Man Behind the Mayor

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.”

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.”

Man Behind the Mayor