By John Norman

I saw the towers fall on television. I grabbed my FEMA USAR gear bag and took my car to Brooklyn, arriving at my fire station at noon. There, a city transport bus, with tools, spare masks, and air cylinders, took me to a staging area at the Manhattan Bridge, from where I rode into Manhattan.

I reported to the sector command post east of the towers at Broadway and Vesey streets. Deputy Chief Thomas Haring was in command of east-side sector operations from that location. We secured some radios from ladder companies there and redistributed them as needed. I stayed with Chief Haring in support. He was receiving Maydays from firefighters—some probably from the efforts to rescue Ladder 6, whose members were trapped in the North Tower.

Radio transmissions were difficult at best. There was no cell phone service, and the loss of the tower antennas destroyed the repeater system. We resorted to using runners for much of our communications.


A number of off-duty firefighters from Special Operations Command and the squad companies arrived, including an apparatus from Squad Company 288. We stripped that apparatus of its gear and put it to immediate use at the site.

I was directed to report to the West and Vesey streets sector command post and was placed in command of operations at the Verizon Building, just across the street from 6 World Trade Center, which was heavily involved in fire. I had four companies, two engines and two trucks. There was no water from the mains in the street. A 24-inch main had been sheared off from the collapse. So we operated handlines off the standpipe from the Verizon Building and we knocked down rubbish fires in the street and fires burning in 6 WTC. Because of the collapse potential of 7 WTC—and therefore 6 WTC and other buildings, by virtue of their proximity to 7 WTC—we tied handlines in place strategically in the buildings and moved to the command post on West and Vesey streets, as per orders.

As rescuers walked on rubble piles to search voids, concerns included the possibility of a secondary collapse and subterranean fires. (Photo 1 by Steve Spak)

I was directed to the other side of the north footbridge to perform a reconnaissance from that position. We were receiving reports of serious problems in the remains of the towers. There were num-erous Maydays. We knew we had hundreds of firefighters missing.

My position at the north footbridge offered a view that sector command at West and Vesey did not have. I saw the entire debris field covering West Street. I saw the type of steel we were dealing with. I knew we would require heavy moving and cutting equipment. I determined some survivors might be in the area of the Marriott Hotel—3 WTC—and I didn’t think there would be many survivors anywhere else. But we had heard about Ladder 6 and Battalion 11 Rich Picciotta surviving, and there were three stairwells in each tower, so that gave us some hope and a place to focus our efforts.

(2, 3 by FDNY Photo Unit.)

The view from Liberty and West streets was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Buildings were free burning, and the threat of collapse was ever present. 90 West Street was a 25-story building; at least half of the floors were involved in fire. It was under renovation and was skirted with a metal scaffold. We thought it was going to collapse, so we set up a collapse zone around it. The 90 West Street fire also threatened the Bankers Trust Building, the other Marriott Hotel, and the 130 Cedar Street building.

I was in shock. I had worked in the buildings back in the 1970s. I had installed the sprinkler system in 7 WTC in 1972. I could see 5 WTC, and I thought to myself, it’s not supposed to be that way. When I saw the remains of the towers, it was like coming onto a moonscape. I thought the hotel was supposed to be there, but I couldn’t make anything out. It was covered with heavy steel and debris, with ash. Everything was on fire. There were no landmarks. Everything I was familiar with was gone.

Photo 3

About that time, we found Chief Peter Ganci and Deputy Commissioner William Feehan and removed them, so we expected to find more of our command staff there. I thought we’d find Deputy Chief Ray Downey near their location.

There were very few survivors to tell us about last-known locations. A lot of our survivors had been moved from the scene and were in the hospital, so it was difficult to get an assessment. A lot of the earlier intelligence gathering was thwarted by a lack of witnesses.

After we found Chief Ganci, in addition to recon, I was detailed to make sure the collapse zone for 7 WTC had been set up and was being maintained. The sector commanders were trying to clear out of that area. We expected it to fall to the south, into the areas we were searching. When the building came down around 5 p.m., it actually made things easier for us because we didn’t have to worry about it coming down again.

After the collapse of 7 WTC, I operated from the operations command post at West and Vesey. Our main priorities were the two towers, particularly the North Tower because we had removed people from there not long before. The second priority was to clear the north footbridge, which was impeding the rescue effort. I supervised the footbridge removal operation. We started moving in heavy equipment—the iron workers, the demolition workers with mechanical shears. We peeled the façade off the footbridge first and then went to work on it, piece by piece. We found no one in the footbridge itself, but there were two civilian casualties underneath it.

Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen approached me the first night. He asked how long I thought it would take to get through the north footbridge. My first estimate was wildly off—I thought it would take 18 hours. It ended up taking about 30 hours of work on the footbridge itself over three days. By the time I left, late on the first day, we had only breached a hole on the west side of the footbridge. We stopped work on it temporarily because I-beams protruding out of One World Financial Center were a serious safety threat. So the members of the FEMA USAR Task Force from Ohio tied them back, which delayed work on the footbridge for six hours.

About noon on Wednesday, I hitched a ride up to the quarters of Rescue Company 1, where I was detailed as captain. I couldn’t sleep, but I lay down for about an hour. Then we got a call that One Liberty Plaza was in danger of imminent collapse. Squad Company 61 was relocated to Rescue 1 quarters, so I rode down with them to Liberty Plaza; I met Chief Peter Hayden there. It turned out that some people had seen dust coming from a damaged section of the building and panic ensued. There was no evacuation order—just panic. Structural engineers had gone through the building and assured the fire department that it was structurally sound and not in danger of collapse.

On Wednesday night, we received reports about an alive Port Authority police officer in the below-grade concourse level. So we attempted to search below-grade areas, from the concourse level down into the subbasement six levels down, where the underground trains were. There were accessible areas below—sections of the subgrade levels sustained no collapse at all. Our searches were quite extensive, but they were not difficult: There was a very clear dividing line as to what was accessible and what was not, meaning there were relatively clear areas and then there were impenetrable areas where massive steel structural members had breached the sublevels. We worked our way to the center of the plaza and saw the remains of flagpoles that had been above the street level, but past that line was heavily packed, inaccessible debris. Our searches yielded no evidence of (or communications from) a police officer in the below-grade areas.

The collapse devastated our command structure. At one point, Chief Frank Cruthers said to me, “We lost so many of our key people, and the ones remaining were there when the buildings came down, and they were traumatized.”

So in the time following the collapses, operations took the form of a series of small, interconnected unit actions. Four or five assistant or deputy chiefs took a sector, and other chiefs took their own buildings. Essentially, we were fighting five or six individual five-alarm fires, which was barely adequate for lifesaving efforts in those or the collapsed buildings. Structuring a command organization—not just for FDNY but for an enormous, sustained multiagency effort—challenged our command staff. Part of that was loss of personnel. But when we lost 7 WTC, we lost the Office of Emergency Management Command Center, where we would be sending our people to deal with interagency coordination.

It wasn’t until Thursday that we got that into place. Chiefs Daniel Nigro and Sal Cassano went to Fire Headquarters to get citywide command going, but it took a while to flesh out the entire command system. Up until that point, we had worked under a naturally evolving process of control, more so than an official plan, wherein people assumed their places based on need, capability, and position.

4 Heavy equipment was used for the lifting operations.

On Thursday night, while we were still working on the north footbridge, I received a call from Chief Cruthers directing me to be at Fire Headquarters at 6 a.m. the following morning. FDNY was formalizing its command staff, and Chief Cruthers told me then that I was to serve as the search and rescue manager at the site. There had been no rescue operations officer prior to Thursday night.

The next day I was designated chief of Special Operations Command, the position formerly held by Deputy Chief Ray Downey. I didn’t consider myself taking over for Ray. No one’s going to replace Ray; then and now, I consider myself continuing his work.

5 Damage to the site and surrounding buildings. (Photos 4-9 by FDNY Photo Unit.)

Now my focus shifted from being one of many battalion chiefs focusing on groups of companies working on specific tasks to the overall incident scene—establishing the required personnel resources, search and rescue priorities, equipment needs, and so on.

Photo 6

It was the beginning of weeks of 18- to 20-hour days at the command post. Chief Cruthers was the incident commander, Chief Hayden was his executive, and I was the rescue operations officer. I identified and met with the various officials within the overall command structure with whom I’d be working, including Mike Byrne, FEMA deputy director in charge of the FEMA operational response, and Captain Fred Endrikat from the Philadelphia Fire Department, in charge of FEMA’s Incident Support Team, which functioned as the overhead team for the FEMA USAR teams we had at the site.

Photo 7

After detailed planning sessions, FDNY decided to break out a 2,000-member task force from its membership that would be detailed strictly to the World Trade Center rescue effort. They were drawn from units throughout the city and were kept in integral units as much as possible, with one company officer to five firefighters and one battalion chief in charge of four to five companies. They would work in shifts of 12 hours on and 12 off. All the other members of FDNY would work double shifts staffing the fire stations throughout the city.

This was not an easy thing. We have 11,000 firefighters in the department, and only one-fifth of them would work the site. If I had wanted more firefighters on site, I would have gotten them, but it was the best way to work it. But, we almost had mutiny with the other 9,000 firefighters who saw firefighters from other fire departments at the site while they had to cover fire stations instead of looking for their own brothers. It was hard. Chiefs had their hands full keeping guys focused and doing what they needed to do. It was a serious morale issue.

Our first strategic priority was to access the stairs in the towers and 3 WTC (the Marriott Hotel). For obvious reasons, they offered the largest possibility of voids. The B stairs in the North Tower were cleared relatively quickly after Chief Picciotta and Ladder 6 were removed from them on the first day. The North Tower’s A and C stairs were identified early on. We found Rescue Company 1 in the top of the C stairs. In the Marriott Hotel, extensive below-grade searches did not yield many victims.

Photo 8

Teams from FDNY Special Operations Command executed most operations on top of the towers and in the voids because training in rigging, cutting, and void searches was a prerequisite. We had plenty for the other companies to do: Lines needed to be stretched, hot spots required knockdown, and peripheral buildings required primary searches.

Accessing the stairs was difficult. They were under tons of steel and debris. Many steel structural members—box columns that were 80 feet long, five feet wide, and two inches thick—had to be moved. Even with 800-ton cranes available, they had to be cut for the boom to handle them.

Photo 9

We’d identify a staircase. Then we’d get the steel off the top of it, which might take two or three shifts to accomplish. Then we’d identify different voids as they became exposed and send our people in to search them.

We really felt there would be more survivable voids. That didn’t prove to be the case. Everything was virtually pancaked. We found people whose bodies weren’t totally pulverized, who were relatively intact, but there were no viable voids for survival.

The void searches themselves actually were pretty routine, but they were complicated by fires. We used handlines for almost every void search; but as we found out later, we couldn’t extinguish them because steel floor decking collapsed on top of burning debris in layers, and water could not penetrate the decking.

Heat in the voids was intense in many locations, and some body parts we found there just fell apart. Yet in some areas, bunker gear kept some of our members relatively intact, compared with civilians.

It was heartbreaking. Many times, we could see our guys, we could see their feet and their facepieces, but then I’d have to order everybody off the top of the pile because of instability. A lot of digging and void search was done by hand, and the piles were shifting from the fires burning underneath. At one point, I pulled everybody off a certain section for 48 hours. And we had to leave our friends there, which was bad enough; but worse, we felt there might still be people alive under them. It was heartbreaking, but we needed to keep our people from getting hurt, or worse.

FDNY Firefighter John O’Connell from Rescue Company 3 was detailed to the command staff early on, and I received information, status, and updates from him on a regular basis regarding tactical operations. I conducted daily site recons with Fred Endrikat, the FEMA IST leader. And I obtained regular information from sector commanders, with input from SOC personnel. From this information, I could modify the rescue operations plan or add new objectives.

We stationed FEMA USAR Task Forces at Fort Totten in the Bronx and Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn to be at the ready with a truck and an FDNY liaison if a major secondary collapse should occur. Also, from the fire station of Engine 10/Ladder 10, about a block from the site, we staffed EMS units such that we had disaster medical assistance teams—including an EMS officer, a basic life support unit, and an advanced life support unit—at the ready for each operational sector.

Photos 10-15 by FDNY Photo Unit.

The professionalism and tenacity of the members were extraordinary. The biggest problem I had with the guys was that they wanted to do too much. The first couple of weeks, many firefighters were there constantly.

The first week, SOC units were on a full, continuous-duty cycle. We had two units in service the first few weeks. Two rescue apparatus had been destroyed in the collapses. Squad company and haz-mat company apparatus had been destroyed. We were putting the pieces back together, but it was taking a long time because we stayed in full-blown rescue mode at the site for 18 days. After that, we put SOC units on a 24-hour-on, 48-hour-off cycle, but guys would come to work for 24 hours and then no one would go home. They would dig on their days off or go to wakes and funerals.

Photo 11

Then the anthrax attacks started. So we staffed the haz-mat response teams with 10 members a tour, staffing them with overtime. They had only 12 hours between long overtime shifts, and many of them spent it at the site. I had wives calling me, begging me to let their husbands come home. I had to order guys to go home, but they just had to be there—their friends and relatives were in those piles. That was probably the worst.

We were also hit by the Major League Baseball playoffs, the United Nations General Assembly meeting, New Year’s Eve at Times Square, and the World Trade Organization Summit in the few months following the WTC disaster. And we tackled them all. The guys were outstanding, but it all has taken its toll on them.

By the middle of the second week of operations, we were having twice-daily meetings with all agencies. From these meetings we developed incident action plans that provided clear rescue (and then recovery) goals and objectives for each day. These were invaluable in keeping all agencies moving forward in a coordinated effort. Planning and documentation personnel were assigned to support incident objectives (to update maps, track resources, record prior and current significant events, and so forth, as well as to serve as liaison services for the sector chiefs).

Photo 12

I would have loved to give more people more breaks, and it really did take an incredible human toll. The whole incident impacted our firefighters and their families, their relationships with those closest to them. I would have loved to not have to beat them up as much as we had to, but it was not a question of choice.

We stayed in rescue mode for 18 days because we owed it to our members and the other victims. We knew that earthquake victims had survived for 15 days. Deputy Commissioner Thomas Fitzpatrick reached out to experts around the world to ask them for their opinions on survival mode. They all told us 14 to 15 days at the outside. We knew we hadn’t gotten a live victim out since the second day, but we figured that if anyone could survive, our firefighters were in the type of physical and mental condition to do it. So we pushed it to 15 days and beyond. We didn’t want to get anyone hurt, but we also didn’t want to give up on our people. We hoped that someone could be alive in there.

Photo 13

One of the truly outstanding things to come out of this operation was our safety record. Some of the nonfire service people on the site were aghast at some of the things we allowed our people to do, but our track record was proven September 12 through May 1. FDNY members sustained only three serious injuries requiring overnight hospitalization. We deployed safety officers at every operation on the site.

Some resources took time to arrive, and it was frustrating because we wanted things to happen quickly. For example, each piece of structural steel column required two cranes to handle it—one to hold and one to cut. We determined that we needed a 1,000-ton crane to help expedite this process. There’s only one of these east of the Mississippi River. It had to be disassembled, loaded onto 17 tractor-trailers, brought to New York, and then reassembled. The entire process took four weeks.

We worked hand-in-hand with the engineers detailed to the site. The WTC site held some very complex engineering challenges. FDNY would identify a search priority; then we’d have to get a construction company involved; then the engineering staff from New York City’s Department of Design and Construction and the Port Authority had to identify how they were going to do it, taking into consideration the site terrain, the parking ramps, the bathtub wall, and so on. We’d say we needed to move that steel at the top right there, and the engineers would say there was no way to do it, and we’d say we needed it done, and then they’d find a way to do it. Some of the engineers came up with remarkable solutions.

Photo 14

In some cases, we had to backfill areas that hadn’t been searched to let the cranes get close enough to an objective. We brought in grapplers long before we would want to normally, but if we were to stand any chance of getting survivors out alive, we had to do it—this was a heavy equipment operation. We got some resistance from our members because of hazards the grapplers represented, but the fact was all the bucket brigades in the world would only take an inch or a half-inch off the pile in a day. The heavy equipment got us to our objectives in the quickest fashion, and time was of the essence. Other than clearing out small debris from individual voids, the bucket brigade was a feel-good effort, nothing more.

From the standpoint of urban search and rescue, this was an operation we hadn’t dealt with before. That was because of the nature of the debris. Most of FDNY’s collapse experience was with buildings of ordinary construction, wood-frame buildings, and scaffolding collapses. The FEMA USAR teams’ experience and training was mostly with steel-reinforced concrete structures. We were not set up for this type of collapse—with the huge steel box beams that required cutting by heavy machines, during which time the search operation had to be suspended. But nobody had ever experienced the total collapse of a steel-constructed high-rise before.

Photo 15

We had numerous FEMA USAR teams working with us. We experienced very minimal problems—actually, I wouldn’t characterize them as problems. Most of them were integration and education issues. We gave them missions that nobody had ever thought of doing. We absolutely needed these teams, with their special equipment and training. Each task force brought in the equivalent of 60 SOC personnel. That meant we had almost 500 additional personnel trained to our level or better. They brought in technical specialists, as well as critical equipment—our rescue equipment was depleted from the collapses and the ongoing operation.

FEMA itself provided us with satellite phones, wireless phones, and clerical people. The biggest help was logistics. We were never prepared for campaign-type jobs. Normally, we don’t have jobs that go on for months and months. (We had a scaffolding collapse that lasted a month, and it was a job that we could easily handle within our own commands without additional equipment.) The WTC operation was a massive logistics problem. There were hundreds and hundreds of firefighters needing equipment, batteries recharged, appropriate protective gear for the site, respiratory protection, rehab, and on and on.

Our firefighters had been working the debris fields in their bunker gear, which were heat debilitating and were getting chewed up by the steel. They made the situation worse for our firefighters. So we wanted to get them the coveralls the construction workers were wearing. We needed 20,000 sets of these, but the manufacturers didn’t have that kind of inventory. I didn’t have the time to wait, so we issued the firefighters what was available. Then we realized the suits would become contaminated with body fluids, mercury, and asbestos, and we couldn’t let them take the clothes home with them. So we issued them at the start of a shift, collected them at the end of the shift, and professionally washed and dried them so they would be ready for the next tour. FEMA had brought in the wildland incident management teams. The IMTs were invaluable in many ways—especially in the planning aspects—and that included getting the coverall laundry out and back for our members. (The laundry bill for this was about $900,000.)

But in many ways, FEMA deserves more praise than it will ever get for its assistance.

In nine months at the site, we never received the site security we needed. In the early weeks, we understood that the police department was overtaxed. We still were a serious target for a secondary incident. We received reports that terrorists were stealing trucks from the site to load them up with explosives, bring them back in, and have them blow up at the site. That wasn’t the case, but people were just walking in and out. All you had to do was bring some food into the site to get access. I recommended that we put Marines at every access point, but we never did get site security. There were many routes to and from the site. In March—six months into the operation—I saw two guys in white turnout gear raking the pile. They said they’d come down to help, and the police let them right in.

Vendors brought in tractor-trailers full of rescue equipment. We soon learned that not all of this equipment was donated (we received bills for it soon after). So we realized we needed to have written agreements for all equipment shipments specifying, among other things, whether it was a donation or a billable distribution.

I was on site every day for the first two weeks of the operation. Then it was six or seven days a week until November 1, at which time I was replaced by Battalion Chief Don Hayde of SOC. I was then able to focus my attention more fully on rebuilding SOC units. We had a pair of SOC chiefs on the site continuously during the entire recovery operation, acting as consultants to the incident commander. They were liaisons with the construction companies regarding any required void search and recovery operations.

We realized through this extraordinary operation that we have to get a planning staff on board early. In addition to the operations personnel we needed for the command structure, we needed people with experience in long-term planning; we have not cultivated that in the fire department. Generally, we do things reactively and for the short term. We don’t do things that last days and weeks and months. As rescue operations officer, I had someone from Denver to do our planning—he was an IST member reassigned to FDNY as a loaner, and he was invaluable. Subsequently, FDNY now has a planning section in the growth stages. There has been some training for command staff in these types of events, including a session over several days at the Naval War College, where we went over a variety of exercises dealing with large-scale, long-duration disasters.

We’ve uprgraded our terrorism awareness program. I think our capabilities have gotten better. We have radiation pagers, and we’ve given radiation alert detectors to every company. Between the World Trade Center and the anthrax attacks, we know that every incident has to be responded to as the real thing (speaking of anthrax incidents, we had thousands of scares but only three actual cases).

The previous training employed in this job—not just I but everybody knew the collapse rescue plan, the general stages of general debris removal, surface removal, and tunneling operation—was very beneficial because with command being so spread out in the early stages, company-level officers and firefighters could deploy without specific guidance.

In my previous experience as a SOC commander, and in presentations I’ve given for the Marine Corps CBIRF units, I’ve spoken about how we’ve regrown our staff. We have this homing instinct in SOC. We have some guys with 15 to 20 years of special expertise and experience we can fall back on. We lost so many guys on 9-11—we didn’t lose just the head, but second and third levels who would have replaced the head. But we still had enough talent to bring up, and these members will do a great job. It’s unlike the military: They may have a colonel or a major assigned to a unit that had no chemical background before but now, as part of the process, he gets assigned to the chemical-biological unit. If you lose that member, you do not have another member waiting in the wings with the technical knowledge that’s required. But we have people with the knowledge and credibility to be able to step in. This is a great job.

I’ve handled this whole thing by staying busy. It’s just too overwhelming to handle rationally, so I stay busy. The job does it for me, and I accept it as fate. It was over the moment it was over, in the 10 seconds each building took to collapse. There was nothing anybody could do to change that. It was over before I even became aware of it. It’s reality. I just dealt with the aftermath, as we all did. And I have confidence in the people in this job, and we will keep moving forward in the smartest way possible to do what we have to do.

John Norman is a battalion chief in charge of FDNY Special Operations Command and formerly was a captain of Rescue Company 1. He was rescue operations officer for the WTC incident. Norman is the author of Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 1998), and is a premier speaker at many fire service venues.

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