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The Smoldering Fires of 9/11


On quiet nights, the talk sometimes turns to which of the widows is puffy from tranquilizers, which kids are acting out in school since their father was lost. One firefighter can't shake the memory of visiting a grieving family that first week after the attack and hearing a boy screaming at his mother: "The sons-of-bitches killed Daddy!"

"I've kept up with three of the women, girlfriends or widows," Ceriello says, narrating a common experience throughout the department. "It's tough. What do you talk about? Their husband is dead. Their kids have no father. 'How's the weather? How are you feeling? Do you need anything?' What are you going to say? It sucks. They start crying, whatever . . . " He glances up at the mid-afternoon sky. "Got dark out, huh?" After his shift, he's stopping by to see the mother of one of his lost pals. "September 11 seems like a long time ago," he says. "But it really wasn't."

Some cope by working nonstop. Brian Smith, a Squad 18 lieutenant, has barreled straight from anthrax scares to digging in the pile to training seven new squad members. "As a boss, I can't show any weakness," Smith says. "If I'm taking time off to go to counseling, if I'm gone for two weeks of vacation, what example is that setting?"

Larry Cohen has put on twenty pounds. "I guess it's my way of dealing with the stress," the Squad 18 veteran says with a laugh. "It's better than drinking or killing somebody."

Von Essen's replacement as fire commissioner could have been a Dalmatian and firefighters would have cheered. There was mild disappointment that the choice was Nicholas Scoppetta, a political retread who'd run the Administration for Children's Services under Giuliani. "We needed a guy who had Bloomberg's ear and had some pull in Washington, who could compete with Ray Kelly's sharp elbows," an officer says. "Instead, we get a guy who is almost 70 and said he wanted to retire."

But they'll happily take a figurehead, so long as the real power returns to the chief of department.

"Some days, I still think this is Pete's office," Daniel Nigro says. "I turn the wrong way." Then he remembers that he's replaced Pete Ganci, the chief of department on September 11.

At about 9:15 that morning, the two men stood at the command post on West Street. Nigro told Ganci he wanted to quickly circle 1 World Trade Center, to assess the damage. "See you later," Ganci said.

"We were in the middle of Church Street when the south tower started to come down," Nigro says today, slowly. "My aide and I were able to get cover into the doorway of a Starbucks, on Dey Street. It was kind of a deep old doorway. Everything crashed around us and missed us."

He never saw Ganci again. Now he occupies his closest friend's old office in the FDNY's Brooklyn headquarters. Yesterday, Nigro posed with President Bush at a midtown photo op. "Sometimes we tend to think of things in clichés," he says. "The president makes those kind of statements: 'We're wounded and it made us stronger.' I'm not saying the department is stronger, but we remain strong and committed."

Nigro, 53, is tall and austere, with a grave baritone voice. Firefighters regard the 33-year veteran as a bit chilly, but at least he's one of their own, a guy from Bayside, Queens.

"One thing that signaled to me that the department was going to be okay," Nigro says, "is that the next day, September 12, there was a fire on the West Side. Usually that's covered by 54 Engine, Ladder 4. But they'd lost twelve people. And I heard them come on the radio and say, 'We're available.' Instead of sitting in the kitchen thinking, 'Please don't call me.' Our firefighters, they're the best."

He's already late for a budget meeting, and tonight Nigro will be here past dark discussing how to save lives the next time a skyscraper is burning. "Our actual operation at high-rise fires will change very little," Nigro says. "It's based on tried-and-true methods. The only thing that has changed is a heightened sense of alert: Is it something else?"

Nigro and his staff chiefs have drafted a plan for "something else" that is awaiting approval from City Hall. The reforms include reducing the number of firefighters initially deployed to a possible terrorist strike, and a wider buffer zone around the emergency to reduce the number of people in the range of a potential building collapse -- and to make firefighters less of a concentrated target for secondary attacks.

Many of the department's brass barely escaped when the north tower fell as they directed operations from its lobby. "We've had high-rise fires since September 11, and we've put our command post in the lobby of that building," Nigro says. "But if we think it might be a terrorist act, we won't put our primary command in the same place. That has changed already."

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