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Day Of Infamy: FDNY In The Bravest Tradition

Author: Robert P. Mitts

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-10
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.

The morning of September 11, 2001 started out like most mornings do.  The day shift was coming in to relieve the night crew.  Engineers were outside washing their rigs.  In the kitchen of firehouses around the city, firefighters talked shop over breakfast and enjoyed the presence of their fellow “brothers.”  For some of them, this would be the last time they saw each other. 

The New York City Fire Department has 11,500 uniformed members consisting of 8,500 firefighters, 3,000 officers, and 3,000 paramedics. The sequence of events that would take place at the World Trade Center would result in the single greatest tragedy ever suffered by the New York City Fire Department.  343 firefighters would die in the line of duty, almost half of the amount of firefighters who have died in the history of the department.

At 0845 hours, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 carrying 92 people from Boston, hit the Tower of #1 World Trade Center.  Unaware that this was the start of a premeditated, coordinated attack on America, emergency workers rushed to the scene.  At 0903 hours, United Airlines Flight 175, another Boeing 767 carrying 65 people from Boston, struck #2 World Trade Center.  After a large explosion and an ensuing fireball, thick black billowing smoke could be seen venting from the upper floors of both towers.  Debris from both the plane and the building rained down on rescuers below. 

After the initial plane struck the first tower, a third alarm was transmitted.  When the second plane struck the other tower, two 5th alarm assignments, one for each building, were transmitted, plus an additional 2nd Alarm assignment for Brooklyn companies to respond into Manhattan. FDNY companies from all five boroughs were responding.  Urgent requests for additional help were radioed to Manhattan fire alarm dispatchers, just as numerous reports of trapped civilians and were flooding the communications office.  This information was urgently relayed to NYPD’s Field Communications Unit, which had responded to the scene at the outset to handle command post radio traffic. A recall of all off duty police and firefighter personnel was implemented and members were advised to report to their respective work locations.

Firefighters from the elite rescue companies were sent in to assist in searching for trapped civilians.  FDNY commanders knew that up to 20, 000 people could be in both towers at that time of day.  Rescue workers were placed in danger when many panicked people, left with no other choice, jumped from the towers.  Some firefighters were struck by falling people and killed.  The fire, feeding off the jet fuel, had been burning for a long time and was taking control of the upper floors of both buildings. 

Approximately 30 minutes after the initial crash, the first tower collapsed, filling Manhattan with blinding smoke, soot and debris. One unit screamed on the radio, “the tower has collapsed! Major Collapse!” The radio was silently eerie for several minutes.  Manhattan fire dispatchers tried desperately to reach units at the scene.  “Manhattan to Field-Comm?” Silence. “Manhattan to any unit at the World Trade Center?” Nothing.  “Manhattan to any unit operating at the 5th Alarm, #1 World Trade Center.”  Finally, a unit responded and confirmed a major collapse.  The Manhattan Central Office requested a full progress report.  Minutes later, a city paramedic pleaded with the dispatcher on the air that she was “trapped in a rig under the rubble and was running out of air.”  Another unit stated “We need the Army here.”  Roll calls were being conducted and it was evident that numerous members were missing.  Firefighters and rescue workers made their way towards the rubble in an attempt to start a rescue operation.

By this time, almost 20 alarms worth of units were responding to the Trade Center.  All available units, as well as off duty personnel, were either responding or operating at the towers.  Volunteer Fire Departments from Nassau and Suffolk County, Long Island, responded to staging areas that had been set up at Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets. These mutual aid companies responded to alarms around the city, paired up with available FDNY units.  A 24-hour on/24-hour off work schedule was implemented by the city for firefighters. As search teams were put into place and operations moved on, the unthinkable happened yet again.  The second tower collapsed in an almost identical fashion to the “pancake” collapse of the first tower.  Again, the radio went silent.

Soot and dust clouds covered the streets as smoke filled the entire island of Manhattan.  Nearby structures were now on fire.  Buildings within a one-block radius had partial collapses or were weakened. As estimated 450,000 tons of debris filled the immediate collapse zone.  Hundreds of brave firefighters were lost in the collapse.  An additional roll call was startred, and firefighters began to use their bare hands to remove concrete.  Human chain gangs were set up and bucket brigades put into place.  A massive rescue and search operation, far exceeding what took place in Oklahoma City six years ago, was underway.  Every company in the FDNY fleet has operated at the World Trade Center over the course of the first three weeks, supplemented by scores of volunteers from other departments.

At 1725 hours, #7 World Trade Center, a 47-story building on the north side of the plaza, collapsed.  Again, civilians ran for their lives and rescue personnel took cover.  The search effort resumed, with firefighters optimistic about finding survivors.  “There are many voids down there, areas where air can get through,” said one firefighter.  “It is very possible that people are alive.”  But only five people would be pulled from the wreckage with the first two days. As days passed, the search and rescue effort switched to an unofficial recovery operation.  Bewildered workers, at a loss for words, weren’t finding bodies.  At most, in many cases, body parts were all that was found.  Bodies that were recovered were put in body bags, placed on Stokes baskets and passed down through the chain of rescue workers.  Firefighters and paramedics often paused to pray after finding bodies, taking off their helmets and brushing away tears as chaplains administered last rites. 

Among the dead were many of the fire department’s top brass.  Chief of Department Peter Ganci, First Deputy Fire Commissioner William Feehan and Fire Department Chaplin Mychal Judge were found dead.  Chief of Special Operations Ray Downey, one of the country’s leading excerpts in Urban Search & Rescue and commander of rescue operations at the Oklahoma City bombing, was lost in the collapse.  97 pieces of fire apparatus, valued at $47 million, were destroyed by the destruction in and around "ground zero.”  18 Engine Companies, 13 Ladder Companies, five Rescue Companies and numerous EMS and Battalion cars were damaged or destroyed.  Specialty vehicles including the department’s Field Comm Unit were lost.

New York City firefighters Joe Scollan and John Pecora, from Engine 282, look out over the recovery efforts at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center, Friday, Sept. 21, 2001 in New York. PO Tom Sperduto,/USCG

As 300 firefighters remain missing, members of the community have held candlelight vigils in front of their neighborhood firehouses.  Most firehouses in the city are decorated with candles, flowers, photos, cards, banners and American flags.  Some firehouses have suffered great losses.  Among them, Squad Company 288 and Haz-Mat Company #1, from Queens, lost 19 firefighters from their house.  Many heartbreaking stories have come to surface since this act of terror.  Captain Brian Hickey, assigned to Rescue Company 4, narrowly escaped death on Father’s Day this year when an explosion occurred at a 3-alarm fire that took the life of 3 of his fellow firefighters.  Working his first tour back since that fire, Brian is among the missing.  In March of this year, Captain Timothy Stackpole returned to work for the first time since sustaining severe injuries  on June 5, 1998, in a Brooklyn fire that claimed the lives of 3 of his comrades.  Captain Stackpole died in the line of duty while trying to save civilians at the WTC.  Firefighter Joseph Angelini, assigned to Rescue Company 1, spent over 40 years with this department.  He was recently honored as man of the year.  One of the most respected guys on the job, Angelini died while searching for victims.  Ironically, his son, Joseph Angelini, Jr., is also a firefighter and is among the missing.  The stories and tales of these great firefighters will be talked about for years.  Legends never die.  Every one of the firefighters who died in the line of duty at the World Trade Center died doing what they loved the most: helping others, running into situations that most people were running away from.  In the tradition of the Fire Department City of New York, they were all indeed among “New York’s Bravest.”

Robert P. Mitts has been photographing fire department operations in New York City for 13 years.  He has written extensively on the New York City Fire Department and is a contributing photographer for 9-1-1 Magazine.

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