The Smoldering Fires of 9/11

Photo: Associated Press

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 … “

Yet there is also abundant, simmering anger and sorrow. Retirement-planning seminars are standing room only. Firefighters are facing the cruel joke of exalted status and stagnant wages. And while they’re forever grateful for the outpouring of public sympathy, they’ve wearied of the attention – particularly in Manhattan, where tourists knock in the middle of the night and demand they pose for pictures. “You’re like a pet,” says a firefighter with Engine 7 on Duane Street.

Lurking out of sight, like asbestos fibers embedded in a healthy lung, is a pervasive anxiety about the long-term physical and psychological damage from September 11. Medical leaves are up 35 percent. Firefighters joke that alcoholism is a requirement for the job; plenty have stepped right up to the national open bar that’s welcomed anyone wearing city blues these past months.

Still, it’s hard to numb the wounds completely, especially when the scar tissue is constantly being jabbed. The sharpest recent poke was Sunday’s CBS documentary on the terrorist attack. The filmmakers had threatened to sue firefighters who circulated bootleg copies of the raw footage. “They have to show this on TV now, while we’re still burying people?” spits one firefighter. “They don’t think anyone’s gonna be interested next year?” Norman, who led the first week’s search for survivors, is furious that the documentarian duo didn’t get him their film immediately. “We wasted time and effort and exposed people to risks unnecessarily,” he says.

Compounding the strain for many firefighters is the wrenching job of ministering to the widows and children of their dead friends. “Then there are guys who had a wife and girlfriend – and the girlfriend is pregnant,” says one Manhattan captain. “Hey, we’re human.”

John Norman’s brother turned up September 12, in a hospital, bruised but alive. Many other firefighters haven’t had an equivalent moment of relief. “I hate to even think about it,” Norman says, “but I expect we’re gonna have people kill themselves. There’s such a sense of guilt. People all around them in four directions were killed, and they were spared. People who had swapped tours with guys who died. There’s tremendous, tremendous amounts of guilt.”

Mike Carter put on his shiny black jacket with the big FDNY union logo and headed for a polling place in Manhattan to hand out Alan Hevesi flyers. The sun was rising on Primary Day, September 11. Carter is vice-president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, and no union membership more eagerly anticipated the end of the Giuliani administration.

The overriding sourness flowed from a seven-year grievance over money. The firefighters unions endorsed Rudy Giuliani for mayor in 1994 but got scant spoils from the victor. The infamous “zeroes for heroes” labor contract that sparked cop protests also covered the more quiescent firefighters.

Giuliani was disdained, but that was mild compared with the deeply personal reaction to his fire commissioner: outright hatred. Thomas Von Essen had risen from South Bronx firefighter to president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which represents the 9,500 rank and filers. In 1995, Giuliani proposed consolidating the city’s Emergency Medical Service with the Fire Department. Von Essen, as union president, campaigned for the merger, though it was unpopular with his membership. Two weeks after the merger took effect, Giuliani selected Von Essen as fire commissioner. Firefighters saw his jump from union to management not just as political payback but as a blood betrayal.

Von Essen’s style as commissioner – blunt and patronizing, not unlike Giuliani’s – further antagonized his firefighters. Some of the commissioner’s post-attack comments, even discounted for the agony and sorrow Von Essen was suffering, worsened the friction. “He goes on 60 Minutes and says firefighters need to suck it up and move on,” says Bobby Ward, a veteran Brooklyn firefighter. “Every time you turned on the TV, he had a box seat at the World Series. Why wasn’t he in more firehouses talking to his men?”

Von Essen, 56, points to increased training and discipline as the proudest accomplishments of his nearly six-year tenure. But his most valuable legacy, perversely, might be the bitterness he stoked: Since September 11, Von Essen has provided firefighters a convenient outlet for their overwhelming rage. “I understand their pain,” Von Essen says, “and if it’s necessary that I’m the target to help them get through it, that’s okay. But I don’t think the firefighters mean a lot of this stuff. They’re led by weak people who don’t tell them the truth. It’s sad.”

The flowers and candles are gone from the sidewalk outside the firehouse on Lafayette Street. Inside, the bulletin board is papered with offers running from FREE YOGA FOR NEW YORK’S HEROIC FIREFIGHTERS! to seven-day complimentary Disney World tickets for DISNEY’S AMERICAN HEROES®.

These tight SoHo quarters are shared by the firefighters of Ladder 20 and Squad 18 and by the spirits of fourteen departed colleagues. On the white dry-erase board propped by the front door, next to the day’s shift schedule, the names of the dead of September 11 are listed in red marker under the heading PRAY FOR THEM. “Their shoes didn’t get touched for a while,” John Ceriello says. “Manny Mo used to drag his feet when he walked, he kind of waddled, and the bottom of his shoes were not very even. Billy McGinn – you could tell his were a pair of beat-up old black boots. They sat there, all that time, lined up, exactly where they left them when they pulled on their bunker gear to go to the Trade Center. It was kind of weird.”

The shoes are gone now, and so mostly is the somber atmosphere. A vivacious woman, said to be Robert De Niro’s son’s girlfriend, stops in to buy dozens of souvenir hats and sparks appreciative smiles. Lunch today features a guest cook, a retired captain who wanted to drop in, see how the guys were doing, and serve up some chili. As thanks, he’s taking abuse about the chili’s mix of spices. The noise is a good sign, a sign of normalcy.

Then a man and woman in street clothes walk slowly into the kitchen. Immediately the room goes quiet. The man spots the awkwardness, smiles broadly, reaches out to shake the nearest available hand. He is Joe Pfeifer, a battalion chief downtown. On September 11, in the lobby of the north tower, he talked briefly with his brother, Kevin, a lieutenant with Engine 33 on Great Jones Street. Then the brothers went in separate directions.

Kevin’s remains were found four days ago. Joe carried them out of the ruins.

“You having a wake?” someone asks.

“No,” Pfeifer says. “Just the funeral on Saturday. That’s enough.” The woman is Pfeifer’s sister, Mary Ellen.

Everyone quickly nods agreement. The Pfeifers excuse themselves to go upstairs and say hello to another officer. Some air returns to the room.

“Our company as a whole is doing pretty good,” Ceriello says. “One of our pluses was that we found everybody. The other companies haven’t, and they’re still in that limbo stage. And they’re still talking to the wives and seeing the kids and knowing the bodies are still possibly buried down there. That has tormented guys. You can’t fathom how much stress that is.”

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.”

Nigro says there will be no limit imposed on how high firefighters will climb in a burning skyscraper. How long they stay there, however, is still under discussion. “One of the things we’re very well aware of now is the need to conserve our forces. Retreat is okay,” one senior chief says. “Rather than find yourself surrounded and cut off, and now the entire force is destroyed, well, we might have to retreat in order to conserve enough resources to do some good somewhere else. But the public is not prepared to see firefighters stand back and have hundreds or thousands of people jumping 100 floors. They would never accept it. It’s going to be a very difficult decision.”

One weakness that’s plagued the FDNY for years, and only became a public scandal at the World Trade Center, is its antiquated communication equipment. Firehouses send messages on ancient teletypes limited to 160 characters. Dispatchers still process large amounts of data by hand. Some firefighters carry radios, the MX330, that were issued during Ronald Reagan’s first White House term. “When we go to a call in the subway, we set up a relay, four or five people, so you can talk from the train tracks to the street to the department radio,” says a member of one of the FDNY’s specialized rescue units. “The police officer standing right next to you pulls out his radio and calls dispatch right there! Bam!”

Von Essen spent $14 million to upgrade from analog to digital radios, but hastily pulled the new gadgets from the field in March 2001, after a firefighter stuck in a Queens basement couldn’t speak to his colleagues one flight up. Nigro is scarily honest on the subject. “What’s gonna happen, I don’t know,” he says. “Nobody’s said, ‘Boston’s radios, Chicago’s – that’s the one.’ We’re doing some tests right now.” Last week, a consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, began investigating the department’s September 11 operations and is supposed to deliver its report July 1.

And – incredibly – the Fire Department, victimized by the intelligence failures of other agencies, remains in the dark about new threats. “We were getting some notifications back when we were worried about a couple of bridges,” Nigro says. “Either there are none now or we’re not getting them again. I don’t know which it is.”

On the wall opposite his desk, Nigro has a framed poster with the photographs of the Fire Department dead. Stuck behind the lower left corner of the gold frame is a sliver of orange construction paper. In blue marker, in a child’s handwriting, are the words YOU DID THE RIGHT THING. Nigro plucked it from a stack of inspirational notes sent to the FDNY. “It’s a simple message,” he says. “This seemed like a good place for it, next to 343 people who did the right thing. I look at those pictures each day. I can’t get away from it.”

The walls are covered in cheap rec-room wood paneling, and on the paneling hang framed photos from long-ago softball conquests. There’s a chop-chop-chop of beef being sliced on the grill for today’s lunch, cheese steaks. Gundersen is regaling the assembled with the tale of his A.C. blackjack winnings. Alfano is mulling the taste of his new cigar. Aside from the occasional squawk of a disembodied dispatcher’s voice – “Second alarm, Third Avenue, East 86th Street, box 1-1-6-3” – this could be poker night at the men’s club instead of Saturday afternoon inside the kitchen at Borough Park’s Engine 282, Ladder 148.

“Boy’s club, more like it,” Gerard “Chip” Chipura says with a laugh.

“Boys away at summer camp, with the pranks that go on,” Jimmy Urkonis says.

“A lot of wives don’t really have a clue what goes on here,” Bobby Ward says. “Twenty years, I’ve kept a lot of it a secret. Every time I come home, I tell her I’m tired ‘cause we were out all night at fires. But we earn our money.”

Chipura, 35, joined the department in 1991; he’s got a gentle voice and a quick grin. The square-jawed Urkonis, 38, wearing his blue knit hat pulled low over his forehead, would have been cast as an On the Waterfront enforcer. Ward, 46 years old and rangy, is the company wise man, a skilled craftsman and surfer with two decades on the job. Ward doesn’t bluster or impose, but everyone defers to him.

This firehouse was lucky on September 11. Its trucks were tied up on a local run and arrived downtown after the collapses. The company lost only one member, Chris Mozzillo, who was temporarily detailed to Engine 55 in Manhattan.

There will be other, slower departures. One young lieutenant has already quit. Ward is considering putting in his papers, too. He’d just been “relieved” on September 11 and was driving home along Ocean Parkway when the recall came through. These days, Ward’s wife is reminding him that twenty years is a long time to be lucky. “I’ve got four boys, ranging from 20 down to 5,” Ward says. “I’m thinking I’d really like to spend more time with my 5-year-old. I’m thinking about possibly going in September.”

But saying the words out loud seems to shake him. Ward pauses. “I can’t picture myself not coming into the firehouse every day, seeing these guys. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts I probably won’t.” Ward and other vets can pass along how to anticipate a fire’s path, but more important, says one lieutenant, “is that they can teach the young guys that this job isn’t all about death.”

Though the overtime accumulated since September 11 provides a powerful incentive for officers and firefighters with twenty or more years of service to retire now – pensions are based on a retiring firefighter’s final twelve months of pay, and wages are up $5,000 to $10,000 in the aftermath – no one took this job to get rich. Still, it’s galling that there’s little permanent bottom-line reward ahead. And the firefighters blame their own union as much as they do politicians. “Our union is a social club, not a labor force,” one disgusted firefighter says. “The leadership is a bunch of good ol’ boys, and even the Trade Center isn’t going to change that.”

Another firefighter pops in to say hello – and to report that he’s flunked the department’s lung exam. Already 144 firefighters are off duty with breathing ailments.

Some damage doesn’t show up on X-rays. Tuesday morning was Gerard Chipura’s turn to stay home with his two small daughters, or else on September 11 he would have rushed to the World Trade Center. His older brother, John, was already downtown, as was their sister, Nancy, who worked on the sixty-ninth floor of 1 World Trade.

Nancy escaped. It was past midnight before Gerard Chipura heard that his brother was on duty that morning with Brooklyn’s Ladder 105 and that all six on the truck were missing. It was longer still before Gerard accepted that John, six weeks away from marriage, was gone.

Now, when Chipura speaks, his tone is surprisingly upbeat. “After this happened, I didn’t know if I wanted to come back,” he says. “A very good friend of mine said, ‘You’re on the promotion list. You’re going to be teaching guys soon how to be good firemen.’ So I had to dig down.”

Even after all they’ve been through, the city’s firefighters remain inspiringly – almost naïvely – uncynical and true blue. “I’m gonna try to be a good boss,” Gerard Chipura says. “For the memory of my brother. He’s part of this department’s history now. I’m part of its future.”

The Smoldering Fires of 9/11