Last Man Down A New York City Fire Chief and the Collapse of the World Trade Center
By Richard Picciotto
Berkley Publishing Group Copyright © 2003 Richard Picciotto
All right reserved. ISBN: 0425189880
MORNING I remember what we all remember about that morning: clear horizon, high sun, visibility stretching to forever. Looking back, I realize it was the beautiful day that killed us, because if it had been gray, or foggy, or overcast, there's no way those bastards could have flown those planes. Not on that day anyway. All up and down the East Coast, it was the same: still winds, blue skies, and not a cloud in sight. Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. ... all dawning like a picture postcard. What are the friggin' odds of that? September 11, 2001, started early in our house in Chester, New York, about sixty miles north of the George Washington Bridge. God's country-or anyway, a mostly blue-collar community, solidly embraced by firemen and cops and other civil servants who couldn't afford to live in the city they served. I was scheduled for a straight tour, nine to six, which for me comes around just a few times each year. Most days, I'm working six o'clock at night until six o'clock the next night; a couple times a month, I'm on from nine in the morning until nine the next morning; and every here and there, I'll pull a night tour, a fifteen-hour shift from six at night until nine the next morning. These straight tours, though, they're pretty rare, especially when you reach chief, as I had done about nine years earlier. I'll tell you, they're always a welcome sight on the calendar. They signal a shift that puts you in synch with the rest of the nine-to-five world. Makes you forget, at least for one day, how out of whack our working lives really are, set against everyone else's. It's about seventy miles, door to door, from my front door to the firehouse on West 100th Street. I had the drive down to a science. If I had to start at nine, I usually planned to get to work around seven-thirty, which meant leaving the house at about six. Most guys, they're looking to do the same, itching to start their shifts, to get into it, and at the other end there's guys been working twenty-fours anxious to leave a little early, so it all works out. You pull the same nine hours-or fifteen, or twenty-four-you just start a little bit ahead of the books. It's been this way as far back as I could remember, and I'd been at this job twenty-eight years. We're always looking to punch in early, and to get a jump on heading home. At the front end, there's something about the pull of the firehouse that draws us to it for the camaraderie, the bullshitting, the shared purpose, the frat-house environment ... it's different for each of us, I suppose. For me, the attraction has always been about the guys and the job. Or I should say, about the guys and the jobs-emphasis on the plural, meaning all the different fires we've worked over the years. I love talking about this job or that job, big or small, extraordinary or routine. Whatever fire I missed on the previous shift, I have to hear about it. Whatever fire I worked, I have to tell the tale. As chief, and now as battalion commander, I obviously have to hear about each job in order to file my necessary paperwork and stay on top of things, but it runs much deeper than that. I have to hear about it. I get off on listening to the guys talk about the jobs, down to the smallest detail, over and over, or talking up whatever it was that took place on our tour. It's like lifeblood. I can hear the same story a million times if it's a good story, and I can tell a good one of my own a million plus. There are a lot of us caught up in it the same way. It's what we do. It's who we are. And it's why we're there. So I was looking to leave home early that Tuesday morning, same as my wife, Debbie, who works as an obstetrical nurse at St. Luke's Hospital in Newburgh, New York, and my son, Stephen, who attends a private Catholic high school in New Jersey. My daughter, Lisa, is a senior at Pace University in lower Manhattan, living in a dorm, so she was the only one in the family sleeping in at this early hour. We were all out the door by six, six-fifteen, which meant there was no such thing as breakfast. Maybe a doughnut fisted on the fly. No such thing as small talk either. Our main thing was getting Stephen moving in time for school. He's always ten, fifteen minutes late for everything, and that's with his mother and me riding him. It's funny the way two people from the same family, the same gene pool, can be so completely different-me racing to get to work early; Stephen being pushed along so he isn't too late. And then there's Debbie in the middle, minding us both. On this morning, after I did my piece chasing Stephen out of bed and into the shower, I grabbed a cup of coffee in a travel mug and made to leave. We'd never been overly demonstrative with each other, me and Stephen, just kind of nodded or grunted good-bye as we got ready for the day. Two ships passing, that's how it was with our comings and goings each morning. Me and Debbie, though, we usually kissed, or hugged, and on the days we didn't think to kiss good-bye, we usually hollered something to each other on our ways out the door. Something nice. Debbie's always told me that when I go off to work there's a part of her thinking about the dangers I might face there, about the job, but she tries to put it out of her mind. Like the wives of most firefighters, she chooses to think I spend my days playing Ping-Pong at the firehouse, or whipping up great meals with the guys in the kitchen, and we'd fallen into this silent routine where I didn't talk about how close we came in this fire or that fire, how big the job was, or anything like that. She tells me that when I come home at night and crawl into bed alongside her, she can still smell the smoke-the fire even-coming off my body, even after I've showered, but we don't talk about it. We never talk about it. Most guys I know, they don't talk about these things with their wives either. The unspoken fear, the unacknowledged fear, is that I might not come home, but it's a fear so ingrained it's almost unnoticeable. It's there, but it's not there, Debbie tells me-in the back of her mind, but so far back it hardly registers-and knowing this, we try to put our busy routines on pause long enough for a loving good-bye of some kind. This, too, we don't always think about. This, too, has become so ingrained we don't even notice it. We mean to make this loving moment of connection, but sometimes we forget, or sometimes the clock gets in the way. That's one of the pieces of this morning's ritual that will haunt me later, the not remembering if we had a chance to hug or kiss or say something nice to each other. If it was one of those mornings when we just took each other for granted and went about our business, or if it was one of those mornings when we stopped and paid each other some warm attention. I've reworked the scene a thousand times in my head, and I've got no idea. One minute we were taking turns putting Stephen through his slow paces, and the next minute I was gone. Gone first for bagels. One of the unwritten rules of the fire department is that the guys working the day tour are expected to bring breakfast. It's understood. Chief, captain, lieutenant, fireman ... rank doesn't matter. Every day tour, every firehouse in New York City, there are whole units coming in, and it falls to these guys to bring cake, bagels, muffins, rolls, fruit. Whatever they want, but it's got to be something, enough for everybody, so before I hopped onto the New York State Thruway, I made a pit stop at Rockland Bakery for a bag of bagels. The bakery is a bag-your-own, self-service place, so I grabbed a couple dozen assorted, with at least one cinnamon raisin for yours truly. I didn't put much thought into what I was grabbing, I just grabbed until the bag was full. Everything else we've got at the firehouse kitchen: butter, cream cheese, coffee, milk. Every payday, we take up a collection, twenty dollars per man, that goes to keeping the kitchen stocked. Coffee's by far the biggest expense-we drink that stuff down like it's water-but the twenty dollars also goes to buy condiments, other staples, and toilet paper. (Actually, we do get department-issued toilet paper, but it's like sandpaper; you can still see the wood chips in each square!) The city doesn't pay for any of that stuff; it all comes from us, and it all starts with breakfast. I drove my beat-up blue 1991 Honda Accord south to the city in no time at all. I'm usually moving against traffic, and whenever there was a tie-up there were a bunch of different back ways I could go. I'd been driving that route for so long it was like the path I'd worn out between my bedroom and the bathroom-the 160,000 miles on the odometer were the proof!-so it was never a problem making time. I knew all the snags, all the potholes, all the trouble spots. And I made good time this morning, even with the regular commuting traffic, and pulled up at the firehouse around seven-forty. Found a good spot right on the street-the police chief's, from the 24th Precinct, which is housed in the same building (I always made it a point to take their parking spaces, for chop-busting reasons)-made sure my valuables were stowed out of view in the black lawn-and-leaf bags I kept for just this purpose, grabbed the bagels, and went inside.
There wasn't much doing from the night before. There had been a couple of incidental runs, and there was some paperwork left over, reports to be filed. The chief I was relieving, Bob Holzmaier, was particularly glad to see me. He'd been on since nine the previous morning, and he took one look at me and started figuring which Long Island Rail Road train he could catch out of Penn Station. Bob's not one of those "minute men" you sometimes find in firehouses, those guys who watch the clock and bug out at the first opportunity, but he was anxious to get home, can't blame him for that, and he had the train schedule so burned into his memory that he didn't have to consult it for his ride home.
It had been a quiet night, nothing much to report. Once or twice a year, you'll get a night tour with no calls, but there's almost always a run or three. Sometimes, it's a run to nothing, but when you check the calls throughout the battalion, there's usually something big somewhere. As battalion commander of FDNY Battalion 11, I supervised seven companies, along with battalion chiefs John Hughes, Dennis Collopy, and Bob Holzmaier: Engine Co. 37 and Ladder Co. 40, on 125th Street in Harlem; Engine Co. 47, on 113th Street in Morningside Heights; Engine Co. 74, on 83rd Street on the Upper West Side; Ladder Co. 25 on 77th Street on the Upper West Side; and Engine Co. 76 and Ladder Co. 22, on 100th Street on the Upper West Side, where I was based. If there were no big jobs here, with our two home companies, there were surely a couple elsewhere in the battalion.
I dropped the bagels in the kitchen, grabbed my cinnamon raisin, and hopped up to the office to go over a couple of things with Bob. Things move in much the same way all over the department, all over the city, as one guy comes in to relieve another. It's like a tag team, or a relay race, the way you pass on responsibility to the next guy, bring him up to speed on what's been going on. At the change of shift, there's usually three or four guys in the kitchen, shooting the breeze, talking about the jobs, in no hurry to leave. At the end of the overnight tour in particular, guys' kids are already off to school, and if their wives work, they're usually gone by this time, too, so there's no rushing home.
What you've got then are all these extra hands, guys not wanting to leave for fear they'll miss out on something. Often there's nothing to do but twiddle our thumbs, sip at some coffee, pinch at a muffin or a roll, and hash over the details of our last big job like it was the seventh game of the World Series. Or sometimes, it's actually the seventh game of the World Series, or the Monday Night Football game from the night before. The firehouse is like a second home to most firefighters, and if our real homes are empty, there's no better place to be. Honestly, there's not a firefighter in my acquaintance who will tell you, also honestly, that he'd rather be anyplace else than chewing the fat with his brothers. Looking back on the last job, looking forward to the next. Shooting the shit.
So this was the scene on that terrifyingly beautiful morning. Business as usual, about to be shattered. I was still in my civvies when I told Bob to take off, but I figured if we got a job I could put on my bunker gear over my clothes. You're not supposed to, goes against regulation, but I'd done it before. Two minutes, I'd be dressed and good to go. There are some chiefs, they won't relieve the chief on duty until they're sitting at their desks with their ties cinched tight, like they're posing for the newspapers. Regulation says we're to wear our work duty uniform whenever we're on duty: blue pants, white collared shirt with the chief's epaulets-gold oak leaves for the chief, silver oak leaves for the battalion commander. It's like the military, silver outranks gold, but if I can't find my silver leaves I'll wear the gold ones-that is, if I can find those. What the hell do I care? How I dress doesn't affect my job performance, how I approach each fire, how I look after my men. If a job comes in, I'm ready; it doesn't matter what I'm wearing.
At about eight o'clock, I wandered down to the kitchen, to talk with the guys, to grab another bagel, to put a head on my coffee. In one sense, the day had officially started, with me relieving Bob, but it hadn't really gotten going. We hadn't started checking the equipment, or recharging the batteries for our radios and other gear, which for the morning tour would have to wait until precisely nine o'clock. But the entire house was already in change-of-tour mode. Guys were still trickling in, small-talking on this and that, swapping out upcoming tours. Basically, we were waiting for nine o'clock, hoping our first run could hold out until then. And if it couldn't, then that would be okay, too.
Eight-fifteen, I was back in my office, making ready. A chief's office isn't much: two desks, two chairs, two computers-one for the chief and one for the aide. (My aide, for this tour, would be Gary Sheridan, but he was joined in our rotation by Doug Robinson, Super Dave Shaughnessy, and Bobby Pyne.) We kept our family photos and other personal effects in our lockers-in mine, there's a pair of Stephen and Lisa in my chief's hat, circa 1995 or so, which I'm guessing is a fairly standard pose for the children of firefighters-but the office itself is a spartan, bare-bones scene. Nothing that isn't standard-issue, or time-shared by the four chiefs assigned to each house-or occasionally, by a chief from elsewhere in the department called in to cover.
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