Fuller Road Fire Department

Serving The Town of Colonie, N.Y. since 1926

 

Chief Proper's Saxophone Page 2

 

As we slowly drove down West Street, I saw Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, Police Commissioner Bernie Kerrick, and Fire Commissioner Tom VonEssen walking north on West Street. The Mayor stopped walking to shake our hands and thank us for helping out the people of his city.


As we approached the site, everyone began to put on the flimsy paper dust masks that were being passed out. The smell was like nothing that I had experienced before, a combination of smoke, wet dust, and dirt. Once we got a parking spot on West Street just north of Vesey Street in front of the 40-story Verizon building, everyone had a similar look of awe on their faces. There were exhausted firefighters everywhere we looked. There were abandoned fire apparatus lining the streets, some still flowing water through unmanned nozzles. The command post on our side consisted on two eight-foot tables with two telephones on them. The team management tried diligently to keep all of our members within arms reach of our trailer. Accountability was going to be so important at this mammoth scene.


Almost immediately, an off duty FDNY firefighter approached our trailer and solicited our help. He wanted to utilize wire slings to assist in pulling over the north pedestrian bridge. We instinctively began to assemble tools, equipment, and manpower to work on this task. As we walked toward the bridge our presence was questioned by an FDNY chief who was in charge of the sector. We were immediately told to go back to our trailer and await orders from the command post.


At this early stage in the incident, there was little command and control. It was more like small companies of firefighters that had a minimum number of tools, would go from area to area to try to do something, anything. Not long after this Danny McDonough, a retired FDNY Rescue 3 firefighter and NYTF-1 member who is assigned as a liaison for our team to the FDNY, got us an assignment cutting steel beams that had fallen north of the north pedestrian bridge. Pete Benedetto, Steve, a couple others and myself assembled our cutting torches and carried them to the area where Battalion Chief John Norman was operating. We worked for about 45 minutes cutting through the 30- and 50-ton steel beams.

We were not making very fast progress. These beams needed to be cut into lengths that would be able to be lifted by the machinery that was on site and fit in the dump trailers that were beginning to line West Street. We worked until about 3:30am, when we were sent back to our trailer. When we arrived there most people had tried to find somewhere to bed down. I found Jill inside the equipment trailer sitting on a spool of rope, resting her head on a workbench. Steve and I decided to find somewhere to catch a couple of winks. We decided to explore the Verizon building that we were parked in front of. There were about half a dozen 2 ½” hoselines stretched through the front doors of the building all going into different stairwells off of the lobby. We found a mailroom on the first floor that was unoccupied. It was a fairly wide-open room, about 20’ X 45’ with an office at one end. The only problem was that the fire alarm was going off in the building and there was about ½” of dust covering the floor.

We went back outside to let the rest of the team members know of our discovery and brought our sleeping bags back in with us. We broke the alarm strobe and clangston off of the wall and brought our flashlights into the mailroom. Steve and I established position in the office at the end of the room. As everyone began to settle down and fall off to sleep, a sudden crash occurred in the mailroom. The conduit that was holding up the alarm strobe had fallen free of the ceiling and landed on a filing cabinet. Everyone in the room jumped, but no one made a sound until a lone voice said “Is everyone OK?”. With no response we all tried to settle back down again.

We slept for all of an hour and a half when we were awoken by Team Leader Mike DellaRocco. DellaRocco, who is the Executive Deputy Chief of the Schenectady Fire Department, stated that we had very limited information regarding what our assigned duties would be. Steve and I decided that we would see if we could find a bathroom to use. We went West on Vesey Street toward the Hudson River. We passed a good Samaritan who was giving out bad, cold coffee. We decided to go into the World Financial Center complex. There were a few NYPD officers milling around the building, but surprisingly there was no real effort to secure the building. We tried a couple of rest rooms, but with all of the water mains damaged, there was no way to flush any of the urinals or toilets. We were then greeted in the men’s room by two female NYPD officers who were looking for a cleaner toilet to use.

After the business was taken care of we explored in the building toward the Winter Garden Atrium. The Winter Garden was a common area between office buildings that hosted many shops and cafes as well as an area for indoor concerts. The whole area looked like it was abandoned. There were half filled glasses on the tables and merchandise knocked over in the stores. Everything had ½” of dust on it. We knew where to go to get out of the building by following the most heavily traveled areas in the dust. When we got back outside, we headed back toward the trailer. It was only now that we saw how large of an area that the major damage covered. Our first assignment for the morning was to begin to cut some of the steel beams that fell on Vesey Street, between Building 6 and the Verizon building. We utilized an exothermic torch and numerous oxyacetylene torches. It would take several minutes to make each cut in the enormous beams. This is when we saw the first group of trades-people arrive on site. A group of laborers were assigned to assist us with the removal of the debris surrounding the beams we were cutting. In an instant there were 100 men grabbing anything that could be moved and carrying it toward the trucks aligning West Street. It was very apparent at this point that this operation would be much more efficient to be handled by workers who cut steel everyday. Within two or three days the responsibility of providing trained torch operators was that of the welders and demolition unions. Our next mission was to assemble our paratech rescue struts as well as a cadre of other equipment and bring it over to the opposite side of the site. They wanted our group to operate between where the south tower was and where the burned out shell of building 4 was. As we were loading the equipment into a pick-up truck, the first “running of the bulls” occurred. A panic rapidly spread over the crowd of rescuers that either there was going to be a secondary collapse or another building was going to fail. As I looked up from the bed of the pickup, all I saw was Firefighters, Cops, construction workers and everyone else running north on West Street. My first priority was to find Jill. I went forward to the accountability board where she was stationed but everyone had abandoned their positions. I distinctly remember seeing the FDNY command post sitting vacant in the intersection. I ran into Jimmy Hughs at our accountability board. We both were trying to get an idea of where all of our team members were while the rest of the world ran by. We took up the rear of the group as we jogged north for a couple of blocks. I found Jill on the sidewalk by the Schuyler High School building. After a few minutes we were given the all clear and returned to the trailer. When we got back to our command post, we immediately made an announcement that the pedestrian bridge in front of the Manhattan Community College would be our meeting place if another such event occurred. I was called on the radio to our command post to meet Chief Tom Wutz and Deputy State Fire Administrator Dan Caffrey. A 2 man canine search and rescue team from Savannah, Georgia had been teamed up with our group to provide assistance. Caffrey wanted Fire Protection Specialist Shawn Brimhall to escort one of the K-9’s and handler and me to escort the other. Shawn and I assembled our PPE, some small tools, and our handie-talkies. We were told to enter the American Express of the World Financial Center and to follow the hose lines from the Winter Garden to the second floor windows on the east side of the building that exited onto the pile.

On the way to our mission, I ran into a couple of our team members who were assigned to a transit, observing the buildings surrounding the site watching for any movement. As we headed toward our access point, I realized that I didn’t have my camera with me. The windows that were serving as our door to the pile gave me my first view of “Ground Zero”. These windows faced West Street, just south of the north pedestrian bridge. We were staged just inside these windows, awaiting security clearance to go onto the pile. From this point there was debris as far as the eye could see. The piles went from street level to 60 feet in the air. Dave, the K-9 handler assigned to me, gave me a quick briefing of how his partner was trained and how he was trained to indicate.


Once we were given the blessing to enter the pile, the dog indicated about 3 feet from the windows that we just passed through. As we worked our way out toward W
est Street, Dave noted that his partner was indicating very erratically and was acting strangely. We came to the conclusion that the dogs were oversensitized by all of the body odors that were present. These K-9’s were trained on a pile of debris that contained a single small sample of scent within it. With thousands and thousands of pieces of flesh and matter within the pile, the dogs had difficulty narrowing down the origin of the scent. As we crossed West Street, the heat on the pile was unbelievable. The heat of the afternoon sun along with the radiant heat from the fires burning in the debris below us had many firefighters on the pile working in just t-shirts and bunker pants. We worked our way east on the pile toward the former north tower. I reported to an FDNY Battalion Chief to tell him who we were and what our capabilities were. With such a high level of desperation among the firefighters looking for there own, we began to be requested all over the pile. A large group of firefighters called us over to West Street. As we approached the firefighters, I could make out a light bar among the rubble. We were evidently right over West Street. The rubble that the firefighters were working around was 105 Truck. The 95-foot tower ladder had rubble over the top of the bucket and about halfway up the cab. The firefighters were digging under the assumption that either some brothers or civilians may have climbed under the truck as the buildings fell down. As I surveyed the immediate area, I knew that we were not capable of moving the debris that entombed the truck. There was a look of sheer desperation in the eyes of these firefighters wanting us to be able to find something, anything. The perimeter check of the truck checked negative.

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