Ray Downey's uncanny ability to find order in the worst chaos earned
him the nickname "God." Teasing colleagues nicknamed his son "Jesus."
Now the World Trade Center has fallen on God, and Jesus is searching
On West Street, Scott tells Cohen about the other members of Squad
18 who are unaccounted for. "Let's go," Cohen urges. "We gotta get
Nearly two days later, Howie Scott
and Larry Cohen return to Lafayette Street. Scott talks tough but
can't look anyone in the eye. Cohen's mood ricochets minute by minute,
from chesty pride in the bravery he's witnessed to exhausted despair.
They had slowly paced the smoldering wreckage, trying to get traction
in the unstable mounds of paper and dirt, peering into voids and
shining their flashlights into the chasms, squinting to see any
reflection of life, backing off hastily when the ruins began crumbling.
The firefighters' boots, with four-inch-thick rubber soles, were
melting to their feet.
"The firefighters' boots, with four-inch-thick
rubber soles, were melting to their feet."
"You'd make a little headway with the debris and then there'd be
a steel I beam and you couldn't move," Scott says. "You picked and
prodded, took a break. Bare hands. Tools were useless. Guys got
squashed in their rigs. Their rigs pulled up and they got squashed.
No chance. No chance. Noooo chance." Now Scott and Cohen
stand on the sidewalk in the warm night air, staring at the smoke
still rising to the southwest, knowing that seven of their brothers
are stuck somewhere in that hellish pile. They'd signed up for Squad
18 because they wanted "to do a little extra," Cohen says. "But
we concentrated on the use of chemical suits, how to deal with anthrax,
sarin gas, stuff like that. No one envisioned this."
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center slashed a wound
across the city's entire Fire Department. Rescue 4 on Queens Boulevard,
already reeling from two deaths in a Father's Day fire, lost all
seven men, including a captain, who were working the morning the
towers collapsed. Staten Island's Rescue 5, located right near the
Verrazano Bridge, had ten casualties. Park Slope's Squad 1 saw eleven
men go down. In two hours, the Fire Department lost 30 times more
men than it had in any previous single incident. When the towers
collapsed, more than 300 of the roughly 400 firefighters on the
The wound is as deep as it is wide. Hundreds of years of Fire Department
managerial expertise disappeared in a single morning. Gone were the
two most senior operational chiefs, First Deputy Commissioner William
Feehan and Chief Peter Ganci, the primary tactician for the 11,000-member
force, as well as 47 lieutenants and 17 battalion chiefs. Hours after
he'd been standing at the Fire Department's command post, Scott was
back at the corner of West and Vesey, combing through an unrecognizable
heap. "We found two guys," he says. "A member of 34 Engine. And we
found Chief Ganci."
New bosses, many of them taking over
for friends and mentors who died at the World Trade Center, are
scrambling to rebuild a broken department. Yet, right now, as much
as they love the institution, the surviving rank and file aren't
thinking much about the department's future. Firefighters refer
frequently to "the brotherhood," and the relationship is literally
true in hundreds of instances. Larry Cohen's wife, Anne, is the
daughter of a firefighter and the sister of three more; she counts
herself absurdly lucky that her husband and all her brothers came
through the calamity unhurt. But the brotherhood as a whole now
has 1,000 newly fatherless children to help raise.
"It's a special thing about this department," Lieutenant Steve
Wall of the Bronx says, standing on Fifth Avenue in full dress uniform
after a special Mass at St. Patrick's in memory of all the fallen
uniformed service members. "Right now, I don't know if having so
much family makes things easier or harder."
Outside firehouses in the past two weeks, it's often seemed that firefighters
were comforting the public, instead of the other way around. Firefighters
have grieved before, but their famously cheerful, resilient dispositions
have always returned. This time, though, no one's quite so confident.
"Why do this job?" asks Scott's buddy John Ceriello, who found his
own harrowing escape route. "When you're young and dumb, it's very
exciting. Then with time you come to realize you're good at it, which
fuels your desire to keep doing it. And there's a sense of invulnerability:
'It won't happen to me.' " The fourteen-year veteran, with too many
near-misses to count, pauses and looks around the funeral home where
one of his Squad 18 brothers lies in a coffin. "This time it did happen.
To all of us."
Peter Ganci had the second most powerful
job in the department. But Ganci was no desk jockey. His uniform
shirt was crusted with medals for pulling people out of burning
buildings. When the first hijacked plane hit 1 World Trade, Ganci
was in his office at MetroTech in Brooklyn. "Look out your windows!"
he yelled to his commanders down the hallway. "The World Trade Center's
been hit by a plane!" Then Ganci and all the other brass grabbed
their gear and raced to the unfolding disaster.
Installed at the West Street command center, Ganci realized that
the towers were unstable. "Everyone back!" he yelled into the radio.
"We're moving north!" Dozens of his men were still inside. Either
they refused to abandon frightened civilians or they simply couldn't
hear him in the uproar. So Ganci ran south, toward the towers, to
spread the order.
Six days later, Danny Nigro is leaving the St. Patrick's service
that honored Ganci and the other uniformed dead. Nigro was Ganci's
deputy and best friend; yesterday he was promoted to replace him
as chief of department. Nigro, six-foot-four, stands straight as
a flagpole in his crisp white dress shirt; with his narrow eyes
and clenched jaw, he could be Clint Eastwood's younger, darker-haired
brother. "A service like this, it doesn't take away the pain, but
it was a wonderful thing. And last night, late at night, when we
came out of the site, people were clapping, waving flags. It was
very nice. But we take it one minute at a time. Okay?"
Sal Cassano was also promoted, to replace Nigro as chief of operations.
Cassano, 56, is Nigro's stylistic opposite. Short and chatty, he's
a warm presence, a natural politician who frequently wraps an arm
around the person he's talking to. This evening, Cassano's smile
still flashes, though it's clear he too is carrying a heavy burden.
He came to St. Patrick's from ground zero and he's on his way back
again. "My men need us down there with them," he says. "And my best
friend is trapped in that building right now. We're trying to get
him. The dedication of the men has been an inspiration to me. It's
reinforced what I've known for 32 years. Firefighters are the most
caring, most dependable, most trusting group of people I've ever
been associated with. The toughest thing ahead of us is, when does
the operation look bleak? I don't know if I'm ever going to determine
that. There's still plenty of people in there we want to get. We
have a lot of good brothers in there."
Cassano realizes he and Nigro have to strategize quickly about
how to heal the department. And he's got to figure out how to safeguard
the rest of the city when 30 fire trucks have been lost. He wants
to believe that replacing people won't be difficult. "We've had
no problem recruiting in the past, and I'm gonna assume we're gonna
have an abundance of people who want to come on the job," he says.
But rebuilding numbers may be easier than rebuilding morale. In
the short run, companies may need to be closed or consolidated.
"I'd love to separate the emotions from what we're trying to do,"
Cassano says, "but it's impossible, it's impossible."
Already the department is picking up signs of dissent in the ranks.
Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen wasn't particularly popular with
his troops before the World Trade Center tragedy; they dismissed
him as "a talking head." But his performance during the crisis has
won him new credibility. Five days after the attack, at a ceremony
to elevate 168 new officers at department headquarters in Brooklyn,
he drew gasps and tears by announcing the promotion of five firefighters
who were missing and most likely dead. Besides being a heartfelt
gesture of hope, the promotions had a practical benefit: It made
the families of the deceased eligible for higher pensions.
he tell her about the twenty-ton I beams that rained down from 110
stories onto human bodies?