Just as he'd done thousands of times in the past 31 years, New York Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen raced toward the smoke. It was a little before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, and the North Tower of the World Trade Center was a billowing black cauldron. When he arrived in the lobby of the tower, Von Essen immediately began organizing rescue efforts. Outside, he recalls, glass was shattering and bodies were tumbling from the top floors "with a terrible deafening sound--from the compression, I guess--as they hit the ground." Inside, hundreds of firefighters were charging up the stairs to retrieve people. It would be the last time he would see many of them.
At the fire command center set up across the street, Mayor Rudy Giuliani was being briefed by the chiefs. "They wanted us on television and radio to tell people to go into the stairways so that they could be evacuated," Giuliani explained later. Before leaving, he told his chief of staff, "Make sure you get Tommy. He needs to be with Bernie [Kerik, the police commissioner] and me and Richie [Sheirer, the director of the Office of Emergency Management]." When Von Essen got to the command post minutes later, he conferred with some of his chiefs and deputies--revered figures in the department and among Von Essen's closest friends--before setting off to find the mayor. Less than an hour later, his comrades would be buried in rubble.
It wasn't until later that Von Essen learned the terrible extent of the loss, by far the worst in the department's history. When he recites the list of the missing--more than 300 firefighters, some of his top chiefs, scores of elite rescuers, entire companies--his blue eyes dull with tears. "I don't think I've really focused in yet on the magnitude of the tragedy," Von Essen says. He hasn't had time. He has a devastated department to lead.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Von Essen needed to reassert control over the rescue operation. He assembled as many senior chiefs and battalions as he could at Ground Zero. Their first priority: to retrieve any survivors as quickly as possible. "We took enormous risks early on," Von Essen says; the wreckage was potentially unstable and fires were still raging. Then he began ordering in the heavy equipment necessary to clear mountains of twisted steel. Within days the recovery effort would become a steadily droning operation--1,500 workers at any given time, 600 of whom are firefighters, toiling amid the tractors and cranes. Through it all, says Giuliani, Von Essen remained "level-headed, like a commander in battle."
Von Essen also had to replenish the leadership ranks in the 11,000-member department. It was a wrenching decision: to replace the missing officers would likely demoralize those who clung to the hope of finding survivors. "He sat down with his staff, and they went back and forth on whether to do it," says Giuliani. "He knew that emotionally, it would be difficult for the families." In the end, Von Essen decided, the department had to go forward. At a solemn ceremony, he promoted 168 members to officer ranks. "We are shaken, but we are not defeated," he told those gathered. "We stare adversity in the eye, and we push on."
That has been Von Essen's message from the start. "I told anybody who's got a problem to suck it up and move on," he said in a "60 Minutes II" interview. It's a brand of tough love that might seem crude to those outside the fraternity. Yet he was a firefighter himself--working in Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx for more than 20 years--and he knows his comrades and their codes.
Relations haven't always been smooth within the rank and file. Von Essen was president of the firefighters' union when he was appointed commissioner by Giuliani in 1996--an unprecedented leap from labor to management that brought accusations of betrayal from his former colleagues. The officer ranks, too, have complained about some of his managerial decisions. But in tragedy, they've found unity. "A lot of the firefighters may have thought that I turned on them," says Von Essen wistfully. But "it's not about me, it's about them. I think many of them who may not have believed that will again."
There's little doubt that these days Von Essen is their most ardent champion. He takes politicians to the wreckage site and impresses on them the department's and the city's needs. He lauds firefighters' heroism in visits to Ground Zero and in front of the cameras. He pays tearful tribute to his old pals at too many fu-nerals. "It seems like I've been fighting with these guys for 15 years, and I love them," he told reporters. "I absolutely love them." So, too, does the nation.
The first plane hit the North Tower, and Dick Grasso instantly thought of his employees. The New York Stock Exchange, which Grasso heads, had about 140 people working on floors 28 through 30 of the South Tower. All escaped safely. His second thought: should we open the exchange? Before the 9:30 bell, Grasso called SEC chairman Harvey Pitt to confer. "Dick was definitely ahead of everybody," says Pitt. "We supported Dick Grasso's judgment."
By 10:30, both towers had collapsed, and the exchange, a few blocks to the southeast, became a refuge for those fleeing the dust and debris. Security officers kept everyone inside the exchange, then went out to rescue shellshocked survivors. Through it all, the NYSE chairman remained calm. "He showed strength. Resolve," says Gary Levine, co-owner of LL Partners, which owns a seat on the NYSE. "He showed no fear. He tried to keep everything under control."
Around 11 o'clock, the exchange got the all-clear signal, and some workers began to head home. Now the question became, when could the exchange reopen? In Grasso's view, one of the terrorists' targets was "free-market principles and the ideals of a free society"--and that made it important to get back to business as soon as possible. Bear Stearns chairman Jimmy Cayne says Grasso's attitude affirmed the resilience of the world's biggest financial market. "If you had to point your finger at who was the captain of the ship, it was Grasso," he says.
The exchange itself was unharmed. All systems were intact. But thousands of customers were affected, as was a key Verizon switching facility. "You had to have customers and the customers had to have telecom, and they had to have power," Grasso says. He stayed in the building all day and night, and at 12:30 Wednesday morning, phoned Pitt again. The two scheduled a meeting with the CEOs of the major securities firms--as well as representatives from the city, the state, FEMA, Verizon and Con Edison--at the midtown offices of Bear Stearns. There they discussed their three main concerns: power, telecommunications and access to the exchange and other financial markets. They debated reopening the markets as early as Thursday. But the firms were not ready and Verizon needed to run systems tests. Besides, says Grasso, they wanted to be absolutely sure that they wouldn't be in the rescuers' way.
The markets reopened Monday, Sept. 17, after the longest closure since 1933. "Today America goes back to business," Grasso declared. "And we do it as a signal to those criminals... that they have lost." There was a two-minute silence in memory of the missing and the dead, and then rescue workers rang the opening bell to boisterous applause.
The day saw the biggest volume of stocks traded--2.3 billion shares--in NYSE history. Though the Dow Jones industrial average fell 685 points that day, the fact that the markets were functioning at all was a victory. "People have said to me, 'Aren't you disappointed?' " says Grasso. "But to be able to transact 2.3 billion shares is a testament to the fact that the infrastructure is strong. More important, 2.3 billion shares sold means someone bought those 2.3 billion shares." He remains bullish. "Our economy will be tested by this heinous act. [But] it's going to be just fine."
Grasso, 55, has always been admired as a scrappy, no-nonsense problem-solver. Born and raised in Queens, he dropped out of college and spent two years in the Army before arriving at the NYSE as a clerk in 1968. He's been there ever since, rising steadily through the ranks until he was named chairman and CEO in 1995. Nothing in his experience could have prepared him for Sept. 11--but he seemed ready, all the same.