By Salvatore J. Cassano
I drove to downtown Manhattan from FDNY headquarters and parked my car right alongside 7 World Trade Center (WTC), north of the North Tower. Other units were coming in on West Street. I wanted to come in from a different angle to have another vantage point. The second plane hit just as I got out of the car. Debris showered us. We ducked for cover. After it cleared, I jumped back in the car, drove to West Street, and reported in.
We were too close to the building. Jumpers and debris were real hazards. We repositioned the command post across West Street at a driveway to a garage into the World Financial Center. That would afford us some protection if it were needed.
Early on, the commanders knew that this would be an evacuation and rescue effort. Fire would be a secondary issue until we accomplished the rescues. We knew we had our hands full.
Many off-duty FDNY members were reporting in. I ordered an off-duty captain to organize them—get their names, get them equipment, form companies and platoons so they’d be ready if they were needed to relieve other firefighters.
I went into the Marriott Hotel—3 World Trade Center. Deputy Chief Thomas Galvin from Division 3 had established an operations command post there. I wanted to get the phone number there; we could maintain contact through a land line if we encountered radio problems. I got a handle on what companies were in there. It appeared that most of the building had been evacuated, but the Marriott staff could not confirm this. Therefore, companies were sent up on each floor to knock on doors.
We discussed the strategy. We had a plan. There was no chaos. It was very orderly, with minimal self-deployment. We were operating the way we always operate—professionally.
I walked out of the Marriott through a restaurant and continued my site survey southward, to Liberty and West streets. There, I met Deputy Commissioner and former Chief of Department Bill Feehan. We both went to the command post in the North Tower lobby.
I stayed at the command post assisting Chief of Department Peter Ganci with the assigning of units, making sure we had enough people and enough reserves in staging.
THE SOUTH TOWER COLLAPSES
The South Tower came down. We ran into the garage to escape the debris cloud. When conditions had settled to a degree, we came back out. It was an unbelievable, eerie scene. Chief Ganci ordered me to move the command post farther north. I established the command post on West and Chambers streets.
As we walked north, Deputy Chief Albert Turi used a bullhorn to call firefighters with us. We had lost contact with Assistant Chief Donald Burns and Assistant Chief Jerry Barbara, who were commanding operations in the South Tower.
Chief Ganci had moved south to take command of the rescue effort for the South Tower. I tried to establish radio contact with Chief Ganci. My radio was caked with debris, and I could not get through to him. I walked southward on West Street to attempt face-to-face communication. The Field Communications unit was being repaired; the backup was destroyed at the site. (The unit generally records communications on the command and tactical channels.)
THE NORTH TOWER COLLAPSES
I reached the site of our previous command post when I heard the noise. At first, I thought it was another jet coming in. Then I realized the North Tower was coming down. I ran north but quickly realized I would not outrun the collapse debris clouds. I saw one of the rescue apparatus and dove under it.
Somehow, I was protected from most of the debris, except that I was hit on the back with concrete. When the debris stopped raining down, two EMTs came up to me with a stretcher to attend to my injury. I couldn’t walk, but I did not want to leave the site. The EMTs wouldn’t listen. They brought me to a triage area in one of the buildings and then to St. Vincent’s Hospital. I was one of the few victims there. The hospital had geared up with all kinds of staff, but no injured were coming.
Fortunately for me, nothing was broken. I was released from the hospital late that afternoon. A fire department administrator gave me a ride back to headquarters.
National Guardsmen were everywhere. It was a war zone. For the rest of the night, I ran the Fire Operations Center from headquarters while the rest of the staff chiefs worked the site.
We were inundated with calls from the loved ones of missing firefighters and from out-of-state fire departments who wanted to help. We compiled a list of companies that had responded to the WTC and were missing. At 8:00 p.m., I joined Deputy Commissioner Tom Fitzpatrick and other commissioners to formulate a strategy for putting our fire department back together. We ordered new SCBA, apparatus, and other equipment.
At about 2:00 a.m., many of the chiefs returned from the site and gave us an update.
In the following weeks, I worked at the Fire Operations Center during the day and the site at night. I worked with many retired firefighters who were looking for their sons and with brothers who were looking for their lost brothers. We gained strength from them; you had to be strong for them and for the job.
REBUILDING THE SPECIAL UNITS
One of the critical tasks in those early days was appointing new people to fill positions in Special Operations Command, the rescue companies, and the squad companies. We interviewed firefighters to find those best qualified for the special units. In a time of war, things change. Sometimes you reach out for people with less experience but who make up for it in other ways—enthusiasm, youth, dedication. You grow up real fast under these circumstances. And the 1,200 probies we appointed are going to grow up real fast.
Over the past months, we’ve trained all our units from Special Operations Command. We’re training additional truck companies as “support truck” companies, giving some of these companies in each borough specialized rescue training to supplement the rescue companies. Essentially, they act as “rescue reserves,” so we’re always at the ready. We’re looking at expanding training for chief officers. We’ve always had incident command. We hope to get them more in tune with terrorism and haz-mat issues from a command perspective.
I think we’d be silly to think nothing like this will happen again.
COORDINATION WITH POLICE DEPARTMENT
We’re now working with the police department in a more coordinated, communicative fashion. We’re more proactive with regard to implementing the air support plan we’ve always had with them. With their help, we’ll be using the helicopters at incidents we probably wouldn’t have used them at before. We’ve used helicopters three times over the past couple of weeks. When I hear a chief giving a progress report to the incident commander from the helicopter, it makes me feels good.
We also have a police liaison in Fire Headquarters. If there are things we can work on together, we discuss them and develop a plan. We have the same arrangement the other way—one of our battalion chiefs is dedicated as a liaison to the police department. It’s a line of communication we’ve never had before.
We’re also developing with the police department tabletop exercises that involve different scenarios to large-scale disaster responses. We need to train together.
Obviously, the radios didn’t work out for us. In April 2001, I was given the radio project. We thought the digital route was not going to work operationally in the field in some cases. With considerable input from some good technical people, we decided to go back to analog. The last meeting I had on this issue was on September 6, 2001. We were going to start a pilot program within two weeks, but the disaster struck first.
Now we’re moving this along. In July we began using the new radios reprogrammed to analog mode. These radios also operate on UHF frequency, which provides more penetration into high-rise buildings. We’re testing them extensively; it seems to be going well. When we’re sure the radios will work in the field, we’ll put them in service. At this time, it appears that the new radio system will be available within about four months.
But we’re also testing other systems. One is the portable repeater concept. We need repeaters; it’s a fact of life. Preliminary tests have shown that the portable repeaters could be an asset. We will start with the Manhattan battalions. The city has put together a World Trade Center Building Task Force to explore improvements to high-rise construction and operations, and we’re looking for more high-rise repeaters to be installed. There’s a lot of support for it, but the political system can take a long time, so we’re looking at portables.
Other ideas we’re exploring include drones and portable cable systems. What seemed like science fiction before September 11 doesn’t seem so strange now.
PLANNING FOR LARGE-SCALE EVENTS
We’re planning for the future. We’ve always done this, but now we’re planning for specific, large-scale events that would result in extended operations. Command has attended National Fire Academy and Emergency Management Institute programs. We’ve conducted command exercises at the Naval War College. It’s important for all agencies to come together and to think of ourselves as one entity, one city. We work for the city and the people in the city.
WTC CONSTRUCTION ISSUES
We are looking into all the issues involved in the collapses of the towers and 7 WTC. We knew diesel tanks were on the site. I’m not aware of pooling fires. I don’t believe the Port Authority (PA) operates to skirt the issues. If we make recommendations, the PA will pay attention to us.
We’ve been fighting high-rise fires for 30 years. The procedures we have used have worked in the past. We will continue to fight high-rise fires in the way we have fought them in the past. We have adopted some modifications, however, in catastrophic incidents that involve weapons of mass destruction, such as jetliners. We have instructed all chiefs to take a more cautious approach if they suspect a terrorist attack. However, if you have a relative in the building, you will feel the need to evacuate that person, and that’s what we’ll do. To drastically change the way we’ve fought these fires for 30 years wouldn’t be fair to the people who work in these buildings.
We are modifying our personnel policies. A standing order has been issued to all companies to ensure that only the people scheduled for the rigs at that time will respond to the incident site. We will be initiating terrorist alerts and are rewriting our recall procedures, which may reduce total recall to partial recall and provide more specifics on where the recalled firefighters should report.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FUTURE
Trying to rebuild the department, after we lost so many with vast amounts of experience and knowledge, has made us open to considering proposals that might have seemed preposterous last year; they don’t seem so strange now. We’re reevaluating new tools and new ways of looking at things. We have also learned that we have to decentralize special units and enhance the capabilities of some of those companies that respond to many incidents and arrive on scene before the rescue companies.
Some of those companies staff rescue support trucks and help the rescue units or are truck companies located adjacent to major thoroughfares and, consequently, respond more often to vehicle incidents. These companies will be given additional haz-mat and rescue training, which will not only decentralize the special units but will also prepare these firefighters to become members of rescue or squad companies. It will give the department continuity.
Our chief officers now have a better idea of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) USAR Task Force capabilities. Integrating with the FEMA teams was a little difficult at first because of the differences in cultures and the emotions involved.
For the first two weeks, a tremendous amount of what we all hoped would be rescue work had to be done, 24 hours a day. About 1,00 members a day were engaged in search efforts until the recovery period; then there were about 200 a day. We were working in dangerous voids and places that required a lot of expertise. We had the help of the FEMA people and of our own members who had done this type of work before, yet after 1 p.m. on September 12, we did not pull out anyone alive. It’s hard to believe.
One chief estimated that at the moment the North Tower fell, nearly every civilian below the floors directly hit by the airplane had already evacuated, and that only firefighters remained inside the stairwells of a building that was seen as a lost cause.—“Before the Towers Fell, Fire Department Fought Chaos,” Jim Sawyer, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2002
SALVATORE J. CASSANO is chief of operations and a 33-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He was promoted to deputy chief assigned to Division 14 in 1993 and served as division commander in Divisions 15 and 1. He was promoted to citywide tour commander in 1999 and assigned to Manhattan, a position he held on September 11, 2001. He graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice with a BS in fire science.
So poor were communications that on one side of the Trade Center complex, in the city’s emergency management headquarters, a city engineer warned officials that the towers were at risk of “near imminent collapse,” but those he told could not reach the highest-ranking fire chief by radio. Instead, a messenger was sent across acres, dodging flaming debris and falling bodies, to deliver this assessment in person. He arrived with the news less than a minute before the first tower fell.—“Before the Towers Fell, Fire Department Fought Chaos,” Jim Sawyer, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2002
In hundreds of internal interviews with fire department investigators, the firefighters have described how they crawled from beneath fire trucks or out of doorways to find a world transformed by fallen concrete, jagged steel, and the urgent task of searching for signs of life in the rubble.
It was a moment of disorienting shock. North seemed south. Left seemed right. The simple act of drawing breath became a struggle, because the air was thick with dust and black smoke from raging fires. Much of the senior command of the department, as well as many colleagues, had disappeared, either beneath the debris from the World Trade Center or in their own sprints to safety. And though the stillness was broken at times by stray bullets exploding from the heat, there were very few cries for help.—“9/11 in Firefighters’ Words: Surreal Chaos and Hazy Heroics,” Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer, The New York Times, Jan. 31, 2002
John Vigiano is standing at the edge of a 70-foot-deep crater, watching. He wants to hear when a discovery is made. He is still hoping they’ll find something for him …. He’s been coming here since 9/11—every day at first, now two or three times a week. He comes with old pals—all retired firefighters. He watches and waits, prays, and hopes, and cries sometimes. He lost both his children, John and Joe Vincent, a member of the New York Police Department. He is still waiting for news on John.
Hundreds of families like the Vigianos can’t even claim the solace of burying their loved ones. Of the 3,823 people killed at the World Trade Center, only one-third have been found and identified. Fewer than 300 of those were found as whole bodies.
John’s disappearance defied logic. His father couldn’t figure it out. How could the six men of Ladder Company 132 (not to mention much of Ladder 105 and 101, also from Brooklyn) simply vanish?
Vigiano became increasingly desperate as the months dragged on. He started his own investigation. He interviewed as many firefighters as he could find who had been at the towers. He combed media reports. He gathered official fire department information, such as the times of key radio transmissions (those that got through) and command orders. He retraced John’s steps. The fire department itself wasn’t doing such a reconstruction. So much has ensued on September 11 with the result of so many firefighters, on and off duty, the loss of radio contact, and the towers’ collapse—that the department still does not know who was deployed where and when.—“John Thomas Vigiano II, A Heart’s Ground Zero,” Washington Post, April 30, 2002