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Man Behind the Mayor

Until September 11, Richard Sheirer, director of the Office of Emergency Management, was mostly sweating the small stuff: burst water mains, power outages, rodent-control problems. Then, with his command center destroyed and his friends missing, he became the unsung hero of the hot zone -- and one of the most powerful men in New York.


On the morning of September 12, Richard Sheirer, director of the mayor's Office of Emergency Management, was scheduled to conduct a biological-terrorism drill in a cavernous commercial warehouse on the Hudson. Known as tripod -- short for "trial point of distribution" -- the exercise was to test how quickly Sheirer's staff could administer treatments at the kind of ad hoc medical centers that would be set up all over the city in the event of an actual attack. For an audience, Sheirer had lined up Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the police and fire commissioners, and representatives of the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He had hired over 1,000 Police Academy cadets and Fire Department trainees to play terrified civilians afflicted with various medical conditions, allergies, and panic attacks. He had even arranged for a shipment of 70,000 M&Ms to be delivered and divided by color into medical packets representing different prophylactics and vaccines. But the M&Ms never arrived.

On the morning of September 11, Sheirer got to City Hall at 8 a.m. for a meeting about the Jackie Robinson-Pee Wee Reese memorial planned for Coney Island. "I was in heaven, sitting between Ralph Branca and Joe Black," he remembers. "We were about to select the statue, and then we heard the pop." At first he thought a transformer had exploded in an underground substation. Then he got a flash report from Watch Command in OEM headquarters.

As his driver barreled down Broadway, Sheirer recalls, "my first move was to clear the streets so we could get emergency vehicles in and people out." He radioed the police department and told them to shut down traffic below Canal Street and close every bridge and tunnel in the city.

Down at the scene, he joined Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen and his chiefs Pete Ganci and Bill Feehan -- old friends from Sheirer's 26 years with the New York Fire Department. They were establishing a command post at the base of the burning tower. Then the second airplane hit. "At that point there was no more doubt," he says ruefully. "We were under attack." He picked up one of the three cell phones strapped to his belt and started giving orders: to the Coast Guard to seal the harbor, and to the State Emergency Management Office to send backup search and rescue teams and get the Pentagon to freeze the city's airspace. Then he lost his signal.

As Sheirer helped move the Fire Department command post, he saw a cloud of smoke and debris engulf his own command center, on the twenty-third floor of 7 World Trade Center. His staff was inside sending alerts to representatives of nearly 100 organizations -- everyone from Con Edison to the Department of Health. One of his deputies radioed him to report that the OEM would have to evacuate.

"I do this trip three, four times a day and it still turns my stomach. Some of the men buried in that pile I've worked with for 30 years."

Then his radio buzzed again: Giuliani was with Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik at an NYPD command post two blocks north, at 75 Barclay Street. Sheirer and Von Essen were needed at the mayor's side, so they bolted north, leaving chiefs Ganci and Feehan in charge.

Minutes after they arrived at Barclay, the second tower collapsed. "It was a tremendous whoosh, roaring like a train in a tunnel," Sheirer remembers. The doors were jammed with piles of debris, but a janitor led the mayor and his commissioners out through the basement. Their cars were crushed, so they trudged uptown to a firehouse at Houston and Sixth Avenue.

As soon as he had access to land lines, Sheirer ordered fuel reserves for the fire boats that pump water from the Hudson, called the Department of Buildings to send down a team of structural engineers, and made arrangements to establish a temporary command center in the Police Academy at Third Avenue and 20th. Then a retired fireman named Dennis Conway, whom Sheirer had known for decades, limped in. "He sat down next to me and said, 'Feehan and Ganci ordered me to go north, but they went south to get the other troops,' " Sheirer remembers. " 'Ritchie,' he said, 'they're gone. The tower swallowed them up.' It was so far beyond my wildest dreams. When I left the post at the scene, there was no thought in my mind that I wasn't going to see my friends again."

As Sheirer struggled to catch his breath, one of his deputies put a phone up to his ear. "He said, 'It's the missus -- tell her you're alive.' I could hear my wife crying. She knows when there's an incident, I'm down on the scene. I told her, 'I'm still here, baby. It wasn't my time.' "

Quiet and camera-shy, Sheirer makes most of his public appearances standing behind the mayor's left shoulder. He's the one who's not Kerik or Von Essen, the short, stout man who bows his head in the limelight, his eyes downcast behind huge square glasses, his jowls drooping as he whispers updates in the mayor's ear. He's the guy Giuliani calls "the man behind the curtain." He's the wizard of OEM.

Sheirer spent his earliest years in makeshift military housing made of corrugated metal. "When my dad came back from the service," he says, "they housed us in Quonset Hut City at the foot of Rockaway Parkway. I didn't realize how rudimentary it was until we moved into a Brooklyn housing project on Flatbush and Snyder. What a difference!" When Sheirer was in high school, his father, a truck driver, had a stroke (his mother died of cancer several years later). Sheirer took to hanging out in the Flatbush Boy's Club, where a friend who had a brother in the FDNY encouraged him to join the department.

After a short stint in the Navy, Sheirer became a Fire Department dispatcher, and worked his way up to deputy commissioner before Howard Safir named him Police Department chief of staff in 1996. That same year, Giuliani issued the executive order that created the Office of Emergency Management, placing terrorism expert Jerome Hauer at the helm. Starting with a 12-person division in the NYPD, Hauer built the OEM into a 50-person agency based in a controversial $16 million command center at 7 World Trade Center. But he quit soon after the bunker was completed, saying the long hours and high pressure were taking a toll on his personal life. In February 2000, Giuliani tapped Sheirer for the job.

Most of the time, Sheirer and his staff of 72 (many of them seasoned fire and police officers) prepare for hurricanes and earthquakes while dealing with a steady stream of quotidian problems -- derailed trains, water-main breaks, the city's rodent population. On a normal day, New York needs over 80 agencies to function smoothly; in a crisis, Sheirer's job is to conduct this orchestra, to ensure that every individual instrument plays its part, on time and in key.

Since September 11, Sheirer has taken charge of the biggest cleanup effort in American history, coordinating 100 federal, state, and local agencies, including FEMA. He's become, in effect, the CEO of a company with thousands of workers and a budget that could run up to $40 billion -- or, if you prefer, the mayor of the hot zone. He calls in the city's Department of Transportation to patch up the streets and has the Department of Design and Construction hang netting so broken glass won't fall on workers below. He orders Con Ed and Verizon to rehabilitate buildings without power or phone service, then gets the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Design and Construction to make sure they're safe. If they pass the test, he signs the documents that open them up to the public. "OEM is in charge," says Mike Byrne, deputy federal coordinating officer of FEMA for this incident. "Sheirer gives the marching orders. So far, we're blown away by OEM's performance."

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