January 30, 2002, New York Times, FIREFIGHTING INQUIRY; Before the Towers Fell, Fire Dept. Fought Chaos, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn,
In scores of emotionally searing interviews conducted by the Fire Department for an internal inquiry, the agency's most senior commanders have provided new and, in some cases, alarming revelations about the events of Sept. 11.
They said they had little reliable radio communication that morning, could not keep track of all the firefighters who entered the towers, and were unable to reach them as the threat of a collapse became unmistakable.
The commanders decided early on that roaring fires on the high floors of the towers could not be subdued. Many worried aloud that the buildings were in danger of at least partial failure. Confusion extended, for some, to which tower was which. Although they feared that the buildings were doomed, they could not bring their troops back in time.
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.
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.
Taken together, the interviews with virtually every surviving member of the department's top command offer the most detailed and intimate portrait yet of the strategy and problems on Sept. 11. By themselves, they do not answer difficult questions such as whether lives might have been saved with different equipment or procedures. But for the department and the city, officials said, these accounts will be a starting point in an inquiry about the Fire Department's emergency response procedures.
For history, these accounts accomplish a separate but equally rich task: they mark with precision acts of bravery, struggles to live, and the widespread feelings of being unmoored from reality on that sunny morning.
They also reflect the actual spoken voices of the department, men and women of all ranks: firefighters, doctors, chaplains, paramedics, fleet mechanics, support staff who responded to the catastrophe without having to be asked. By one turn or another, their lives were spared, and in many cases they were able then to rescue others. As they rushed to the scene, many said they reflected that the day would expose them to dangers beyond their experience.
Walter Kowalczyk, the senior Emergency Medical Service officer on duty that day, recalled driving up West Street and seeing body parts and debris. ''My mouth went dry,'' he said. ''I had the sensation that I had a job to do. I had to ensure the safety of the E.M.S. work force. But how do I do this if I can't talk?''
A chaplain, the Rev. John Delendick, recalled fleeing from the collapse, next to a police officer who asked the priest, midstride, to hear his confession. Invoking a little-used power, the priest said he believed an act of war had taken place and was declaring ''general absolution'' for sins that covered all believers in the area.
Chief Kowalczyk and Father Delendick were among 500 members of the Fire Department interviewed since late September, under an oral history project started by the commissioner at the time, Thomas Von Essen. Mr. Von Essen had felt that the department needed a rigorous outside examination of how and why so many of its members died Sept. 11.
The department has so far declined to release the transcripts of the interviews, but some 50 were made available this week to The New York Times. Last night, Mr. Von Essen's successor, Nicholas Scoppetta, announced that he intended to hire an investigator to review the department's operations that day.
''The Fire Department is seeking the services of a consultant to perform an independent evaluation and study of the department's response and operations during and after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001,'' Mr. Scoppetta said in a statement. ''The purpose of this study will be to make findings and recommendations that will help improve the department's response to catastrophic emergencies.''
100 Terrible Minutes
As chaotic as the events of those 100 minutes seemed, it is clear from the accounts that they unfolded for the fire officials in distinct phases, beginning with the first attack at 8:48. That was followed by the second plane, which hit the south tower at 9:03; the collapse of the south tower at 9:59; and the failure of the north tower at 10:28.
Nearly all of the department's highest-ranking and most experienced leaders arrived at the World Trade Center within minutes of the first attack, having a clear view of the calamity from the Fire Department Headquarters less than two miles away in downtown Brooklyn. As they sped across the harbor, many of them worried about what lay ahead.
From the Brooklyn Bridge, Albert Turi, the deputy assistant chief of fire safety, tried to measure how much of the north tower was on fire.
''I knew right from the start that there was no way this Fire Department could extinguish six or eight floors of fire, fully involved, in a high-rise building,'' Chief Turi said. ''It's just not possible, because we don't have the means to do it.''
Just entering the building had lethal risks: the debris and bodies falling from the upper floors were killing people on the ground.
The first chief on the scene was Joseph Pfeifer, who had been at Church and Lispenard Streets with probationary fire officers and a documentary-film maker when the plane roared overhead. On his way to the trade center, Chief Pfeifer alerted the dispatchers to sound the alarm for a major catastrophe.
He ordered a staging area at West and Vesey Streets, set up a command center in the lobby of 1 World Trade Center, and learned that people were trapped in the elevators. Others could not get down from the floors above the fire. He sent the first firefighters up to begin rescue work.
''I told engines, half the group to take hose, the other half not to, at least early on, and started their way up,'' Chief Pfeifer said. ''Also, I saw my brother, who was a lieutenant in 33, and we spoke a little bit, and then he went up also.'' (His brother, Lt. Kevin Pfeifer of Engine Company 33, was on his way down when the building collapsed. He did not survive.)
Peter Hayden, whose title at the time, deputy chief for Division 1, gave him authority for that area of Manhattan, joined Chief Pfeifer in the lobby of the north tower. They tried, he said, to get the building's elevators working. They set up a command board, to keep track of which companies were on the scene.
''In the initial stages, it wasn't chaotic,'' Chief Hayden said. ''It was under control, very calm.''
Saving Lives Comes First
When the second plane hit 2 World Trade Center, the south tower, a second command center was set up in that lobby. The chiefs had already been discussing the stability of 1 World Trade Center.
''The potential and the reality of a collapse was discussed early on,'' Chief Hayden said. ''But we were at a level of commitment. We also received numerous distress calls. We realized we had a lot of dying and fire up there.''
When Mr. Von Essen, and two of his top deputies, William Feehan and Thomas Fitzpatrick, arrived in the lobby, they discussed the approach.
''I specifically remember telling Commissioner Von Essen that we were not attempting to extinguish this fire,'' Chief Hayden said. ''We were not trying to put this fire out. We had thousands of people coming down the stairs, and that was our focus.''
Around the time that the second plane hit, a ranking chief, Joseph Callan, had seen enough.
''Approximately 40 minutes after I arrived in the lobby, I made a decision that the building was no longer safe,'' Chief Callan said. ''And that was based on the conditions in the lobby. Large pieces of plaster falling, all the 20-foot-high glass panels on the exterior of the lobby were breaking. There was obvious movement of the building, and that was the reason I gave the order for all Fire Department units to leave the north tower.''
The communications, though, frustrated the commanders. They were particularly stymied by the failure of a device called a repeater inside the building that was supposed to boost the signal.
''At one point after the second plane hit, I think, I'm not positive of the time line, I know Chief Callan asked over the radio to come down to the lobby,'' Chief Pfeifer said. ''But with difficulty with communications, that didn't happen. It didn't fully happen. I'm not too sure who heard that or how many people came down. There was no way of really telling at that point.''
That was a problem across the complex that morning, not just in 1 World Trade Center. At 7 World Trade Center, the city's Office of Emergency Management was evacuating based on a report that a third plane had been hijacked. John Peruggia, an Emergency Medical Service chief assigned to the Office of Emergency Management, met with officials from other agencies, including an ''engineer-type person,'' as he put it.
''They were very confident that the building's stability was compromised and they felt that the north tower was in danger of a near-imminent collapse,'' Chief Peruggia said.
The problem was getting this word to the chief of the Fire Department, Peter Ganci, who had set up a command post on West Street, across from both towers.
''We didn't have the tools that we normally have to communicate with our agency,'' Chief Peruggia said. The cellphones were not working, he added, and radios were spotty. ''I don't have a fire ground radio, so I had no direct communications with my boss at that time.''
Instead, he told an emergency medical technician to deliver the message directly to Chief Ganci, several blocks away. The message reached Chief Ganci about a minute before the south tower collapsed.
In 1 World Trade Center, Chief Hayden was becoming more disturbed about the flow of firefighters into the building.
''Early on, we realized that a number of the companies were coming in and were not reporting to any staging area we established,'' Chief Hayden said. ''So we were losing control of the companies coming. There was also communication problems later on with companies coming in, units responding to the second alarm after the other plane hit. They weren't sure which was World Trade Center 1 and World Trade Center 2. So that became confusing.
''Of course, off-duty members were coming and they were reporting directly upstairs,'' Chief Hayden said. ''So at one point in time -- I want to say that Chief McGovern was still in the lobby -- we had to account for everybody going upstairs. That became a critical issue.''
The chiefs called the firefighters down several times, Chief Hayden said. ''However, we didn't get a lot of acknowledgement.''
''The last report we had from anybody at all,'' Chief Hayden said, ''was that there were people heading up around the 48th floor. That was several minutes prior to this collapse. So we had people as high as the 50th floor while we had communications.''
Similar concerns were first raised publicly last week by Deputy Chief Charles Blaich in a speech at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The commanders considered an airborne rescue. ''At one point I was asked to get the operations with the helicopter into motion,'' Chief Pfeifer said. ''Unfortunately, or fortunately, I could not get ahold of the dispatcher to do that. One of the citywide radios got moved around and I couldn't grab that, and there were no phone lines.''
A Chaplain's Death
Among those in the lobby of 1 World Trade Center was the Rev. Mychal Judge, a Fire Department chaplain. Although some early reports said that he died while giving last rites, officers at the scene described him praying in the lobby. When the other tower collapsed, he and others rushed around a corner. During that flight, Father Judge apparently collapsed.
Chief Pfeifer said Father Judge had no obvious injuries that he could see in the gloom. ''He was lying on the ground and I went over to him, took off his collar, I opened up his shirt, checked for a pulse,'' Chief Pfeifer said. ''I knew at that point he didn't have any.''
As the firefighters carried the dead chaplain, another chief, Richard Picciotto, was in a stairwell of 1 World Trade Center, calling for the firefighters to evacuate. At that point, the civilians below the impact area had all but finished evacuating.
''So the only people in building tower one are firemen,'' Chief Picciotto said, in an account he gave on ''The Montel Williams Show,'' which was included in the oral histories. With no response from the command center, he said, he issued an order to evacuate.
As the firefighters descended, Chief Picciotto said, he heard a voice on the radio countermanding his order, delaying them for a minute. Before his group reached the bottom, the building collapsed, trapping them for hours.
Out in the street after leaving 1 World Trade Center, Chief Pfeifer recalled, he did not know the first tower had totally failed.
''I knew we had a big collapse but I had no idea,'' Chief Pfeifer said. ''What people saw on TV I didn't see, and nobody told me that's what had occurred, and I didn't hear any radio communications of that, either.''