The Brotherhood Now

I have been going to the funerals of firefighters killed in the line of duty for almost four decades. I learned early that among "first responders," tears are as certain as eulogies. And even as the towers fell, as the steel bent and the concrete shattered, I realized that so many people I know would have to come to grips with the sadness, anger and the despair that would follow.

We all replay those images. As Joe Pfeifer, the first arriving fire chief on the scene that morning, said, "Seeing those towers fall on television always brings me back to that day, remembering how the street turned to darkness, and in that darkness I see Kevin's face, and the faces of so many firefighters." His brother, Lt. Kevin Pfeifer, reported to him in the lobby of the North Tower, and the chief sent his brother up the stairs to "do what you can." Kevin and Engine 33's crew of five firefighters were never seen again.

Early in the emergency, Assistant Chief Joe Callan went to the North Tower to take command from Deputy Chief Pete Hayden. The first words he uttered were, "Are we thinking collapse here, Pete?"

"Yes," Hayden answered, "but we have thousands of people up there, and we have to get them out." Chief Hayden knew, as any experienced fire chief knew, that no high-rise had ever collapsed from fire in the United States, and just one, in Brazil, had collapsed in the entire world. His experience told him that there might be a partial collapse in an area of highest heat intensity. Protected steel can meet the New York City building code if it has a fire-resistance rating of four hours, and it would not be unreasonable for a fire chief to prudently count on two hours' time to implement a search-and-rescue and a fire-control plan. But it took just 59 minutes for the South Tower to fall. The fires were fully involved on six to eight floors in each building, in those large open spaces, and was awesome in its terrorizing fury. As Battalion Chief Jay Jonas, who survived the collapse of the North Tower, told me, "It was as if a huge locomotive had come off the tracks and was on the ties, and all I heard was boom, boom, boom, getting louder and louder, and closer and closer, until I closed my eyes, thought of Judy and the kids and that's about it. This is it. I'm done."

Adding to the chaos, there were serious communications problems with fire-department radios in the towers in the first hours of the disaster, and hardly any communication at all between the police and fire departments--even though the police and fire commissioners were just inches from each other as they stood behind Mayor Rudy Giuliani that morning.

"I resent the lack of communications," said James Boyle, a former firefighter whose son Michael was a part of Lieutenant Pfeifer's Engine 33. "Over 120 firefighters were killed in the North Tower because they never heard, or heard too late, the many calls for evacuation. If the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Command Center was working correctly there would have been instant communication between the departments, and these lives would have been saved." I have come to understand that the courage of firefighters is institutional, and it is both rational and prudent. If they thought the building was soon to collapse they would have made their way out, for no officer is going to further jeopardize the lives of his men if a commander gives the order to evacuate.

One chief told me, "We wouldn't have sent anyone of staff rank to an OEM Command in any case. Our experience is to fight fires from the fire zone. But we have to learn from the past to provide for the future, and we realize now that top command should direct operations from a command center remote from the scene."

Ray Kelly was appointed police commissioner by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in January, and is aware of the need for the police and fire departments to work together and coordinate their efforts at emergencies. "In 1993 [the year the Trade Center was attacked by a truck bomb]," he told me, "OEM was a function of the police department. The new concept [under Mayor Giuliani] was an attempt to put into place an OEM construct that was separate from police and fire, and working directly for the mayor--a good and sound concept, but not much was done in carrying it out. We didn't have the shared exercises, and we didn't have any merging of interests. But they will happen now--there is a whole new sense of cooperation."

The chief of the fire department, Daniel Nigro (who will retire this month), added, "In the fire department, we hope to make many broad changes. There is a protocol document for incident command, written and rewritten for the last five years, that hasn't yet been signed. We're ready to go forward with it, and formalize it with the police department." Change is usually an expensive proposition in the city's two monolithic departments (each the biggest in the world). Retired Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn, an authority on building collapse, believes the fire department too often sees itself as the poor cousin of the uniformed services. He told me, "We are our own worst enemies in the fire department, and we should learn from the police department, where they are always working to find the resources to improve the department not only from within, but also from within city hall, and through their contacts in the federal government. It takes a lifetime working within a department to be an effective advocate for its needs."

"There is a million years of work to be done," the chief of the Special Operations Command, John Norman, told me, "and we don't have the people in place to do it." Every ranking official of either department will readily agree, and every job and mandate for change takes money--money that will have to come from the state and from Washington. Both the police and the fire departments need training, and that will take overtime money to train after normal work hours, on days off and vacation. "We need detection and protection money," Commissioner Kelly said, "and I'm not certain where that will come from, or how much. To the extent that it's done on a 50-state approach, then I would submit that New York should be the 51st state. We've been targeted here four times, and we are both a symbolic and substantive target--we're at the top of every terrorist's list."

In the meantime, the families of those killed in the line of duty continue in their grief and suffering, and many still cannot get through a complete sentence when speaking of their loved ones. Says Phil McArdle, who lost 19 men in his Maspeth firehouse, "We have done a very good job in taking care of the dead, but we're not taking care of the living the way we should." But there's another way to look at the situation. As Chief Nigro told me, "I don't want this to any way be a criticism, but our families, in some cases, have such deep emotional needs that any effort seems inadequate. Some wounds can't be healed, but we are still trying."

When Capt. John Drennan died from a superheated fire in 1994 after 40 days in a burn center, his wife, Vena, was shattered. "Grief ebbs and flows, I guess forever, like a circle with no end. You have to keep moving, get through a day, surround yourself with people who care about you. Do healthy things, trips to the ocean, to museums, for if you can find inner peace you can go about trying to be a good parent or a good friend."

I went recently to a grief-counseling workshop for three days at an upstate hotel. It was run by Dr. James Gordon of Washington, D.C. He has a three-point system of getting through grief: breathing exercises and physical stretching as in yoga, contemplative exercises similar to the Transcendental Meditation principles, and, finally, small group discussions. There were about a hundred people there, mostly widows and firefighters.

Many in the fire department continue to be in deep sadness. Though the police and fire departments have set no limit on the amount of psychological counseling they will provide their members, some reject the idea of counseling altogether. Chief John Salka said, "We're going to be just fine... but I don't know when. It looks like the old routine now: operational normalcy, all the notes and cards are off the walls of the firehouses, training is back on track. But there is also emotionality, short tempers and a general lack of patience. We see we were powerless. We couldn't stop the planes, we couldn't put water on the fire and we couldn't stop the buildings from falling. We are not used to being anything but effective, and we see how vulnerable we are. Guys need to avail themselves of counseling more, to take time off, to deal with the issues."

There are other health problems, too. As Emergency Service Unit Det. Steve Stefanakis told me, "Guys are coming back from the medical office with asthma, irregular heartbeat, wheezing and elevated levels of mercury. I am 34 and was told I have the lungs of a 53-year-old." In the fire department there is much talk of the "Ground Zero cough," and some are avoiding any trip to the medical office to avoid being placed on light duty. It will be some time before the health issues are sorted out.

It is not all bleak. When Joe Pfeifer spoke of seeing his brother, Kevin, in the darkness, he also said, "It won't end in darkness. There will be some light shining through from September 11, and with it the hope to make things better."

What is unchanged is the love that firefighters have for the job. Firefighter Brendan Ielpi, who lost his brother, Jonathan, on 9-11, told me, "I am never happier than when I am in the firehouse. I know that with every alarm, Jon catches the rig with me."

I spoke with Wing Tsang, a probationary firefighter, one of the first class of 300 appointed after 9-11. He feels an unstated legacy that was left to them by the event. "I can't explain this tragedy," says Tsang. "We are stepping up to replace guys who have passed, and it's big shoes we have to fill, shoes of heroes and legends. There are plenty of guys with five or six years, not a lot of experience, but a lot more than me. Our job is based on going into fires, and it is definitely more dangerous with the experienced men retiring in large numbers. But we stick to basics. We have a boss, a captain or a lieutenant, who knows what he's doing, and hopefully he'll guide us well. One thing that 9-11 can't change, and that is that this is the best job in the world."