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The Smoldering Fires of 9/11

Six months after that terrible day, the FDNY's struggles -- with budget cuts, union leaders, intrusive tourists, health and emotional problems, and the painful work of recovering the dead and caring for their families -- require a different kind of heroism.


The world doesn't get drearier than a late-February weekday afternoon on Roosevelt Island. Then John Norman, sitting in a tiny cinder-block Fire Department office, flips open his Toshiba laptop. Instantly, the battalion chief is back in the middle of hell in the financial district.

"Do you want to see what I saw that morning?" Norman says. On September 11, he was on vacation, sleeping late in his Long Island bedroom, when a firefighter called, shouting about a total recall. Norman switched on his TV. The south tower of the World Trade Center plummeted.

Firefighters are trained to stay cool in a crisis, of course, and Norman is one of the coolest: a former captain of midtown's elite Rescue 1 who'd been promoted to battalion chief. So on September 11, Norman had the presence of mind to pull a digital camera out of his pocket and begin shooting as he raced across the Manhattan Bridge on Engine 264.

In Norman's pictures of the disaster scene, the soot is palpable, the twisted steel menacing, the raging flames surreal. They're good pictures. But they don't include the look on Norman's face when he learned that his younger brother, David, a cop with the Emergency Service Unit, had last been seen on the thirty-first floor of the north tower. Or Norman's expression when he heard that his buddy Dennis Mojica was gone. Or the growing gloom as the word spread: 200 . . . 300 . . . 400 firefighters missing.

Norman stares at the laptop slide show and pain ripples across his brow. He is 50, lanky, soft-spoken, his hair a thatch of gray. He looks away from the computer. Staring at Norman from the wall next to his new desk is the Times obituary of Ray Downey. As September 11 dawned, Downey was chief of the FDNY's Special Operations Command and a charismatic national legend in rescue circles. He'd created the urban-search-and-rescue system adopted by fema and fire departments worldwide. Downey's team in Oklahoma City recovered more bodies from the bombed federal building than any other group.

Special Operations Command -- or SOCK, pronounced to rhyme with rock -- provides the shock troops in a disaster. At the World Trade Center, soc lost 94 men, including five chiefs. Including Ray Downey. And Downey wasn't just Norman's boss. He was Norman's rabbi in the department and a close friend off-duty.

An assistant walks in carrying a fax. "The updated list," Norman murmurs, reading. "We're still missing almost 50 people in the command. We know that there are people there. We can smell them. We just have to get through the debris and get them out."

Ray Downey is still among the missing. Late that first week, Norman was promoted to fill Downey's job. He's replenished the ranks of the units who make lifesaving runs to car crashes, construction cave-ins, and subway accidents, but Norman is still begging people to fill the fifteen open hazmat slots. "Wives threaten to divorce guys who consider doing it," he says.

As Norman struggles to rebuild, he's been dragged back into the rubble. "Our urban-search-and-rescue cache, every item in there, was deployed at the site and either destroyed, lost, or so irreparably damaged that it needs replacement," Norman says. "It's $1.8 million worth of equipment. Back in the fall, we were told, 'We're gonna outfit you with an entire new cache. Don't worry about it.' Well, that's since been revoked. The department told us they're not doing it."

He exhales a long sigh. "The department said, 'Ahright, you guys are gonna have to go back out there and retrieve everything you can. Polish it up,' " Norman says. He shakes his head ever so slightly in disbelief. His men, physically and emotionally ragged, have spent dozens of hours scavenging the site and Fresh Kills landfill for mangled seismic sensors, rain-clogged fiber-optic cameras, and steel-cutting hacksaws worn toothless. The equipment stolen by private contractors has been harder to recover. Then Mayor Bloomberg announced a $60 million cut in the Fire Department's budget.

There's a knock on the door, and an assistant pokes his head in. "Nah, hold the calls," Norman says. "Unless it's my doctor."

For a month, the chief's head has been pounding with searing pain. This morning, he stopped by the FDNY's medical office to try to pick up the results of blood tests he'd taken one week earlier. "I was just dumbfounded," Norman says. "They had boxes of files stacked as high as that TV stand. They put almost 14,000 people through exams in a three-month period. They had to cut off giving the medicals because they had to start entering the data to see if they could pick out a pattern, while it was still early enough to do something about it. Yeah, they're backed up."

How is John Norman feeling? "Not well," he says. "Yeah, I've thought about retiring. But I just couldn't leave. It would be like a deserter in the face of enemy fire. We're gonna do this work until it's done."

Norman shuts off his laptop. If only September 11 could disappear so easily. The phone rings and this time Norman takes the call. It's Captain Joe Downey, one of Ray's sons. "I'm all right, Joe," Norman says. "How are you doing?"

Six months on, the entire FDNY looks and feels much like John Norman: vigilant and fragile. Amazingly, FDNY average response times were nine seconds faster in January 2002 than they were one year earlier.

"The things that were good about the job September 10 are the things that are, in some ways, better -- the camaraderie, the way guys look out for each other," Andrew Serra, 28, says. He was transferred to Squad 1, a soc unit in Park Slope, to replace one of the eleven firefighters killed. "We're pissed off at our union; we're pissed off at the city," Lieutenant Bill Burke says. "But none of it means you're going to get less than 100 percent out of us on a fire."

Laughter is once again the dominant sound in firehouse kitchens. "We had some extra terrorism training recently," a Harlem firefighter says. "They told us, 'If you see glowing plutonium, stay away from it.' Seriously."

"Yeah," says another firefighter, putting down his steak, "and if Superman is on an EMS run when you find kryptonite . . . "

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