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On September 11, 2001, FDNY Battalion Chief Richard "Pitch" Picciotto answered the call heard around the world. In minutes he was at Ground Zero of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center began to burn—and then to buckle. A veteran of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Picciotto was eerily familiar with the inside of the North Tower. And it was there that he concentrated his rescue efforts. It was in its smoky stairwells where he heard and felt the South Tower collapse. Where he made the call for firemen and rescue workers to evacuate, while he stayed behind with a skeleton team of men to help evacuate a group of disabled and infirm civilians. And it was in the rubble of the North Tower where Picciotto found himself buried—for more than four hours after the building's collapse.
This is the harrowing true story of a true American hero, a man who thought nothing of himself—and gave nearly everything for others during one of New York City's—and the country's—darkest hours.
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Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto was the highest-ranking firefighter to survive the collapse of the World Trade Center. He is a twenty-eight year veteran of the New York City Fire Department. For the past nine years, he has presided over FDNY's Battalion 11, covering Manhattan's Upper West Side.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
September 11, 2001: 9:59 A.M.
It came as if from nowhere.
There were about two dozen of us by the bank of elevators on the thirty-fifth floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. We were firefighters mostly, and we were in various stages of exhaustion. Some guys were sweating like pigs. Some had their turnout coats off, or tied around their waists. Quite a few were breathing heavily. Others were raring to go. All of us were taking a beat to catch our breaths, and our bearings, figure out what the hell was going on. We'd been at this thing hard for almost an hour, some a little bit less, and we were nowhere close to done. Of course, we had no idea what there was left to do, but we hadn't made a dent.
And then the noise started, and the building began to tremble, and we all froze. Dead solid still. Whatever there had been left to do would now have to wait. For what, we had no idea, but it would wait. Or it wouldn't, but that wasn't the point. The point was that no one was moving. To a man, no one moved, except to lift his eyes to the ceiling, to see where the racket was coming from. As if we could see clear through the ceiling tiles for an easy answer. No one spoke. There wasn't time to turn thought into words, even though there was time to think.
For me anyway, there was time to think, too much time to think, and my thoughts were all over. Every possible worst-case scenario, and a few more besides. The building was shaking like in an earthquake, like in an amusement park thrill ride gone berserk, but it was the rumble that struck me still with fear. The sheer volume of it. The way it coursed right through me. I couldn't think what the hell would make a noise like that. Like a thousand runaway trains speeding toward me. Like a heard of wild beasts. Like the thunderfall of a rock slide. Hard to put it into words, but whatever the hell it was, it was gaining speed, and gathering force, and getting closer, and I was stuck in the middle, unable to get out of its path.
It's amazing the kinds of things you think about when there's no time to think. I thought about my wife and my kids, but only fleetingly and not in any kind of life-flashing-before-my-eyes sort of way. I thought about the job, how close I was to making deputy. I thought about the bagels I'd left on the kitchen counter back at the firehouse. I thought how we firemen were always saying to each other, ``I'll see you at the big one.'' Or, ``We'll all meet at the big one.'' I never knew how it started, or when I'd picked up on it myself, but it was part of our shorthand. Meaning no matter how big this fire is, there'll be another one bigger, somewhere down the road. We'll make it through this one, and we'll make it through that one, too. I always said it at big fires, and I always heard it back, and here I was, thinking I would never say or hear these words again, because there would never be another fire as big as this. This was the big one we had all talked about all our lives, and if I hadn't known this before--just before these chilling moments--this sick, black noise now confirmed it.
I fumbled for some fix on the situation, thinking maybe if I understood what was happening, I could steel myself against it. Realize, all of these thoughts were landing in my brain in a kind of flash point, one on top of the other and all at once, but there they were. And each thought landed fully formed, as if there might be time to act on each, when in truth there was no time at all.
Somehow, in the middle of all this fear and uncertainty, I got it in my head that one of the elevator cabs had broken loose and was now cascading down the shaft above us. It felt like something was fast approaching, and this was what made sense. Of course, it also made sense that a single, falling elevator cab would no way generate the same kind of all-over, all-consuming noise and rumble, and I had this thought as well, but nothing else figured. When you're caught in the middle of such improbable circumstances, you grab at what you can find, and this was what I managed. Elevator cabs, free-falling one into the other, like dominoes, filling the shafts that surrounded us with unimaginable terror.
But what? What could make such a loud, horrific, thundering noise? A noise that would surely claim me and my couple dozen brothers from the New York City Fire Department, stranded there on the thirty-fifth floor of a torched landmark that had been attacked by a hijacked 767 just an hour earlier? What else could be gaining on us with that kind of ferocious velocity?
It all happened in an instant, and yet it was an instant frozen--iced over to where we all had time to sort through our worst fears, rejecting the ones that weren't grounded in anything real and accepting the ones that seemed plausible. It was a mad race to imagine the unimaginable, to think the unthinkable. Really, I had no idea. I had no idea, and I had every idea. And I stood there, by the windowless elevator banks of the thirty- fifth floor, alongside my brother firefighters, staring at the ceiling, waiting for it to come crashing through.
Whatever it was.
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...
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