Skip to comments.9/11 in Firefighters' Words: Surreal Chaos and HazyHeroics
Posted on 01/31/2002 3:51:50 PM PST by BunnySlippers
9/11 in Firefighters' Words: Surreal Chaos and Hazy Heroics
By KEVIN FLYNN and JIM DWYER
he New York City firefighters who escaped when two of the world's largest buildings collapsed around them on Sept. 11 soon found themselves facing both a surreal landscape and an unimaginable task.
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.
"It was like after a blizzard when there's nobody out and everything is very quiet and you can't really see," Capt. Michael Donovan told the interviewers. "There was nobody. There was nobody. It was like Hiroshima after the bomb."
Captain Donovan's interview is one of dozens recorded by fire investigators that depict the stunned aftershock that followed the collapse of the twin towers. In many, firefighters describe how a dazed force that had lost many of its leaders initially struggled to respond before rousing itself to plunge into the debris pile in the search for survivors.
The interviews, dozens of which were obtained by The New York Times, are being compiled as part of the department's review of its emergency response procedures. Many of them speak to the department's decisions on deployment and the problems it encountered evacuating firefighters without reliable radio communications.
Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta yesterday repeated his pledge to hire an outside consultant within the next week to review the interviews as well as the department's overall response on Sept. 11. He said he expected to make all the interviews public when the consultant's review is complete.
"This isn't about finding fault, it's about figuring out what happened and how best to prepare for a major emergency in the future," he said. "We want to give all this information to someone who will do a credible, comprehensive review."
Capt. Peter Gorman, the president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, asserted that the interviews had initially been described to fire personnel as historical documentation, and he said yesterday that the fact that they had become both public and a part of a formal investigation amounted to a betrayal.
But Vincent Ragusa, whose son Michael was among the 343 firefighters who died that day, said reading some of the interviews helped to let go of the gnawing sense that some stroke of luck might have spared his son. The scope of the destruction and the fact that there was so much confusion and poor communication made him suspect that nothing could have saved his child.
But the interviews about 500 were conducted do more than capture the early strategy decisions and disabling problems. They also capture the Fire Department's gritty recovery from the staggering loss of life and its determined effort to regain control of the scene.
In Captain Donovan's interview, he recounted searching West Street for survivors after the second tower collapsed. Minutes earlier, the department's senior commanders had been gathered there, struggling to recover after the first building fell. Now, he said, all he could find were lost masks and fallen equipment, buried fire trucks and burning cars.
"I searched there for, I would say, 20 minutes to half an hour and I didn't see anyone," he said.
In another interview, a lieutenant described how fresh men, using equipment borrowed from exhausted colleagues, saved a firefighter trapped inside a burning truck that had been buried beneath three stories of fallen steel. In another, a senior fire chief, Albert J. Turi, explained how he and a colleague, Chief Daniel Nigro, their eyes still burning from dust, turned over command to an another officer. The hours of exertion had taken a toll, he said.
"Frank, you're going to have to take charge of this," Chief Turi recalled telling Chief Frank Cruthers. "I don't think either of us are in any condition to do anything right now."
In a third interview, Chief John Peruggia described being saved by a firefighter as he tried to outrace the debris cloud after the second collapse. The firefighter, calling, "Hey, Chief," waved him over to an engine parked on West Street and pushed him underneath.
"We got to get under, we got to get under; quick, we don't have time," he recalled the firefighter saying. Minutes later the black cloud enveloped them and Chief Peruggia said he heard screaming from where the firefighter had hidden.
"We looked under the truck," he said. "There was a lot of rubble under there. We didn't see him. We didn't see any sign of him. So I don't know if he was all the way buried. I did read a report later that they found some guys under trucks that were dead."
Although 29 minutes separated the failure of the two towers, many firefighters said they had barely dug out from the first collapse when they were engulfed by the second. Chief Turi said he had struggled after the first collapse to find his way out of a parking garage where he had sought refuge. Stumbling about in the cloud of debris, he said he did not realize that he had made it outside until he walked into a tree.
After the second collapse, several fire officials said they viewed the situation as particularly bleak. The chief of the department, Peter J. Ganci Jr., and the first deputy commissioner, William M. Feehan, were missing and would later be found dead. Several other senior commanders had already died earlier when the first tower fell. Many of the remaining chiefs had been scattered by the debris clouds, and now fires raged in buildings that surrounded the collapse site.
At that point, Chief Peruggia remembered running into Chief Michael Butler, the chief of fire prevention, and asking him where the command post was. "He said the command post is wiped out," Chief Peruggia recalled. "Everyone is gone. It's just you and me."
Indeed, for at least an hour after the collapses, fire companies arriving at the scene had difficulty finding senior commanders to direct them, according to the interviews. Lt. Robert Larocco recounted standing on West Street as companies arrived from the outer boroughs to help, but there really was no senior leadership around. "So there we were," he said. "We were in the middle of West Street, a few thousand guys waiting for orders. It really wasn't happening in a concerted effort. Perhaps there were small splinter groups of guys getting orders to do things."
Part of the problem was that the debris had created barriers that kept many of the arriving firefighters from getting near the pile where people were buried, fire officials said. As a result, for at least an hour, much of the searching at ground zero was done by several dozen firefighters, some of whom had reached the site from the south after getting off the Staten Island Ferry.
The crews, led by Deputy Chief Charles Blaich, scampered along the tangle of I-beams and ducked into voids, searching for survivors. Some of the men kept trying to recover the trapped bodies of people who were clearly dead until, Chief Blaich said, he told them to stop. "We just didn't have time to invest in bringing out dead bodies," he said in his interview. "We were trying to find live bodies."
Most of the men had only a few tools. Some had only the shovels and pick axes they had gotten from a construction site they passed while walking through Lower Manhattan to the collapse site. And there was no water to fight fires in the hydrants, Chief Blaich said, so they had to stretch hose lines to the Hudson River where they used an old fire boat to pump water.
Chief Thomas McCarthy told the interviewers that some firefighters were so determined to find people that they took dangerous chances scrambling about in unstable areas of the debris pile. "It was just the guys who wanted to do so much that a lot of it was more good intentions than good sense," he said.
At one point, the crews heard a distress call from a firefighter with Engine 65. He was trapped, he said, in his truck and it was on fire somewhere beneath the debris.
"He was under about two or three stories of I-beams," Lt. William Ryan recalled. "It was a nightmare."
They cut him out and kept moving." He told interviewers: "I expected to find more people. The fact is there was nobody around."
But the crews persevered and, by the early afternoon, so many fresh firefighters had arrived that they filled the street, Lieutenant Ryan recalled. Visibility had improved, too, he said, and a chief took him aside then and pointed in the clearing sky to where one of the towers had stood. All that was left was a small stretch of facade.
"Now you could see that thing sticking up over here," Lieutenant Ryan said as he pointed to the interviewer's map. "I don't know what it was that thing that you always see now in the pictures and I realized that the tower was gone."
The interviewer seemed stunned. Lieutenant Ryan and his crew had been working at the collapse site for four hours. Everyone watching at home on television had known within minutes when the towers collapsed.
"This is the first time that you realized that they both had collapsed?" the interviewer asked.
"Yes," he said. "About 3 o'clock in the afternoon."
This work by artist Alex Ross, depicting a firefighter carrying a woman from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, is part of the exhibit "Heroes Among Us: A Comic Book Art Exhibit in Celebration of the Heroes of 9-11" at the New York City Fire Museum in the city's SoHo district.
Flags fly at the scene of the World Trade Center attacks in New York in this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo. The American flag, which had been custom made for the Port Authority, which was headquartered at the World Trade Center, will be featured during the singing of the national anthem at Sunday's Super Bowl.
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