Late on a Sunday night, two weeks after the attack, Sheirer is riding shotgun in his silver GMC Yukon. He's heading down to the on-scene OEM command bus to coordinate supplies for debris removal -- wrecking balls, jackhammers, Tyvec suits, even tetanus shots. "Whatever the guys need down there to fight the devil," he says, "I make sure they have it."
As he flashes his badge out the window at one of the checkpoints, the Dixie Chicks are playing on the stereo. "Turn it up, Johnny," he says to his driver. "I need a calming influence. My favorite is Billy Joel, but I also go for the Dixies and Barenaked Ladies." Sheirer attributes his taste in music to the five sons he has with Barbara, his wife of 27 years.
Sheirer cuts off the music as he rolls through ground zero, glaring at the contorted remains like it's the first time he's seen them. "I do this trip three, four times a day, and still it turns my stomach," he says. "Some of the men buried in that pile I've worked with for 30 years. I know men out here who are digging for their sons, sons who are digging for their fathers." He sighs, then rolls down the window: "Hiya, Jimmy, Carlos, Lou. You boys are doing a yeoman's job!"
Parked near the remains of 7 World Trade Center, the OEM command bus is glossy blue, 50 feet long, and divided into two sections. Up front, the control room has dozens of wall-mounted monitors and a built-in Motorola radio center; in back, the conference room has track lighting, leather bunks, and a table piled with two six-foot subs, a platter of sausage dogs, and red binders labeled FEMA: classified.
Sheirer takes a seat, scarfs down a dog, and calls out a name: "Ray Lynch!" Responsible for coordinating the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams, Lynch appears in full gear -- body suit, hard hat, face mask, rubber boots -- and offers an update: He's got teams in from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Arizona, California, Utah, and Florida, with more help on the way. Right now he's working with experts in structural collapse and confined-space rescue. "I don't want anybody in there for more than twelve hours," Sheirer tells him. "Make sure those guys get sleep."
"One of the things I pride myself on is that for a short, round guy I can be pretty invisible. It's important to me to get in, get it done, and get out. We don't need fanfare."
"You got it, boss," Lynch replies. "There's still hope. We're only fourteen days into it. USAR teams have found survivors up to sixteen days after an incident without food and water."
Sheirer radios the on-site rep of the Department of Design and Construction to offer an update on the hundred-ton crane he had FEMA fly in from Germany. Then he reports that he was able to get permission to dredge the Hudson so the Department of Sanitation can send garbage barges closer to the scene instead of taking debris away by truck.
Then it's back to the conference room to meet with his senior staff. Schools near the scene need to be reopened, so he asks his deputy of planning to find alternative buildings to store supplies; volunteer ironworkers and machine operators need to be taken care of, so he reviews their food and housing situation. "These construction guys are like family," says Sheirer. "They consider this sacred ground just like we do."
Around midnight, Sheirer stumbles out of the bus, leans up against a chain-link fence, and flips open his cell phone. "Hiya, hon," he says. "I know it's Sunday, I know. I'm comin' home." Just next to where he's standing, there's a printed flyer pinned to a fence: "Tempest-tossed soul, keep your hand firmly upon the helm of thought. In the bark of your soul reclines the Commanding Master. Self-control is strength, Right thought is mastery, Calmness is power."
"Nobody understands his stamina," Sheirer's driver says, as he waits in the Yukon. "Last night, I took him home to Staten Island at 2 a.m. When I picked him up at six this morning, his wife met me at the door and said he'd been on the phone until four. Then he jumps in the car with a stack of reports to get ready for his morning meeting with the mayor. He's unbelievable. This has been going on for two weeks straight."
The night of Tuesday the 11th, Sheirer and his staff never left the Police Academy. "It was dreadful," says Henry Jackson, Sheirer's deputy director for administration, who was responsible for setting up the temporary command post. "The phones kept going down. The little computer network we jerry-rigged kept going down, so everything had to be done with pen and paper."
Sheirer knew he needed another building, one big enough to house a command center the size of a football field, but also secure enough to house the mayor. The location was obvious: He commandeered the facility on the Hudson where he had been scheduled to do his tripod drill the following day. It was a space Sheirer knew well -- when he was a rookie in the Fire Department, he had organized quilting and antique fairs there as a side job.
When Action Jackson, as the deputy administrator is known at OEM, got the order to build a new command center, it was 8 a.m. Wednesday morning; he had slept for two hours on a cot in the Police Academy gym and was still covered in a film of debris. "I loaded up on coffee and smokes," says Jackson with a Han Solo grimace, "and brought a team of ten guys from logistics, telecom, and security to check the place out." By midnight Wednesday, "there were 150 people crawling all over the place," he says. "We gathered the whole crowd of laborers and gave 'em a little Knute Rockne, a little Vince Lombardi speech -- some inspiration. Boom! We got the place up and running and functional in 32 hours." He pauses. "The mayor keeps saying it was 48, but it was 32."
Cement floors were carpeted, tablecloths stapled to tables, areas sectioned off with drywall. The ground level hummed with forklifts moving in mountains of computers, giant spools of cable, and bulk shipments of food and toiletries. The Navy sailed in the U.S.S. Comfort, a medical ship with 900 beds and a full kitchen, and docked it next to the warehouse to serve as a relief hotel.
"I could have asked for anything in the world and gotten it," says Jackson. "Everybody knew we were in charge." Compaq shipped hundreds of computers, Cisco sent servers, Nextel brought in a cell site to boost its signal. By the end of the day, vendors were vying to donate their products. "Now Microsoft is calling me and wants to know why we aren't using Microsoft," sighs Jackson.
Finally, there was the issue of décor: "I'm like, we don't have an American flag here," says Jackson, "I'm like, we need American flags here. I said get American flags! So I had some of the laborers run up and down the place hanging flags." By Friday night, 500 representatives from various city agencies had added their own personal touches, and aerial photographs of the site shared wall space with posters reading STRENGTH AND HONOR and hundreds of handmade cards from kids around the country.
The new command center is organized just the way the original was: FEMA and OEM officials sit on a raised platform known as Command and Control. Surrounding them are ten sections: Health and Medical, Logistics, Transportation, Infrastructure, Law Enforcement, Debris Removal, Aerial Imaging and Mapping, Machinery, Utilities, and Joint Information Center.
By the time Friday night rolled around, Jackson hadn't slept or showered in four days. "I literally hadn't been able to dust myself off," he says. "I
hadn't even been able to think. Then somebody gave me a box of Girl Scout cookies that had a little note on it, from some Girl Scout somewhere. And that's when I lost it. I just started bawling."
"One of the things I pride myself on," says Sheirer, "is that, for a short, round guy, I can be pretty invisible. I think it's very valuable to be invisible for the job I do. It's important to me to be prepared, to get in, get it done, and get out. My people understand -- we don't need fanfare. Invisibility enhances our ability to work with everyone because they know we're not looking to take the limelight." Of course, Sheirer's deference also helps keep the limelight shining on hizzoner.
Sheirer could easily step out from Giuliani's shadow -- he's briefed President Bush, Tony Blair, and Henry Kissinger, among others -- but he plans to retire when the mayor leaves office. At least in part, it's a lifestyle decision: "I haven't worked less than a twelve-hour day or had a normal schedule in 34 years." But political loyalty also comes into play. "Winston Churchill is the guy who did it for Britain and Rudy Giuliani is the guy who is doing it for New York -- and the country," says Sheirer, "because he's focused, he understands. That understanding and leadership permeates everything we do. There are other people who I don't think feel it the way he does. For them it's all political bullshit. And I'm really fearful for the city because of it."
There's even a risk that when Giuliani and Sheirer go, the OEM could go with them. Since the agency was created by a Giuliani executive order, it will be up to the next mayor to keep it alive, unless voters approve the initiative on the November 4 ballot that proposes to make it a charter agency.
Sheirer says the next administration will have to increase building security, step up drills to prepare for biological and chemical terrorism as well as natural disasters and day-to-day emergencies, boost the back-up electricity reserves and more frequently test the water supply. "It's not cheap to be prepared," says Sheirer. "But if there's one good thing to come out of this, it's political support to commit the necessary resources."
From a federal point of view, New York is already ahead of the rest of the nation. "It should be used as a model to build other urban OEMs across the country," says Byrne of FEMA. "There are not many leaders in the U.S. like Sheirer. There will be a boom in demand for these kinds of experts."