Many of the details about 9/11 have never been revealed, mainly because they perished along with the 343 members of the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY).
A story that should be told is that of Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci. He was a hero that day, if ever there was one. Before a movie is made and history is changed forever, the truth about the strategy and operational plan put in place by Chief Ganci should be known to all.
I was by his side up until 10 minutes before he perished in the collapse of the North Tower. I am extremely familiar with almost all that transpired at the command post that morning. Let me share the final moments of what was to be his last command.
When Pete arrived on the scene he was confronted with a situation that was unparalleled in the history of the FDNY. The buildings were among the largest in the world. Each tower measured roughly 200 x 200 and was 1,350 feet in height. The fires caused by the impact of both aircraft were impossible to extinguish as the fire protection systems in the buildings were rendered useless. The built-in repeater system, which the fire department relied upon heavily at a high-rise fire, was not operating properly. In addition, our main Field Communications Vehicle was not in service due to maintenance.
Worst and foremost, the civilian life hazard was estimated to be in excess of 20,000 people.
When Pete arrived, a command post was established on the meridian in front of the North Tower on West Street. It was very quickly moved to the ramp of an underground parking garage, where it provided some protection from falling debris. The garage was also a safe place to set up a staging area for incoming personnel and served as a refuge for command post personnel after the collapse of the South Tower.
Things were developing at a rapid pace. Without proper communications it became extremely difficult to plan, assign and implement tactics. Initially, the chief of special operations was not present at the command post, leaving an important gap in the command structure. Pete recognized this shortcoming and asked me to perform some of the operational duties in addition to my duties as chief of safety. I was to oversee the staging area and ensure the presence of adequate personnel and special units.
Chief of Special Operations Ray Downey then joined us and talked about monitoring the stability of the buildings. Pete asked him about the possibility of collapse and his estimate of a time frame. Downey stated the buildings could suffer some form of collapse in as little as 12 hours.
Pete’s operational plan was to rescue as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time.
At some point we were informed about the loss of electrical
power. Dick Morgan, Con Ed’s liaison to the FDNY, volunteered to check with the buildings’ operation center to see if the utility could help in restoring power. Dick would later perish in the collapse of the North Tower. He was a true gentleman and one of the finest people I have ever known.
Pete shared with me his thoughts and plans for mitigating the incident. Since we were operating in uncharted waters and the magnitude of the fire was something neither of us had ever experienced, we needed to implement a time-based strategy. Based on a 12-hour collapse estimate, he thought we could start withdrawing from the building in six hours. When all members were out, we would evacuate the area and let the fire burn itself out, as has happened in other high-rise fires. He asked for my opinion and input.
I had already formed a similar plan and written it down on my clipboard. With the safety of our members being a primary consideration, I cut the 12-hour collapse estimate in half. We would continue rescue operations for a total of two hours. We would then start our withdrawal and have all members out by the four-hour mark. That would leave us an additional two hours to account for any missing members.
Pete thought about this for a few minutes and decided this plan would be best. He wanted both building commanders reporting to the command post for a briefing and get their thoughts on the mitigation plan. He immediately tried to contact Chief Callan and Chief Burns, the two tower commanders, but radio communications were not getting through. An off -duty captain, Dan Brethel, volunteered to enter the buildings and verbally notify the chiefs. Dan would also perish in the collapse.
Within moments of Dan’s departure a member of the Office of Emergency Management informed Pete that an engineer detected movement of the buildings. Shortly thereafter the unthinkable happened: the total collapse of the South Tower.
All the command post personnel ran for the safety of the underground garage; everyone survived. We were in total darkness and enveloped by dust. Breathing became very difficult. When the dust started to settle, I made my way up the ramp to the exterior. Moments later Pete arrived and joined me. We were in total shock; the entire South Tower had disappeared. The reality of the number of firefighters we lost was numbing.
Pete immediately transmitted a radio message to evacuate the North Tower. He repeated this numerous times. We discussed the need to establish a new command post further north of the incident, well out from the collapse zone of the North Tower.
At this point I noticed many of our members exiting Tower One. They were just milling around in a daze, directly in the potential collapse zone. I told Pete I would get them out of harm’s way and meet him at the new command post. While I was doing this I noticed Pete and First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan heading south to assist in the rescue of our trapped members. Bill had heard a mayday message from one of our units and was responding to their aid. This was the last I would see him and Bill alive. Very shortly after, the North Tower collapsed. Pete died doing his best for his firefighters.
Sometime later, I joined a group of firefighters conducting a surface victim search. They were in the process of removing debris from one of our deceased members. That is when I saw the back of the turnout coat with the name, “Chief Of Dept. Ganci.”
God bless you Pete, I miss you.
Forever your friend, Al.
Al Turi retired in 2002 as chief of safety of the FDNY.
By AL TURI FARMINGDALE@ANTONMEDIAGROUP.COM
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