Braving The Heat

He is running. He is running up West Street in clunky knee-high rubber boots that cut into the backs of his knees, in a bulky black-and-yellow firefighter’s coat, with a 30-pound air cylinder strapped to his back, and Howie Scott is running faster than he ever has before in his 39 years on this earth. Ten seconds ago, he was about to step into 2 World Trade Center. For no reason, he glanced up. The tower exploded. The whole freakin’ thing exploded! Now Scott is running from a black cloud of – what? Ash? Soot?

A shrapnel storm of steel and glass and stone is smashing all around him. A concrete boulder the size of a garbage truck thuds into the ground. “John! John! John!” he is yelling as he runs. John Ceriello, also from Squad 18, was standing right next to him outside the building. Where is John?

Scott is diving. He sees a walkway and leaps for cover. He is flying through the air as if something is pushing him, something more than his adrenaline – the force of the explosion? The hand of God? He travels at least 50 feet in the air. As he hits the asphalt, the oxygen tank delivers an iron punch to his lower back. Scott lands under the walkway as 110 stories of pulverized office tower smack like an industrial hailstorm, shredding and demolishing every car and storefront and abandoned doughnut cart in sight. The walkway shields him from the debris. The walkway saves his life.

After 30 seconds on the ground, Scott starts to save other people’s lives. He pulls his air mask back into place. He crawls, bumping into – what is this shit? It’s too dark, just black, black, black everywhere, to distinguish animal from mineral. It is weirdly quiet. No sirens. No screams. There are people streaming out of an undamaged building, dazed and staring. “Just go!” Scott yells. “Don’t even look! Just get out of here! Go! Go! Go!” Men in expensive business suits coated in thick dust, women with bloody bare feet, everyone is sprinting.

Scott runs, too. North again, he thinks. His back aches. His lungs are heaving. He is picking up speed. He runs straight into a plate-glass window.

He fights not to lose consciousness. Must be the only damn unbroken window, and it’s nearly knocked him out! He gets up again. There’s some daylight. At least it appears to be daylight. This time Scott walks. Up West Street, toward the daylight. He stops when he arrives instead at the edge of the Hudson River. Holy shit, he thinks. Where thehell am I?

“The firefighters’ boots, with four-inch-thick rubber soles, were melting to their feet.”

Scott slowly picks his way back toward the improvised command center at the corner of West and Vesey. There’s supposed to be a main gas line over there, underneath Battery Park City; everyone is being herded clear. The chiefs are getting a little control over the situation now. They’re formulating a plan … then BOOM! The second tower comes down. It sounds like when a pilot lowers the hammer for takeoff, Scott thinks. The first one, we had time to react, we had a moment to make a move. This one? Anyone there got crushed. Holy Christ.

Now all the radios are out. Bosses are talking about sending firefighters back in, but among the men there’s a lot of skepticism: “Is there more?”

“Is anything else coming down?”

“Did they wire this building?”

Figures are emerging like apparitions, stumbling. Firefighters are hugging as they recognize fellow survivors. Scott doesn’t see anyone from Squad 18. Where’s John? Where is Timmy Haskell, who wouldn’t wait for Scott to finish getting dressed and roared off from their Lafayette Street firehouse in the Hazmat truck? Where is Eric Allen, the guy everyone ragged about collecting old junk? Where is Manny Mojica, the Harley-riding Puerto Rican from Astoria with biceps like an NFL lineman’s?

Scott’s eyes are burning. He knows rubbing them is the worst thing to do, that more of the black gunk will get inhis eyes, but he can’t help it. Suddenly, thankfully, a familiar face materializes, alive, out of the gloom. It’s Larry Cohen. He was scheduled to be working this shift, but Scotthad asked to trade. Larry was at home upstate when he got the call. He raced across the Tappan Zee, stopped off at special-operations command on Roosevelt Island, then continued downtown.

On his way into the city, Cohen picked up Joe Downey, a Squad 18 captain andson of Ray Downey, chief of special operations. In 1995, Ray Downey had been dispatched to Oklahoma City to help direct rescue efforts after the bombing; in 1998, he’d pushed the FDNY to create units with extra training in terrorism response, particularly in anticipation of the millennium. One of those units was Squad 18.

Ray Downey’s uncanny ability to find order in the worst chaos earned him the nickname “God.” Teasing colleagues nicknamed his son “Jesus.” Now the World Trade Center has fallen on God, and Jesus is searching for him.

On West Street, Scott tells Cohen about the other members of Squad 18 who are unaccounted for. “Let’s go,” Cohen urges. “We gotta get them out.”

Nearly twodays later, Howie Scott and Larry Cohen return to Lafayette Street. Scott talks tough but can’t look anyone in the eye. Cohen’s mood ricochets minute by minute, from chesty pridein the bravery he’s witnessed to exhausted despair. They had slowly paced the smoldering wreckage, trying to get traction in the unstable mounds of paper and dirt, peering intovoids and shining their flashlights into the chasms, squinting to see any reflection of life, backing off hastily when the ruins began crumbling. The firefighters’ boots, with four-inch-thick rubber soles, were melting to their feet.

“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.

But firefighters aren’t in it for the money, notwhen a veteran of fifteen years takes home about $1,500 every two weeks, after taxes. Amidthe wakes and funerals last week, there were rumblings about a lack of respect. “We’vebeen without a contract for two years,” railed one firefighter. “When the city washurting, we sacrificed and took no raises, even though we’d supported Rudy big-time inboth his campaigns.”

“The city said it would remember us when times were flush,” says another fire-union official. “Guess what? They forgot!”

No one wants to speak publicly about using the World Trade Center tragedy as bargaining leverage. But no one has to. In July, the firefighter’s-union leadership agreed to a new contract with 5 percent raises for the next two years, but ratification, with a vote scheduled for October, was in doubt before September 11.

On top of losing more than 300 firefighters, the Fire Department is likely to find the personnel shortage worsening. “A lot of guys are going to be putting infor early retirement,” says one firefighter. “They’d love to stay on the job for 45 years, but this has to make you think twice. And a lot of wives and relatives are going to make the argument they should get out now.”

Last week, as the mood changed from determined rescue to edgy sadness, firefighters chafed at what they saw as their bosses’ insensitivity. “They keep ordering us to show up for tours to go down to the site when we’ve got funerals to go to!” says one firefighter. “Fuck that! The job is not doing right by us.”

The faxes flutter and ruffle on the back seat of the Chevy Tahoe. They are maps to mourning, and the stack is too high. “Which wake are we going to now?” Larry Cohen asks from the driver’s seat as his wife, Anne, an elementary-school teacher, studies routes from Long Island to Queens. The surviving firefighters of Squad 18 are making contrasting sweeps so none of the families of the lost feel left out: Some firefighters are starting at funeral homes and working their way out to Long Island. Cohen and his wife and his pal Vinnie Concannon from Engine 48 in the Bronx are making the opposite arc. “Hey,” Anne says softly, glancing at the date on one of the funeral home faxes. “Today is Tuesday. It’s been one week.” No one speaks for several more miles.

“The city said it would remember us when times were flush. Guess what? They forgot!”

The first stop is Seaford: TimmyHaskell, son of a firefighter. “He was a surfer dude,” Cohen says, smiling fondly at the memory of his 34-year-old friend. ” ‘Hey, dude’ – that’s all you’d hear from him.” Haskell also trained his dog to stop, drop, and roll on command, for the fire-safety classes he taught at elementary schools.

In the funeral home, Cohen hugs the youngest Haskell brother, Kenny, a Brooklyn firefighter who made it out and now stands grimly on the receiving line beside Timmy’s casket. Another brother, Tommy, hasn’t been found yet.

The visits don’t get any easier. Larry Virgilio, 38 years old, is in Woodside; Cohen and company will finish the night in Bay Ridge, paying their respects to Eric Allen, 41. Atnine o’clock, as the funeral home is getting ready to close, the room is still full, the honor guard still in place, when Allen’s wife, Kiki, and their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Kathleen, kneel at the dark cherry wood coffin to say good-bye.

“Time to go,” Kiki says. “Not yet! Not yet! Not yet!” Kathleen says, bouncing up and down, excited to beup so late, blissfully unaware of why all these people have gathered.

For Cohen, the toughest moment is probably in the middle of the day. Inside a funeral home in Bellmore, Long Island, is a coffin draped with an American flag. Inside rests 37-year-old Manny Mojica. Cohen stands at the back for a long time, steeling himself. “I found Manny,” hesays. It was Saturday, four days after the attack. Cohen’s teeth clench and his words raspout in anger as he relives the moment. “I just wanted to pull him out and get him out of there!” Tears surge, the red in his face creeping up under his brush-cut blond hair. “It took us three hours to dig him out. I had to lean down and wrap myself around him to secure him to the ropes.” He pauses. Then his composure comes back, as does the memory of a small bit of humor. “I told him, ‘Manny, you ain’t making this any fucking easier on us!’ “

Mojica’s 7-year-old daughter, Stephanie, is bopping around the room nonstop. His 5-year-old son, Manny, just wants to sleep all the time. One of Mojica’s in-laws comes over to thank Cohen, to tell him how much it means to the family to have Manny’s body. She lowers her voice even further: “Was he … badly messed up?”

What can Cohen say? Doeshe tell her about the twenty-ton I beams that rained down from 110 stories onto human bodies? About the massive fire trucks turned over like a child’s toys? About how he grabbed desperately at a foot, thinking he was about to tug out a survivor, and stood there holding only the foot and an ankle? About how Eric Allen and Manny were wrapped around each other, two firefighters from Squad 18, together at the end?

“Oh, he looked fine,” Cohen says, nodding and looking away. “He wasn’t hurt much at all.”

He walks slowly to the front, limping on the knee he injured the first day of the disaster. Manny’s wife springs to her feet and clings to Cohen, sobbing. “I don’t want to let go of you,”she cries. “Then don’t,” Cohen says, squeezing her tighter.

He holds her for a long time, invites Anna Mojica and the kids to come upstate and go horseback riding in a few weeks. Those will be better times, Cohen promises. After a few more minutes, he has to leave if he wants to make the next wake in time. “Only 300 more of these to go,” he says.

Braving The Heat