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Braving The Heat

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"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 alittle 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 scene died.

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 hewas 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 wecame 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 aheavy 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.


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