prior to it that made me think of collapse, but the damage to the buildings was so severe I knew we’d have a real collapse problem at some point—just not 10 minutes from now. But there was no mistaking the noise. Some people said later they thought it was an explosion or another plane, but I knew what it was. I looked up and saw the façade of the South Tower coming down.
I moved for a doorway on Dey Street, grabbing my aide in the process. Instinct moves you to an area that may protect you, and that area protected me. It took me a while to regain my composure. That terrible rush of dust! I thought, “This is how it must be for victims of volcano eruptions.”
(3) View of 6 WTC. (Photo by Abraham Schwimmer.)
I had a radio. I don’t recall radio traffic. I don’t recall hearing anything for a while. The first thing I heard was Captain Al Fuentes’ “Mayday.” He was trapped. I remember people calling the command post and not getting an answer.
We couldn’t see upward to tell if the building in which we were standing was damaged. I left it and made a loop around Liberty Street to get back to West Street and find the command post.
On our way, we heard the second collapse. The second dust cloud came. We waited it out.
Finally, I found the mobile command vehicle at the foot of West Street. A few fire department personnel were there, including people from communications. They told me the command post was at Park Row now. It turns out that that was the site where Deputy Chief Tom Haring had set up operations. He was commanding a lot of units at the east section of the collapse. Numerous companies called in for the third fifth-alarm assignment had come into Manhattan from the north and east and immediately began working with Chief Haring.
I eventually made my way to West and Vesey streets, where Assistant Chief Frank Fellini had established an operations command post and was directing the post-collapse rescue efforts. Further up West Street, at Chambers Street, Chief Frank Cruthers had set up incident command. I assumed command of the incident at that location.
The rescue effort was sectored naturally, based on the collapse geography. Units were operating in each quadrant; an experienced operations officer headed each sector. Numerous fires were burning—some so big that any one of them could have been the fire of the year. Our strategy was to keep the fires as controlled as we could to facilitate the search for live victims. We had no idea of how many people we had lost at that point.
The biggest decision we had to make on the first day was to clear the area and create a collapse zone around the severely damaged 7 World Trade Center, a 47-story building heavily involved in fire. A number of fire officers and companies assessed the damage to the building. The appraisals indicated that the building’s integrity was in serious doubt.
I issued the orders to pull back the firefighters and define the collapse zone. It was a critical decision; we could not lose any more firefighters. It took a lot of time to pull everyone out, given the emotionalism of the day, communications difficulties, and the collapse terrain.
A water supply was established, and firefighters began trying to contain or extinguish fire in 4, 5, and 6 WTC, 90 West Street, and many other areas.
The search for Chief Ganci, Commissioner Bill Feehan, and others was ongoing.
Later in the evening, we had a few meetings with representatives of the various agencies that were setting up at the Office of Emergency Management command post at Stuyvesant Street.
I believe there have been some misconceptions surrounding the recall of FDNY off-duty personnel and mutual aid. There has been a lot of talk about chaos and about people operating in an undisciplined fashion. Well, if you take a five-firefighter truck company, and that truck responded with eight, you would say three are off duty. However, you could say that the truck responded with an officer and a chief. Usually, I would not want 10 members of a rescue company to respond. September 11, however, was not an ordinary day.
At the end of the firefighters’ tours, there was a job to do. These firefighters did the right thing: Those coming off their tours and those coming on the job responded. We’re the first line of defense in a war. Given the size and height of those towers, it would have taken many hours, without a collapse, to get up there and get perhaps hundreds of injured people down and out.
Although we want to limit our exposure in extreme circumstances such as those of 9-11, I would not consider the response undisciplined. Everyone knew who was in charge: They knew who was in charge of the towers; the battalion chiefs operated as a group with their companies, just as they do in a second alarm at a fire. That’s why so many chiefs died—because they operated as a group.
We did not have much experience recalling personnel, even on a limited basis. A recall made a lot of sense. It was the right decision at the time. Knowing what we do now, we probably wouldn’t call all our people back, because we would have to think about what we are going to do 12 hours from now, 24 hours for now, and so on.
I think it’s critical that we implement a formal, structured system that will tell firefighters at the time they are recalled to work how and where to report. We need to make sure they know what they are to do. The objective is to change the mindset to ensure that the number of people who are riding are the number of people we expect.
Some off-duty firefighters had self-deployed to the scene. At any type of big incident, firefighters want to help—that’s why they joined the fire department. It’s against policy, but it’s going to happen. I think the key is for us to ensure that these members are properly supervised.
Some accounts give the impression that people in deck shoes and flip-flops were responding up the stair towers. That wasn’t the case.
We already changed our policy on how we operate as staff chiefs. Chief Sal Cassano and I are not rushing to the scene. Staff chiefs have been told to call here for their assignments. They will be told who should respond and who should not. The number of staff chiefs has been increased through the mayor’s office.
Some of these changes will be structural and issued as written orders. Some of them will be done through instruction. Right now, the staff knows how to limit their exposure; the battalion chiefs will have to enforce the policies. The Navy doesn’t put two pilots in a plane that needs only one.
Building codes can make the response safer. Codes have always been challenges to fire departments. I can’t see why anyone should be beyond the reach of a code set by the municipality. In our city, I think people expect a uniform degree of safety in the buildings in which we live and work. The WTC had all the systems in place. When the building code was changed in the late 1960s, it became a different building code. The height of the building alone presents problems; there’s always been a problem when the height of the building is taller than the ladder.
In retrospect, units called to and staged at the North Tower may not have made it past the South Tower collapse. For the future, staging areas should be established in locations appropriate for the nature of the incident.
I believe our people realized the situation that day. It’s very rare that you go to a fire and think that you may not come back from this one. We’re pretty confident in our abilities to do things. At this scene, many of our people felt they might be killed there, but they did their job anyway because there were people in such desperate need.
Afterwards, those who survived were just amazing in the way they worked that first night—the number of fires they extinguished, the searches (the recovery work went on until June 2002, until the last bit of concrete was removed). They were tireless. They tried to bring everybody home, and they brought everyone home they could. (Editor’s note: At the time of this interview, the 200th member of FDNY was identified.) Our people showed what they are made of. It’s been a difficult thing to deal with, and people continue to go into work facing these stories of continued terrorism, even in those cases when the locker they dress at formerly belonged to one of their brothers killed at the WTC.
“Some days, I still think this is Pete’s office,” Daniel Nigro says. “I turn the wrong way.” Then he remembers that he’s replaced Pete Ganci, the chief of department, who was killed on September 11.
At about 9:15 that morning, the two men stood at the command post on West Street. Nigro went to quickly circle 1 World Trade Center to assess the damage. Nigro and his aide were in the middle of Church Street when the South Tower started to come down. They took cover in the doorway of a Starbucks, on Dey Street. Nigro never saw Ganci again.—“The Smoldering Fires of 9/11,” Chris Smith, New York Magazine, March 18, 2002
DANIEL NIGRO is a 33-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He was named chief of the department after it was confirmed that Chief of Department Peter Ganci had been killed at the World Trade Center. At the time of the World Trade Center incident, Nigro was chief of operations. He has worked in every field or administrative capacity and was involved in the FDNY-EMS merger.
“One thing that signaled to me that the department was going to be okay is that the next day, September 12, there was a fire on the West Side. Usually that’s covered by 54 Engine, Ladder 4. But they’d lost 12 people. And I heard them come on the radio and say, ‘We’re available’ instead of sitting in the kitchen thinking, ‘Please don’t call me.’ Our firefighters, they’re the best.”—FDNY Chief of Department Dan Nigro, in “The Smoldering Fires of 9/11,” Chris Smith, New York Magazine, March 18, 2002