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Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York

Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York

4.4 14
by Thomas Von Essen

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The Site

May 30, 2002

"How will we ever get through this?" is the question I asked on the night of September 11.


Maybe the answer is here, all around me. Not just in the cleanup, not just in the purpose demonstrated by all who came and labored in these months.

The answer is in the enduring spirits of all assembled here. That,


The Site

May 30, 2002

"How will we ever get through this?" is the question I asked on the night of September 11.


Maybe the answer is here, all around me. Not just in the cleanup, not just in the purpose demonstrated by all who came and labored in these months.

The answer is in the enduring spirits of all assembled here. That, for me, is the miracle in all of this: having looked horror in the face, we bear the pain without losing heart.

-- Thomas Von Essen

Editorial Reviews

Thousands of World Trade Center survivors have gripping firsthand stories of that terrifying September morning, but few of these stories have the scope or bitter poignancy of Thomas Von Essen's. Within minutes of the attack, Von Essen, the 30th fire commissioner of New York City, was down at ground zero, directing the firefighters who saved thousands of lives and then, just moments later, watching helplessly as hundreds of New York's Bravest perished. In this heart-wrenching memoir, he presents the tragic events as they unfolded and tells how his own personal trauma affected his struggle to restore the morale of his shattered department. The world is awash with books on September 11th. This is one of the best.
Publishers Weekly
This autobiography by the former fire commissioner of New York City opens with a harrowing description of September 11: he conveys a visceral sense of the smoke and ash, the chaos and tumult, as well as his own shifting state of mind (confidence to doubt, confusion, pain). As Von Essen notes, people on the scene knew less of what was going on than the rest of us at home watching events on TV. He gives moving portraits of the fire department heads who died in the towers Chief Peter Ganci, chaplain Father Mychal Judge and makes clear that he only survived because he'd been called away to meet with Mayor Giuliani when the towers crashed. Equally powerful are Von Essen's descriptions of other tragic fires during his terms as fire commissioner: he demonstrates that bravery in the FDNY is an almost daily occurrence. Recollections of Von Essen's personal life his happy childhood, his on-again, off-again romance with the woman who eventually became his wife, his educational floundering are less compelling than his depiction of day-to-day life in a firehouse, with the joshing, the camaraderie, the drama and terror of fire fighting. Unfortunately, he also makes it clear that not all the particulars of firehouse life are admirable the insularity, the homophobia but Von Essen's love for his work and for his fellow firefighters shines on every page. Anyone who wants to understand the mindset of a firefighter the passion for work, the brotherly devotion and the courage will learn much from this homely account. 16-page color insert, b&w photos throughout. (Aug.)

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Strong of Heart

Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York
By Thomas Von Essen

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Thomas Von Essen All right reserved. ISBN: 006050949X

Chapter One

Can You Talk About the Loss?

"Commissioner Von Essen, can you talk about the loss to the fire department?"

I didn't know. I was a wreck, twisted inside, dirty outside, my hair mussed, my tie crooked, my clothes coated with dust, my brain scrambled, my whole self, like everyone else, suddenly lost in a horrible, surreal new world.

It had been maybe twelve hours since two hijacked jetliners had slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, igniting massive fires that brought them crashing to earth a short time later. Thousands of people were missing and presumed dead. Rubble was scattered across the southern tip of Manhattan. All day long, people in shock had been streaming uptown, away from the disaster, marching across the bridges from Manhattan by the thousands in an eerie mass exodus. The entire city was shut down, the whole country grieving and angry from the suddenness and brazenness of such an attack on the world's most powerful nation.

I was standing behind Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, my boss of five and a half years, in the auditorium of the city's Police Academy, as he spoke to dozens of reporters packed together in front of us.Lights shone down, cameras snapped and whirred. But unlike the usual mania of a news conference, the atmosphere was subdued and sorrowful.

Until a minute before, I had been marveling at the coolness the boss was displaying under such immense pressure, though I had seen similar demonstrations many times in the past.

I had also been hoping no one would ask me to speak. I didn't want to have to say anything.

The loss to the department? For starters, more than three hundred firefighters were missing, most of them feared dead. I always took the death of a firefighter, any firefighter, hard. In this case, the victims included dozens of men I had counted as close personal friends. All day long, people had been whispering their names into my ear, each one feeling like a punch to my gut.

Bill Fechan, seventy-one years old, our first deputy commissioner, the number two man in the department, who had first become a firefighter in 1959 and gone on to hold every rank during his career, even, briefly, mine.

Pete Ganci, fifty-four, the tough bulldog with a chest full of medals who as chief of department was our highest-ranking man in uniform, the one who oversaw all the firefighters.

Ray Downey, sixty-three, a sharp and seasoned chief who as head of our special operations had become an internationally known expert in disaster recovery and building collapse, skills we had never needed more than now.

Father Mychal Judge, sixty-eight, the Franciscan priest and chaplain who in many ways embodied the soul of all that we were.

And there was much more than just the names and numbers, as horrible as they were. Our command structure itself had been severely crippled. We had lost hundreds of years of experience, knowledge, and wisdom.

Death had reached into dozens of firehouses in the cruelest, most sudden way imaginable and left voids that might never be filled. At that very moment, hundreds of weary and anguished men were desperately clawing through the mountainous piles of rubble that were strewn across several acres, seeking any signs of life they could find. We nurtured hopes that there were survivors in the rubble, and horrible doubts that no one was alive. Thousands of other current and former firefighters, not to mention the parents, spouses, and children of our people, were reeling from psychic wounds that cut deep and would certainly last years, if not a lifetime. All were asking, "Why?" and none had an answer.

How would they all get through this? At that moment, after a long day of tears, work, worries, and just putting one foot in front of the other, I wasn't sure if or how I would endure the hours and months to come, let alone everyone else.

The loss to the department? How could anyone begin to calculate it? In a matter of minutes, we had been devastated beyond belief, more than any training or planning had prepared us for, far beyond anything any of us could have imagined in even our worst nightmares.

"We've got over three hundred people that are missing, that we can't account for," I said, fumbling a little to get the words, any words, out and keep the tears back. "We believe that many of - many of them are gone. We don't - we'll keep looking. We have hundreds of people over there now, trying to find as many possible locations that they might be, in - in some way, in a void or whatever and, you know, still able to breathe and - and still alive. But we believe that most of these people, I think, are - we are not going to be able to pull out, so we'll just keep working on it."

Then another reporter asked the inevitable follow-up question: "How does that make you feel?"

How do I feel? HOW DO I FEEL? I glared at the reporter who had asked the question, one I had known, and generally liked, for a long time. How the hell do you think I feel about it? I am the fire commissioner, and I feel as if we were talking about my own children. It's my duty to protect every firefighter I couldn't. How would YOU feel?

Just then, I felt as if I wanted to rip her throat out. The mayor put his hand on my shoulder, gripping it hard, as if to restrain me from leaping forward.

"I don't know what to say. I - we lost people that have given over forty years."

"Commissioner Feehan had held every rank in the department, probably the most valuable people-person in the department. When I got this job, the mayor and Commissioner Safir said, 'Make sure you keep BillFeehan.' I haven't regretted that one day. He's given his whole life to this department.

"Chief Ganci, the same thing, chief of the department, thirty-three years, thirty-four years."

"Ray Downey, we just honored him with a dinner, almost forty years of service, world-renowned for situations like this, telling me how dangerous it was when we first got there, all the possibilities, everything he was trying to do to, you know, to get the people out.

"Father Judge, I don't know if you know Father Judge, one of the nicest men you could possibly find in the whole world."

"We haven't found other people yet, either, and I don't even want to mention their names. Some of the best people in this department. I can't find anybody from five rescues and seven squads, and it's just - it's a devastating thing."

"I - I don't know - well, the fire department will - will recover. But I don't know how."


Excerpted from Strong of Heart by Thomas Von Essen
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Von Essen
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Thomas Von Essen served as the Thirtieth Fire Commissioner of New York City from April 1996 to December 31, 2001. Before becoming fire commissioner, he spent nearly three years as president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the largest firefighters union in the nation. Von Essen joined the fire department in 1970 and was assigned to Ladder 42 in the Bronx, where he spent most of his firefighting career. Currently, Von Essen is a senior vice president at Giuliani Partners LLC, a New York consulting firm headed by former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Rita.

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Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
ChiefGaryMac More than 1 year ago
Great insight into Commissioner Von Esson's everyday life and post 911 agony.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok. I'll join your clan. And about my sister. She is my half sister in real life. She is coming over in a week or so. You can talk to her than. I also think leaving this place as a mounument is a good idea. How about we ask the warriors of this clan if they want to be in your clan. What is it called by the way?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am working on a name. For right now u can call it Iceclan.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
really enjoyed, held my interest all the way to the end. would surely recommend.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is outstanding and highly recommended. It's wonderfully writen and he truely speaks from the heart.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just bought this book for my very dear friend who is a volunteer firefighter for three companies. I Hope that he likes this book and I can't wait to read it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was for me a real education into what the FDNY is about.The workings of the FDNY from a firefighter to the head man and the loss and pain off so many lost was for me a real wake up call.The more I read the more I learned and after reading some reviews I was reminded of the chapter about one of the FDNY union meetings I laughed then and I laughed now.Go beyond unionism and get a life I say.This book is a tribute to many FDNY people.All union people and HEROS but written by the BOSS so lets knock it? I dont get it but I am not a union man.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be both real and sad. The stories of those lost on 9-11 as well as those lost before 9-11 were humbling and sad. This man has been thru and seen so much in his years with the FDNY. Like him or not it is a terrific book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Amazed at how the author knew so little about command proceedures.while the brave firemen moved in to save lives he ran away at full speed' tittle of the book should be how to make money and stay a coward.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have seen this fine man go thru the rigors of Union Battles and Personal loss first hand thru the media and papers thru the years but never knew him like I know him NOW! God Bless Tom Von Essen!!! A great book!!
Guest More than 1 year ago